Category Archives: Medieval Clothing


Last week, in a post about warrens, I wrote that the white belly-fur of a rabbit was prized because it looked like ermine from a distance. What, though, apart from being a fur used by royalty and nobles to trim their clothes, was ermine?

It comes from the stoat, whose fur changes colour over the course of the year from reddish-brown in summer to white (save for the black tip of the tail) in winter. In England its use was restricted by law to royalty and nobility, hence the frequent use of the much less expensive rabbit fur. The black tips of the tails were arranged at regular intervals to make a pattern.

Stoats are not very big, so you needed a lot to make even a piece of trimming. In 1347 Pope Clement VI ordered 430 ermine skins for a cape for himself, 310 skins for a mantle (a sleeveless cape usually worn by women) and 362 for five hoods. That’s over a thousand stoats for one man in one year.

The furs came from northern and eastern Russia, via the Black Sea, and they were packed in barrels for the voyage. Since the furs weren’t prepared beforehand, they must have been terribly smelly when the lids were taken off.

Ermine was also an heraldic term. It meant black spots in any pattern on a white background, as in the arms of the dukes of Brittany in the photograph at the top of the post.

In art it was a symbol of chastity, particularly when used in the depiction of virgin saints. It can be seen in this sixteenth-century portrait of St. Ursula. According to many of the legends about her, she had the right to wear it on two counts, being both a daughter of the duke of Brittany and a virgin saint.

By Jean Bourdichon XVIe –, Public Domain,

Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond
Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall
Power and Profit by Peter Spofford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Clothing

Medieval Pins

Mike Walker, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In a comment about last week’s post Shaunn Munn mentioned pins, because you can’t think about needles without thinking of pins. I couldn’t find any references to pins being used in making clothes, although I assume that they (or something similar) must have been. It’s difficult to imagine someone sewing long seams (and some of them were very long) without something to hold the two pieces of fabric together. What I did find, though, was something interesting about fourteenth-century fashion.

Pins were originally large, ornamented and very visible. Their large, decorated heads drew attention and they were used to fasten outer garments in the same way as brooches were. In the twelfth century a development in metal production (please don’t ask me what it was, as I have no idea and wouldn’t understand it if I did) meant that drawn wire was available and pins with narrow shafts could be made. By the fourteenth century they had become very fine, which was useful, as women of fashion needed pins that were next to invisible.

Women used pins to keep the folds of their headdresses in place, or to attach their veils to their hair or the front of their gowns, and they wanted the shafts to be more or less invisible. What was the point of having a veil that was more or less transparent if you only had thick pins with large heads to attach it? The veil and the headdress were supposed to be the stars, not the pins holding them in place.

The use of pins took off in the fourteenth century. When Joan of England, a daughter of Edward III, set sail to marry Pedro of Castile in 1348 she took 12,000 pins for her veils with her. Sadly, the groom was never to see the veils or the pins or his bride, for she caught bubonic plague in Bordeaux and was one of its first English victims.

Even when used in headdresses and veils some of the pins had decorative heads, a coral bead, for example, or basic geometric designs. Most pinheads, however, were either solid metal or made of wound wire. They could be formed into a variety of shapes, although most of them resembled the pins of my youth in that they had heads shaped like tiny mushroom caps. The heads were beaten into shape by a hammer. Some formed spheres, others were flattened, both vertically and horizontally to the pin.

No one’s quite sure whether pins were manufactured in England, but there’s plenty of evidence that they were used here in their hundreds of thousands.

Dress Accessories 1150 – 1450 by Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Making Medieval Clothes

Last week we had a look at what went under the clothes and this week we’ll take a look at the making of the clothes. The fourteenth century was a time of fast-changing fashion. It wasn’t quite as fast as it is today, with clothes being out of date almost before you’ve bought them, but there were noticeable changes over the years. And the women were as bad as the men.

The desire to be fashionable meant plenty of work for those who made clothes for the wealthy. Only they could afford both to follow fashion and to have their clothes made for them. Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s queen, was a woman who liked clothes and spent a lot of her husband’s money on them. For the majority of women, though, making and maintaining clothes for the family was something they did themselves.

As today, clothes were made with needle and thread, but they were made, obviously, without the aid of a sewing machine. A few years ago, before I owned such a marvellous object, I made a very simple garment by hand and it took forever. Even as a beginner, I could have done it much faster with a sewing machine, but there was a certain amount of fun, and satisfaction, in managing without one. There are and were, however, people able to sew very quickly and neatly by hand. Like everything else, it’s a matter of practice.

Thread could be silk or linen, both of which could be died to match the colour of the cloth used.

Simple needles were made of copper alloy or iron and the eyes were punched or drilled, occasionally both. Drilled eyes were rounder and punched eyes were longer. I’m afraid that the needle in my photograph is not against a contrasting background, so it’s impossible to tell what kind of eye it has. I’ve included a photograph of the part of the display cabinet where it lives so that you can get an idea of its size.

Another necessity for hand sewing is a thimble. By the fourteenth century metal thimbles were used all over England. There is some debate as to whether or not they were in use before that, but that need not worry us. The thimble shown at the top of the post is on display in Winchester City Museum. Each of the dimples would have been drilled by a thimbler as in the picture above. I’m not sure who he’s making them for, though, as they’re rather large.

As you can see from the finished objects on his table, not all thimbles were rounded on top. Some were more like rings that would sit above the top knuckle on a finger. Since I tend to push a needle from the tip of my finger, such a thimble would be little help to me, but practice would probably make it less dangerous.

The Medieval Household by Geoff Egan

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Medieval Underclothes

I’ve been doing some dressmaking this week and it made me think about what people wore in the fourteenth century and how it was made, not that I’m not thinking about such things all the time.

Everybody, whoever they were, wore some woollen garments. It was England’s largest export and items woven from English wool were highly prized all over Europe. Tunics, cloaks, dresses and stockings were all made from wool. The wealthiest people in the country also wore silk. Wool and silk were only what they wore on the outside, however. Everyone, regardless of how rich or poor they were, wore linen next to the skin.

Forget what you think you know about how filthy people were in the Middle Ages. They liked being clean as much as you do and they liked wearing clean clothes as well. Clothes get dirty, though, even if you’re not particularly active. If you are active, clothes get even dirtier. Bodies sweat, which isn’t too much of a problem for wool, but silk doesn’t always wash well.

Whilst you can wash wool, which actually copes quite well with some kinds of dirt, it soaks up a lot of water and takes forever to dry. You’ll know that if you’ve ever washed woollen socks or a jumper. If you have several items of woollen clothing and have to wash one of them, it’s not necessarily a problem, even in winter when the whole process of washing and drying takes longer. If you only have one, or even two, sets of clothes, it’s a real problem if you need to wash something.

The way in which people coped with this was by wearing linen next to the skin. The linen soaked up bodily fluids and could be washed and dried fairly easily and quickly. Outer layers could be shaken or brushed to get rid of the worst of the dirt.

Whilst the woman at the top of this post is, rather immodestly, naked, and has her hair uncovered, she would normally have worn a chemise just as the man fleeing (or perhaps approaching) her bed is. Unlike the man, however, she would not have worn anything beneath it. Men could also remove their chemises for more physically demanding work, something that a woman could not do. These undergarments were also made of linen. They were easy to wash and dried quickly.

Whether a man or a woman was wearing it, a chemise was long, about knee length on a man and calf length on a woman. It had sleeves.

This second woman is more demurely dressed. You can see that her chemise is tied at the neck and has long sleeves. The woollen gown that she’s removing wouldn’t touch her skin anywhere and could be taken off at night, shaken and hung over a rail, while she slept in her chemise. The gown would eventually need to be washed, but it could be at a time of her choosing, probably in the summer, when it would dry quicker.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Medieval Shoes and Pattens

Shoes 2

In the fourteenth century shoes were mostly made from leather, which was often tawed, rather than tanned. Tanning changed the structure of the leather, making it last longer and less likely to decompose. Tawing, on the other hand, was a process that made the leather softer and easier to stretch. The leather was soaked in a solution that could include egg yolks, flour and potash.

Leather shoes were made by the turnshoe method. A soft piece of leather – the upper – was placed skin side down on the last. It was stitched to the sole and turned inside out.

Most shoes were very simple and men’s and women’s shoes were similar. At the beginning of the fourteenth century there wasn’t even any difference between right and left shoes, other than that made by the wearer’s feet in use. Over the course of the century this changed, at least in the shoes made for the wealthy.

There were various ways of making sure that shoes didn’t come off. They could be laced on the side or top, buckled, and they might be made with or without back straps.

Shoes for the wealthy could have patterns scored in them in which the top of the leather was scraped away to reveal the suede beneath. Alternatively, leather uppers could be decorated with scoring, patterning of the leather and embroidery.

Sometimes the leather was decorated by punching holes in it to make diamond-shaped openings, forming a lattice on the upper of the shoe. Sometimes the spaces created would be filled with embroidery. It made the leather very fragile, though, so was presumably something only for the wealthy, for whom shoes tended to be more decorative than useful or hard-wearing

Pattens by the bed

It was also during the fourteenth century that fashionable clothing became important. This didn’t just mean making clothes and shoes from better quality materials, but wearing styles that made it obvious that the wearer didn’t do physical labour or even walk very far. The most notorious example of this was the long-toed poulaine shoe, in which the thin, pointed toe could be as long again as the foot. No one who wore it could be in a hurry to get anywhere, nor could they walk very far. These shoes were popular at the court of Richard II. They were completely impractical for anything other than standing around looking important and were really just for aristocrats. They were condemned by the church in the mid-fourteenth century as being ‘more like the talons of a demon than the ornaments of men’. Contrary to popular belief, the points of the toes were not tied to the wearer’s legs. They were never that long. The photograph below shows an interpretation of the style for people who liked to look fashionable, but still had to work.

Pointed shoes

Sometimes the toes of poulaines were stuffed with hair or moss. In case you’re interested, researchers know what kind of moss was most used in London. It was thuisium tamarascinuum, which was both springy and absorbent.

There were other kinds of shoes available in the fourteenth century: buskings, ankle shoes, bateaux, galoches and trippes. In a different kind of fashion statement, some men had leather soles sewn into the bottom of their hose, so that it looked as if their shoes were the same colour as their leggings.

Most villages had someone who could work leather. If you were in a town there would be several places where you could have shoes made or buy secondhand ones.  Shoes were made by cordwainers, not cobblers.  They were named after Cordovan leather from southern Spain. It was very soft and very expensive. The London Company of Cordwainers (the shoemakers’ guild) was founded in 1272.

Cobblers, on the other hand, were originally dealers in secondhand shoes. They bought old shoes, which often needed some work doing on them before they could be sold on. Worn shoes went back to the cordwainer for repair, but cobblers began to develop the necessary skills and there were arguments with the cordwainers about how much new leather the cobblers could use in their work. Eventually it was agreed that they could use very little. Resoling and repairs requiring new leather were to be done by the cordwainers.

Shoes had flat heels, which meant that their wearers would be walking in mud on wet days or on ice on cold days. There were no pavements and roads weren’t even cobbled, so roads and paths were at the mercy of the elements. Although shoes could be made waterproof by the mid-twelfth-century, most weren’t. The method involved adding more layers of leather, which was expensive. There were easier ways of keeping feet dry.


Pattens kept the feet (and shoes) off the ground. They were usually made from a flat piece of wood with two wedges on the bottom. Sometimes, like the pair in the photograph above, they were flat and hinged, presumably to make walking in them easier.  They were usually made from alder, willow or poplar. Alder is a durable wood even when it gets wet, but it was also the preferred wood for arrows, which took priority.

The leather straps holding them on the wearers’ feet could also be decorated in the same way as shoes or they could be painted. Medieval people loved decorations and bright colours.

Here’s a video of shoes being made in the medieval way. You’ll see that the process is even more fiddly than you think.

Medieval Bodies– Jack Hartnell
Shoes and Pattens– Francis Grew and Margrethe de Neergaard
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Medieval Embroiderers


Butterbowden Cope By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by NotFromUtrecht using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Embroidery was something that every woman brought up in a wealthy household could do.  They sewed purses for their husbands, or table linen or cushions for the household. If they were really accomplished, they might make something for the local church. I think all the women in my novels do embroidery at some point.

Nuns also embroidered. Some of them could get so carried away with it that they were told to return to their books and the singing of psalms.

Embroidery was not just a domestic skill, however, it was also a profession. In the domestic setting, embroidery was done by women. Professionally, it was mainly done by women, but some men were also involved. It looks as if all the designing was done by men.

For 200 years, from around 1150 to about 1350, England led Europe in embroidery skills and designs.  This was the peak of the opus anglicanum ((English work)) style of embroidery and it was in great demand, both in England and abroad. This changed until, around 1400, the quality had disappeared and Flemish and Italian designers and embroiders were pre-eminent.

There are no records of guilds of embroiders at this time, but they, or something like them, must have existed in order to maintain the quality of the work. Whether or not they did exist, there were still some rules that the professionals had to follow. Like the fletchers and bowyers we met a couple of weeks ago, they were not allowed to work by candlelight.

Leading embroiderers worked directly for kings, nobles, bishops and abbots, embroidering clothing, vestments and decorative pieces. Embroidery was not something that could be rushed, not if you were to produce something of quality. During the reign of Edward I, it took four women three and three-quarter years to make the altar frontal for the main altar in Westminster Abbey.

Large objects, such as copes, chasubles, altar-cloths, mantles, and bed and wall hangings were made in workshops by a team of embroiders. Smaller ones, such as bands, mitres, cushions and purses could be made by an embroideress in her own home.

The best embroideries were done with silk thread, and silver and gold thread, the making of which was a skill in itself. Those who could make it were paid more than embroiders. They spun narrow strips of gold or silver around a silk thread. The thread was extremely expensive, so it was attached to the cloth by couching, allowing all of it to be on display. Couching was a technique in which the gold thread was placed on the fabric in the desired shape and held in place by small stitches in silk thread along its length. This is a technique I’ve tried and it’s not easy.

The other main type of stitch used was the split stitch. It’s exactly what you think it is: the needle splits the thread as it comes from the back to the front of the fabric. I’ve only ever done this by accident.

After the Reformation, many church vestments were destroyed so that the precious metals and jewels could be recovered. Very little medieval embroidery has survived and even the Bayeux Tapestry was almost ripped up on several occasions.

Here is a very short video showing the process used in the Middle Ages to create a piece of embroidery.


Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers by Kay Staniland


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:










Filed under Medieval Clothing, The Medieval Church

Medieval linen


Over the past month we’ve been looking at the manufacture of fabric for outer clothes in the Middle Ages: wool and silk. Now we’re taking a look at the fabric used for undergarments. These were not undergarments as we would think of them, but simple chemises or shirts, whose purpose was to keep the outer garments away from the skin. They kept the body’s oils and sweat from the expensive (and almost impossible to wash) wools and silks. It was the undergarments that would be washed, not the outer ones.

As you can see in the picture above, men also wore linen braies, which resemble what we would consider to be underwear today. The braies were usually covered by hose and tunics.

Linen is made from flax stems. It was harvested before the seeds ripened and soaked in water, often rivers, to rot the core. This polluted rivers and smelled dreadful. It’s another reminder of why so little water was fit to drink in the fourteenth century. Once the core had rotted away, the stems were dried, then beaten with wooden mallets to break them. Then they were scutched, which meant striking them with a wooden knife against a vertical wooden board. This released the fibres. The next stage was combing or heckling. This is a far more violent version of the combing undergone by wool. Everything to do with linen processing seems violent when compared to what happened to wool.

Here’s a lovely video about a more recent, but still traditional, process of growing, harvesting and preparing flax for spinning in Ireland.

Once it had been combed, the flax was ready for spinning. Here’s Josefin Waltin preparing her distaff for spinning flax. If ever you need something to calm you down and breathe more slowly, take a look at one of Josefin’s videos. There’s nothing hurried or urgent about them.

Most linen weaving took place in the countryside, where the flax was grown. It was a profitable business for those who could grow flax, and those who grew it usually spun and wove it. In addition to the thread, there was also oil to be harvested from the seeds, making it a very useful crop.

As you can see, flax is brown. It was usually bleached white before or after weaving. This took months. The bleach was made with lye produced from wood ashes. Sometimes lime was added as well. This soaking was the quick part of the process. Afterwards the lye was washed out and the linen cloth was stretched out in the fields to dry. This took anywhere between eight and sixteen weeks. It was all very seasonal, since the cloths could only really dry during the summer.

Like wool, the finished cloth was glazed with a heated glass ball. The same process was also carried out when the linen was washed, as it must have been fairly frequently.

Since it was easy to wash, linen was made into bed linen, tablecloths, napkins, towels, head coverings and aprons. Scraps were used as sanitary towels and toilet paper. Bits of moss and wool were also used for the latter purpose.

Linen from Champagne was generally regarded as the best in Europe. It was certainly the most expensive. The majority of the high-quality linen imported into England during the fourteenth century, however, came from Westphalia and Flanders. The best quality linen could be almost transparent and was used for veils in the fifteenth century.

In the later fourteenth century cotton was woven with linen to produce fustian. This fabric had the durability of linen and the fineness of cotton.


Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Medieval Silk


Some years ago I read a novel set in the fourteenth century in which the heroine wears silk and satin gowns. I scoffed and read on. In my defence, the book was full of historical inaccuracies, and I thought this was just one more. I was convinced that silk didn’t arrive in Europe until much later. I have since learned that the author was correct and it was my own knowledge that was sadly lacking.

Silk came from the Far East. It was prized for its natural sheen and it even gave its name to the route by which it travelled west – the Silk Road. The method of making silk thread was a closely guarded secret in ancient China, but silk cloth arrived in Europe about 3,000 years ago. The secret of making silk and the means of making it didn’t come until the middle of the sixth century, when a servant of the Byzantine emperor smuggled silkworm eggs into Constantinople.

Silk thread comes from the cocoon of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. In order for the silk thread to be extracted in one long piece, the larva couldn’t be allowed to mature, because it would eat its way out of the cocoon, breaking the thread into short pieces. It was killed by being dropped into boiling water or having a pin stuck in it.

Silk processing in Turkey

Silk thread being pulled in modern Turkey using traditional methods. Glossy silk thread on the wall. Photograph copyright C.J. Hyslop used with permission.

Italy was the main European centre of silk production in the fourteenth century, although Spain also made good quality silk.  Like every other medieval fabric, it took a lot of labour to make it.

The cocoon was first soaked in water in order to dissolve the substance that held it together. Eventually the ends of the threads would float to the surface and someone unravelled the cocoon. A single thread couldn’t be used on its own, so a number of threads were twisted together as they were wound into a skein. Water power was often used in this part of the process to reduce the labour required from hundreds of men to four.

Sometimes the thread would be washed again, but that didn’t always happen.  It was these threads that were sold for the manufacture of fabric. The skeins would be dyed before they were woven into fabric.

England had no silk looms in the fourteenth century. Any cloth that was used was imported, mostly from Moorish Spain, but also from Italy.

Silk was tremendously expensive and was only worn by the very wealthy. In her book, Fashion in the Middle Ages, Margaret Scott compares buying silk with buying a hand-built sports car. By weight, silk was more expensive than any other commodity, save pearls and precious stones. Yes, it was worth more than gold. It could be made even more expensive yet by being embroidered. This made it unimaginably costly, putting it out of the reach of even the very rich. Only royalty and a few nobles could afford it.

Satin was made from silk and it arrived in England in the late thirteenth century. By the end of the fourteenth century it was used for doublets, tunics, cushions, bed hangings, girdles and garters. It originated in the town of Quanzhou, which was corrupted in medieval Arabic to Zaitun.

Satin damask was also available in England towards the fourteenth century, when it was worn by Richard II and others at court. It had a shiny pattern set against a dull background. As its name indicates, it came originally from Damascus.

You can see pictures of fragments of fourteenth-century silks and damasks on my Pinterest board here.

The photograph of silk production in Turkey is courtesy of C.J. Hislop. You can find her photography blog here.



Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

Fashion in the Middle Ages by Margaret Scott

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:













Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Making Medieval Fabric


Dried teasel head

Last week we looked at the processes wool underwent before it got to the weaver. Now we’ve arrived at the loom.

Of the processes described in the previous post,  there were two that were quite similar: combing and carding. They each produced a different type of thread, however. The shorter fibres that had been carded were called woollens and the longer ones that had been combed were called worsteds. Woollens were often used for the weft threads on a loom and the worsteds for the warp.  The warp was made by attaching the spun thread to the loom at right angles to the weaver i.e. running away from him. The weft was the moving thread attached to the shuttle.

I’m not sure whether this next process – sizing – was carried out before or after the loom was warped. The warp threads were smoothed by coating them with something so that they would provide less resistance to the weft thread. There was always a danger that the warp threads, which were held under tension on the loom, would snap, and the passing of the shuttle between them would cause abrasions. I’ve seen a recipe on the internet for sizing using gelatine. I don’t know how medieval it is, but it would certainly flatten any fluffy fibres in the thread. It would also be easy to wash it out later.

From the pictures I’ve seen of medieval looms, weaving could either be fairly straightforward or extremely complicated. Simple looms for wide pieces of plain cloth were structured like an open cube, while others were a series of cubes joined together, going up rather out, needing two people to operate them. These latter produced complicated patterns on the fabric.

You would think that once it was woven the fabric would be ready to be made into garments, but, no, there were still more things to be done to it. It could be calendered, which meant a hot press was used on it. Until the late Middle Ages a slickstone or a piece of rounded, heated glass were rubbed over it. You can see one here on my Pinterest board. The purpose of this was to give a shine to the fabric, or to make it thinner.

The woven cloth was usually fulled. This encouraged it to felt, which produced a firmer fabric. It was soaked in an alkaline solution, most often fuller’s earth (a type of clay) and water, but stale, human urine could also be used. The purpose of this was to remove any grease or dirt still in the fabric. The fabric was rinsed, then beaten with hands or feet. An early use of water power was to hammer fabrics as part of the fulling process. Large wooden hammers, which wouldn’t damage the fabric, were used.

Here’s a short video of a fulling mill in action.

Here’s Tony Robinson going a bit over the top as a medieval fuller.

Fulling caused cloth to shrink by a third, so the cloth was stretched as it dried. The frame on which it was stretched was called a tenterframe. The fabric was stretched on small, closely-spaced hooks – tenterhooks.

There was one final process for some fabrics. Teasling made the fabric even softer. The cloth was hung over a beam and dried teasel heads set in a wooden frame were drawn over the surface to raise a nap. You can see this illustrated in my Pinterest board. The nap was shorn and, on good quality fabrics, the teasling would start again, up to four times. This must have been a scary part of the process. The shears were long and one slip could ruin the cloth that it had taken so long to make.

Here’s a clip from a recent episode of Les Feux de Guédelon which illustrates another use of teasels. I’m not sure how efficient this method of carding would have been. The tool itself, however, looks very much like the implement to teasel fabric. There are subtitles.



Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:












Filed under Medieval Clothing, Medieval Life

Processing Medieval Wool


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the wool trade in the fourteenth century. I listed some of the processes the fleece underwent on its way to becoming cloth. Although I have a fairly good idea what happens to wool before it finds itself on my knitting needles, I hadn’t even heard of some of the things that happened to medieval wool.

The list of processes comes from Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450, so I can’t be entirely certain that they were all used in the fourteenth century. The authors also point out that not all of the processes were used in all parts of England.

The first process on the list stumped me. I had no idea what willowing was. Fortunately, I found the blog of Josefin Waltin, who explained that you beat the wool that has been shorn from a sheep with two willow sticks. The purpose is to get the vegetable matter out of the wool. If you’ve ever seen sheep in a field, you’ll know that it has bits of sticks, leaves, grass and other (even less appealing) things stuck in its fleece. You don’t want any of that in a fabric that you’re going to wear. Waltin says the other reason for willowing is to open the locks (the small bits of wool that stick together after the sheep has been shorn).

Here’s a video Waltin made of her willowing some wool.  It looks like an enjoyable process.

The next process is washing. As we’ve just seen, fleeces are not clean, even after they’ve been willowed, and they need to be washed. When it comes from the sheep, the fleece is full of lanolin, which is a wax secreted by the sheep. This was a delicate process, since the water used had to be hot to get rid of the lanolin, but agitating the wool in hot water would cause it to felt.

Once it was clean,  the wool could be dyed, or used with its natural colour. Some monks, for example, wore habits of undyed wool. I’m planning on doing a separate post on dying, as it’s a huge subject.

After it had been dyed, the wool could be blended with wool of another colour. This meant combing wools of different colours together. Despite the willowing and the washing, there could still be dirt in the wool. Combing removed more of it, but its main purpose was to remove imperfect fibres and to make all the threads run in one direction ready for spinning. The combs have evil-looking spikes set in rows. The wool is placed onto the set of spikes that isn’t going to move, then combed at a right angle with the second set.

There are images of the processes on my Pinterest board here and there’s a video of Josefin Waltin combing and spinning in the fourteenth-century style below.

Carding is a similar process to combing, except that the spikes are shorter and are arranged all over a square paddle. The carder holds one in each hand and uses them like brushes, pulling the wool from one card to the other until all the fibres goe in the same direction, so that it can be spun. Cloths were often woven from a warp that had been combed and a weft that had been carded.

Bowing was another process like combing and carding. If wool was too short for combing, it could be bowed. The bow was a specialised instrument, with a cord stretched between two points. The cord was placed in the wool and the wooden frame was struck to make the cord vibrate. The wool became fluffy and could be spun or felted. This method wasn’t used very much after the thirteenth century in England.

I’ve written about spinning before. Although wool could be dyed earlier in the process, it was usually dyed after it had been spun. This was often so that the whole batch of thread that was going to be used for a particular project could be dyed to a uniform colour, not that that was always important.

Once the wool was spun it was ready to be used, but there were still many processes that it underwent before it before someone had the fabric in their hands in order to make a piece of clothing. We’ll look at some of those next week.


Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Clothing