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.