Weaving with wool

Home and commercial weavers in medieval Europe were mostly working with linen and wool. Cotton and silk weren’t woven in Europe until the late Middle Ages, so we’ll talk about them later.

When linen was woven, it was pretty much finished. It was used for sheets, towels, shirts, and chemises, so it was not usually dyed or finished in other ways. It just had to be stout, soft and white.

Wool, on the other hand, went through many finishing steps. Of course, like linen, it took some processing to become thread. It didn’t need to be retted and broken; it only had to be cleaned (for dirt, dead bugs and burrs) and carded. Carding required two combing tools; one was usually fixed to a table or stand. After the wool had been raked between the two combs a number of times, its fibers were all aligned in the same direction.

Like linen, wool then went onto a distaff and was spun by hand. Wool was easier to spin, due to the nature of the material. Unlike the slick, dry plant fibers of flax, wool’s fibers were naturally oily and covered with microscopic barbs. An experienced spinner could make fine, smooth wool thread because it naturally stuck and twisted together.

Wool was usually dyed after it was spun. Dyeing could be done as a home craft, but by the 11th and 12th centuries, it was also a commercial guild trade. Dyers bought skeins of thread from home spinners and then lowered them into large, boiling vats. Each vat had a mixture of plant colors and a mordant, usually alum, that fixed the dye so it wouldn’t all bleed away. There were three main dye plants: woad blue, madder red, weld yellow.

Weavers bought colored skeins from dyers, strung their large looms with as much warp as they could hold, and wove long, wide sheets of fabric. Most everyday cloth was one plain color, but of course, Scotland’s home weavers were already making tartan plaids. As horizontal counter-balance looms improved, weavers could create patterns such as overshot. In this technique, plain white thread forms a basic repeating over-under-over-under cloth, while bright colors of thicker yarn cross its surface in diamonds and stripes. More harnesses of heddles allowed weavers to make more intricate patterns of goose-eye, twill and eventually damask. (White linens especially permitted the weaver to play with patterns, as we still see in fine white tablecloths today.)

Some cloth went straight to market after it was woven. But a large percent of wool cloth had one last step of preparation. In a time before the discovery of rubber, wool was the closest thing to a waterproof coat. To make it shed water, it had to be felted a little bit. Soaked in stale urine and agitated to make the microscopic hooks bind tightly, woven cloth *filled in* the holes between threads. After it was rinsed and dried, it was brushed; you see the same flannel effect on today’s “camel” wool. The tradesman doing this work was a “fuller.” Fulled cloth was used for outerwear: curtains, cloaks, and blankets.

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