The Use of Linen for Outer Garments in the 14th Century
A look at documentation from shared sources

Compliled with notes by Rosalie Gilbert.


The purpose of this foray into 14th century linen used for outer clothing stems from a world-wide interest among historical re-enactors and living historians who primarily live in hot countries and feel that wool is not a viable option for them. While a number of manuscripts show workers in hot countries stipped down to their linen undergarments while they perform manual labour, it has been a burning question- for the middle working classes, could kirtles and gowns be made from coloured linen? Was it done? Did it happen? Obviously, sources are limited, so we must be guided by what few references we have, and decide from there whether it is felt that coloured linen outer clothing was worn by regular housewives and merchants often enough to be considered a ususal thing to be unremarked upon or whether it's more the exception than the rule. We are not searching for evidence that it happened ever, but that it happened enough to be considered common enough for daily wear in historical re-creation as an accurate representation on 14th century daily life. We know quite a bit about trending fashions in clothing. At times, clothing was dictated by nothing more than what was deemed fashionable, other times by more practical things, like what was available locally, what was spun at home domestically, and what was handed down in wills and bequests or what was deemed medically best according to the properties of the cloth. We know that linen was used extensively for undergarments for both men and women throughout the entire medieval period. Although silk was also sometimes used, linen is the staple fabric and generally aceepted to be what we use in living history representations.

Linen clothing is mentioned prior to and after the 14th century, with 15th century Flemish wills reporting more examples of linen outer clothing than previously and fragments of 15th century linen clothing were uncovered at Lengberg Castle excavations. Written references during the 14th century can be tricky as terms like "smock" could mean underwear (as another word for chemise), or an extremely simply made garment with almost no tailoring (as opposed to kirtle and gown, both of which usually indicate shaping around the torso.)

Following each item, I have added my personal thoughts (cunningly titled "Rosalie's Notes") Please be aware that these are my own personal, private thoughts on each of these items and that you are quite at liberty to form your own opposing opinions with absolutely no disagreement from me! These are my thoughts and you may have opposing thoughts of your own and that's quite okay. We're sharing our thoughts here in a spirit of enquiry. I'd like to add that on a personal note I was very much on the "Oh please let there be linen" camp when I started compiling.

1. Linen male gown from an early 14th century townsman's will.
British Library, Ms. Cotton Vespasian E xxv, f.189; item 2. Norfolk Record Office, King's Lynn borough records, Red Register, f.42. " I wish my wife Matilda to have all these tenements for as long as she lives, in fulfilment of her dowager right, as well as (my) goods movable and immovable. I bequeath to my son Robert all my vessels and utensils, of whatever kind and wherever they may be, after the death of my wife Matilda; and it is my wish that my wife Matilda, while she is alive, provide my son Robert each year with a linen gown and give.. Robert whenever Robert may give way to the wishes of his mother, showing her honour, reverance and obediance, as a son is obliged to act towards his mother." Contributed by Rosalie Gilbert of Rosalie's Medieval Woman.

(Rosalie's notes: As a gown and not any kind of specific undergarment, I would imagine that this is coloured. While this is a solid source, most of the wills do not specify whether gowns were wool or linen, only saying "I bequeath my best blue gown" or "my furred gown" or "my second best kirtle" so although this is one absolute source, the fact that it was mentioned as being a specific type of fabric, may mean that it was not the usual type of thing. This is by no means certain. It is a specific condition though, indication that other types of gown are readily available and in use. And for heaven's sake, I find one will reference and it's in England? The coldest and most unlikely candidate for linen outers? England? Really? Nothing from Italy? To be fair, my access to Italian wills is non-existant, so there may be a wealth of untapped linen goodness there. Fellow re-enactors in Italy were not able to produce any, although time and enthusiasm for the project must be considered!)

2. Linen doublet lined with linen.
"Doublets in the Great Wardrobe accounts from the 1340s usually have three or more layers plus stuffing, but "A Wardrobe Account of 16–17 Richard II, 1393–4." has a doublet of two layers of linen called a dancing doublet." Contributed by Rosalie Gilbert of Rosalie's Medieval Woman. Found on http://forums.armourarchive.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=1...

(Rosalie's notes: I know so little about men's doublets and quite frankly, I'm not about to get into that whole can of worms. A second person also offered that they had known of linen doublets, so perhaps this is solid. It's towards the very end of the 14th century, so it would fit with the increase of mentions in 15th century wills.)

3. Linen Clothing.
From the manuscript called The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti also known as The Tacuinum Sanatis of Vienna. XLVII. Linen Clothing (Vestis Linea). Nature: Cold and dry in the second degree. Optimum: The light, splendid, beautiful kind. Usefulness: It moderates the heat the body. Dangers: It presses down on the skin and blocks transpiration. Neutralization of the Dangers: By mixing it with silk. Effects: It dries up ulcerations. It is primarily good for hot temperaments, for the young, in Summer, and in the Southern regions. contributed by Rosalie Gilbert of Rosalie's Medieval Woman.

(Rosalie's notes: This is something I really like. Unlike other copies of the Tacuinum Sanitatis which seem to be copied more faithfully from the original Arabic, this one has been extensively revised with commentary which indicates the original text and the current authors thoughts for suitability for Vienese life and lifestyle. For example, Bananas are faithfully illustrated and their properties written but the text includes information stating that these are not available in Italy and are not sold in shops or imported. Camel meat, which I don't see in other copies of the TS is included along with text saying the it is believed that camel meat has these certain properties but it will never been seen in butchers locally and is not suitable for our digestion. This is a recurring theme right throughout the entire manuscript. With this in mind, I feel that if the linen clothing prescribed for the young, in summer and for old people does not apply to current living conditions, the author would have said so, like in earlier examples where he listed properties of a food but added that they were not suited to current situations. I feel, therefore, that linen clothing was at that point deemed suitable summer wear. Woolen clothing, does not specifically say that it is only suited to winter alone and is probably worn all year round also.)

4. Linen Clothing
Tacuinum Santiaits MSs has an illumination of colored clothing in a shop for "linen clothing". If we assume "color" = "outer", that is another fortifying piece of the puzzle . This is from Nouvelle acquisition latine 1673. I think that's the "Paris" TS, but I could be misremembering. Contributed by Tasha Dandelion Kelly from La Cotte Simple.

(Rosalie's notes: Athough the manuscript text does not have the addendums which the TS Vienna has, the illustrations are updated to show people in current fashions, using modern household items and cooking equipment which are generally accepted to be usable sources in re-enactment. The Linen Clothes image shows not only white clothing, but a shop with coloured clothes hanging from the poles. In this instance, I feel that the choice to paint the clothes coloured was deliberate as in other pictures, colours seem to be deliberate choices for specific items.)

5. Linen smocks and pinafores for women
"Dress In The Middle Ages" by Francoise Piponnier & Perrine Mane. Chapter on Vegetable fibres. p22. "Linen was not simply used for undergarments: it was made into short shirts and braies for men and long shifts for women. Once babies had emerged from their swaddling clothes lined with linen, they would often be clothed in short linen dresses which were easy to care for. For adults, ....(info about veils and headwear).... Coarser linen was used to make the smocks and pinafores worn as protection for the clothes underneath; these were not however very widely used. There is evidence that linen was waxed to make it waterproof in the Middle ages... used for making window blinds...but in 14th century England, it's use for outer garments is also recorded." Contributed by Rosalie Gilbert of Rosalie's Medieval Woman.

(Rosalie's notes: The authors are the Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the Head of research at the Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifiques in Paris, so they have access to a lot of great research. The bibliography at the back contains a huge amount of publications I've not even heard of let alone read, many in French. In other places in the book, underclothes are specifically called chemises, sherts, braes. On the subjects of "shifts for women", I would feel that these are more like our equivellant to house-dresses. Perhaps the more modest slightly shapless put-it-in-with-a-belt kind of thing you'd wear at home. Linen "smocks and pinafores" I feel may be more of the overgarment while you're working outside to keep your gown clean- Luttrel Psalter style surcotes with high armholes, popped on over the top while you do a few things, then slipped off when the chores are done afterwards or the sort of thing used as painting smocks- shapeless overgarments slipped on and then off. This might be the forerunner to the pinafore style apron we know from later in history, although we do know that regular aprons are being worn. In the 1950's shift style dresses were happily worn, and the term usually referred to those little A-line dresses without waisted tailoring of the bodiece and shirt also iconic in the 50's. I bring this up as it is mentioned as a style. Obviously, the names of styles changed again and again during the medieval period, but I feel it's an important use of term at this time. I do feel that a coarse linen smock might be a great option for working outside in hot weather also, BUT I also feel that these are not the fitted kirtles and buttoned gowns that we are hoping to find documentation for in our 14th century linen outer garments search! My final word on this one? Yes, for shapeless, A line-style overgown for working in, no for clothing you'd leave the house in. Unlikely to be brightly dyed, though possibly you might use the third dye bath of your madder of woad for a soft pink or blue. I would think that the first baths would be reserved for your wools which would hold the colour much longer with vibrant results.)

6. Linen simple cotes
Luttrell Psalter by Janet Backhouse is my first reference... early 14th Century English. Wool, linen simple cotes and surcotes coloured with vegetable dye, nothing bright. Contributed by Tonya Osborne Blake

(Rosalie's notes: I don't have this book anymore, but will be replacing it. Again, this information seems concurrent with working wear for the regular people in rural settings. Townswomen would more than likely opt for "Not A Simple Cote or Surcote Thank You Very Much, Give Me Something Tailored." Again I feel that while dyes do achieve bright colours on linens, they don't hold well in the long run except for blues, and again, if you had expensive dyes, your first choice of things to dye with it would more than likely be stuff that is your better clothing, which is most likely your wools.)

7. Surcote and hood made of linen
"The Medieval Housewife" by Toni Mount summarises the choice of materials used to make the clothes would be determined by the recipient's place in society. Continues later to state that underclothes, surcote, hood and cloak may all he made of varying grades of linen... Contributed by Tonya Osborne Blake.

(Rosalie's notes: The author of this book Toni Mount joined us for her thoughts on this subject, and said "My general view is still 'what would be practical'? An 'ordinary' working woman would not risk soiling her expensive gown - I believe she would wear her easily washable linen kirtle/shift (with an apron) - yes, suitable dyed with a local vegetable dye for everyday wear, then for best, 'according to her station' whatever her favourite choice or purse could afford ." This seems to make a lot of sense to me and also fits with the linen smock reference from Piponnier & Mane)

8. 14 linen tunics
The accounts of Edward III indicate 14 linen tunics were a part of the preparations for the Feast of the Nativity in 1347. These were probably more likely costumes of some kind given the context. Contributed by Victoria Henige.

(Rosalie's notes: I'm inclined to agree that they were possibly tunics for costumes or special festival use, however in other sections, costumes are described as being for costumes, so perhaps these may have been a kind of livery or household servant kind of clothing. It's really hard to tell given the information we have. Really cheap wools were available at the time and let's be honest, if you've read the reat of the accounts, there wasn't a lot of corner cutting in the household going on, so the use of linen seems to be deliberate and not a cost saving thing. Costumes which were to be thrown out seems wasteful and often when items of clothing were not to be used further, they were donated to the poor. So, perhaps, my thoughts, the linen tunics were to be passed on to the poor afterwards, inducating wearable clothing. Again, not your everyday women's wear though.)

9. Potential kirtles
I've found these useful quotes in Sarah Thursfield's "Medieval Tailor's Assistant"
"Heavier linens and canvas were used for lining, interlining and stiffening in tailored garments. None of these materials seem to have been used for visible outer garments such as surcotes or gowns, but were probably used for some kirtles and doublets." (64) "Outer fabric - use medium or lightweight woollen material or worsted; in a good strong colour for wealthier women, or an undyed, light or muted shade for working dress. Linen may also have been used and is certainly cooler under a gown in hot weather." (86, in Kirtles) These are the best mentions I can find in MTA. Contributed by Jenni Rokkianan

(Rosalie's notes: Sarah Thursfield knows her stuff. Use of "probably" and "may" not a definite on either case, but is more of a common sense thing. )

10. Linen clothing for children
To bolster the argument that children wore linen as clothing (not just under-clothing), Cennino d'Andrea Cennini's Craftsman's Handbook details how to block print and paint on linen, mentioning that it's a good way to dress children (presumably because it's much less expensive than dressing them in silk brocades -- patterns that mimic fine brocade can be printed on). I have the Dover edition of this book, and his comments on this topic begin at the bottom of p. 115. Contributed by Tasha Dandelion Kelly from A Cotte Simple.

(Rosalie's notes: Was the Cennino d'Andrea Cennini's book 14th century? Thought it was 15th? It's a pretty cool reference to both linen clothing and block printing!!! Does this indicate that grown women were wearing linen outergarments? Very inconclusive but he fact that children were wearing it seems to be unremarkable.)

Other 14th Century Linen things

Linen Ecclesiastic garments
(Rosalie's notes: Multiple instances of linen garments in the clergy, or worn by religious people, which is not to imply that this was worn by everyday people. In fact, we know that clerical wear was pretty much not typical of secular dress. It was either plainer or heavily blinged up. For this reason, I'm not counting linen outer garments from clergy as viable sources for our 14th century outer wear.)

Flaming linen kirtles
We have 14/15 cent re-enactor friends in Spain. They had to wear linen on account of the heat. Also, and I can't remember which source, but it is stated that many women died in those cents due to severe burns, when their kirtles flamed whilst cooking. Contributed by Andy Sherriff

(Rosalie's notes: I completely have not heard of this before, and if anyone can help Andy out with court rolls references to cause of death by kirtle catching on fire, I think we all need to know! The type of kirtle seems like the kind that many women would like to wear while recreating cooking at events.)

Linen dyes and How To use linen or wool to fake velvet
I don't know if this helps at all, but I have recipes on dying linen: red, blue, green and yellow from Ms douce 54, and bodleian Rawlinson 506, and one on making fake gold velvet on linen cloth from Ms sloane 1698. There is also one in MSR.14.44 #0372 about making a thing seem velvet that says specifically you can use either linen or wool. Contributionby Ellice de Valles.

(Rosalie's notes: The dyes are all great but just looking at dye recipes, we have no way of telling what the dyed linen was used for. I suspect that they might have been used for tapestries or other household things which were not laundered repeatedly and were more likely to keep their colour. My thoughts! I suspect the using linen to make things seems like velvet is linen thread rather than a linen garment, but it's a cool reference I've always liked on the subject on fake velvets.. especially the wools. There's a cloth called (musterdylles?) which is specifically wool with a raised nap to imitate velvet which is in there!)

Linen outer garments
Poland, Germany, Italy, and France wore linen as an outer garment multiple sources found at Morgan Pierpoint libuary and the V and A especially late period as found on the Mary Rose. Contributed by Susanne Miller.

(Rosalie's notes: No examples of exact references for linen garments given.)

Linen outer garments
20,000 Years of Fashion The History of Costume and Personal Adornment by Francois Boucher. Contributed by Susanne Miller.

(Rosalie's notes: I don't have this book anymore and from what I remember of it, it's quite a big one. I'm not able to re-read it again at the moment looking for sources. No examples of exact 14th century references to linen garments given by Suzanne. People who own this book, please feel free to weigh in on this one!)


This summary contains my own thoughts on the notes and contributions which are gathered here with the thanks of all the people who contributed. The reader is, of course, free to disagreeand use this same collaborative information to draw differing conclusions. Also be aware that this is only a small snippet of sources available including manuscripts not ina language I can read, books inother countries and the amount of time I have to track down things online and still hold down a full time job. The onclusions are based on what we have here, and can be updated at any given time with more information. I'm still missing the reference from a tailor's shop inventory which I thought had what I was looking for (the one with the women's underpants reference in it.)

Conclusion 1- England.
In England, linen clothing was a thing, but in context. As far as men are concerned, we know one one example out of many, many wills which leads me to the conclusion that this was not the usual choice for the middle and upper classes. As a solid representation of what men wore in 14th century England, I'd say there is not enough evidence for working class outerwear. It existed but it was not the usual choice.
For women, the use of linen as an outer garment seems to be possible in the context of a shift/smock type garment, worn over another garment. Referencing a lot of will and bequeaths and other clothing reference works all indicate that wool is the overwhelming choice for women's main layer clothing. As far a historical re-creation goes, linen outer clothing would not be an accurate representation on English women's clothing. Smock over your wool, but not alone.

Conclusion 2- Europe.
In Europe, there seems to be a similar trend with wool being the staple of every person's wardrobe with linen undergarment or accessories like veils. Silks appear across the board as suitable wear for upper classes. The exception for this seem to me to be Italy, where the Tacuinum Sanitatis suggests linen clothing for hot weather. Generally speaking, it seems to me that either stripping off down to your linen underwear or a shapeless smock type garment often favoured by the young and the elderly, was quite a possible thing. Fashion in Italy seemed to take on a life of its own in may regards, with abandoning the veils and wimples still popular in other parts of the world earlier than most other countries, and the emergence of laced renaissance style clothing appearing earlier than others. I personally feel that clothing behaviours in Italy were mirrored TO A DEGREE in other places, but I would be hesitant to use "They were doing it in Italy" as proof that it was an acceptible clothing practice n other parts of the world. Wool was still the prime fabric for clothing at all social stratas. The quality and thinness of the wool varied according to climate.

Conclusion 3- Historical Re-enacment.
Oh, how I wanted enough good sources to say linen for everyone everywhere!! My thoughts. Did linen outer clothing exist at all in the 14th century? I believe there is enough supporting evidence above to say yes. It did exist. HOWEVER, is using dyed linen outer garments in the shape of kirtles, cotehardies and fitted gowns an accurate and fair representation of what people were wearing at that time? No. With the exception of Italian summers (and if your group is Italian and portrays Italians being Italian in the 14th century), wool is your choice for an educated representation of what clothing was made from. Silk and velvets for upper classes, and I heartily recommend the silk!

Issues arising from using woolen fabric I hear and have said myself when I was new, was that wool is so hot and scratchy. This was until I had handled some wools which are so light as to require lining as they are TOO SEE THROUGH!! Some is soft and gorgeous. Wool suiting we use today for men's Italian wool suits are not scratchy. Neither is my woolen work pants suiting. We make stuff for babies from wool because it's soft. Just thoughts to consider.

The next issue is the cost. I get it. Wool isn't cheap. Actaully nothing is cheap. I like to compare the cost of wool for one re-enactment kirtle to the cost of a special event dress- New Year Eve or a wedding dress. And I'll remind you that you (generally) get one wear from a wedding dress and many many wears for a kirtle if it's made from nice fabric. A lot of wools in the mid range can be dressed up with silk accessories for more noble impressions and dressed down for townswoman impressions with a change of headwear, jewellery and accessories. One good garment which you don't need to replace is better than three replaceable ones "when you get more money." We spend money on medieval shoes, glassware, pottery, tents and still grumble about the price difference between linen and wool. (oh yes, I've been that person)

Next issue is not knowing what kind of wool to order because let's face it, most of us are shopping online. Here I personally have a bit of a melt down. I hate online shopping as I really REALLY like to see and touch wool before I commit. Also, I am not a cloth expert. I sew things. I make things. But what type of wool? I struggle with kinds of wool to buy. Find a trusted friend. Ask the shop for samples. Ask that person on facebook where they got their wool from and what kind it is. The shipping is the killer in most cases, but if we are honest, ten cups of coffee is abut the price of shipping. Coffee is expensive, expecially if you're having cake with it. My very best advice is to sign up for online notifications for all the places which sell what you want and wait for their Black Friday or Christmas or Pop-up 24 hour sales. THAT's the time to buy!

Conclusion of conclusions
I've worn linen clothing happily for many years, and only now begrudgingly decided that I can't really justify doing what I'm doing and being a fair and reasonable representation of what I do wearing it. I now have a ton of things I will be passing on and am deeply regretting not spending the money on wool in the first place. Now, I've saved absolutely nothing by choosing linen. Every group throughout the world has their own standards of what constitutesaccurate clothing and what constitutes acceptible clothing and it isn't the purpose of this to make those decisions. Always refer to your group draper. Always consider what you are doing and who you are meant to be.

And most of all, whatever you decide is right for you, always have fun.


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