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Medieval Sewing Tools

Sewing is an occupation which is usually the domain of women. During the medieval period, guilds stipulated what women could and could not produce commercially. On a domestic level, women at home produced everything but professionally, some industries were dominated by men.

The tools for basic sewing have not changed over thousands of years. The shapes of some of them- like scissors- have varied slightly, but pins and needles and the way women use them, have not.

Sewing tools include: needles, pins, scissors, snips, shears, thimbles, needlecases, pin cases, reels, awls, and lucets. All of these items may be found in the modern woman's sewing basket.

The detail at right is from a 15th century illumination The Holy Family and shows Mary with a basket of sewing tools.

The most comprehensive listing of sewing tools comes from Hugh of St Victor when he talks about the tools required for textile arts. Although he lived between 1096 and 1141, he cites:

Textile manufacture includes all types of weaving, sewing, and spinning which are done by hand, needle, spindle, awl, reel, comb, loom, crisper, iron or any other kind of instrument out of any kind of material of flax or wool, or any sort of skin, whether scraped or hairy, also out of hemp or cork, or rushes or tufts or anything of the kind which can be used for making clothes, coverings, drapery, blankets, saddles, carpets, curtains, napkins, felts, strings, nets, ropes; out of straw, too, from which men usually make their hats and their baskets. All these studies pertain to textile manufacture.

Sewing needles
One of the most basic and long-lived of all the sewing tools is the needle. Along with pins, needles have been used for garment making since time immemorial.

In 1370, we find references to needle-making for sewing from Germany.

Prior to that, there are records of bookbinders and shoemakers needles made from hog bristles.

Needles could be made from bronze, iron and bone, which was readily available to poorer women. The needle at right is made of bronze and dates between the 14th and 15 centuries. It was found at Threave Castle, in Scotland.

Pins have been used for sewing and also as a dress accessory, so many finds from archaeological digs have decorative ends with glass beads.

It is likely that plain pins with smaller non-decorative heads were used for pinning fabric together prior to sewing in the manner which we do today.

Shown at left is a collection of brass, coil-headed pins found at th foreshore in front of one of Henry VIII's palaces in Greenwich, England.Tudor. They are dated to the 16th century.

Thimbles have also been used for centuries.

The dimples in the surface allowed the thimble to protect the finger while pushing a needle through fabric or leather. A thimble is generally made out of strong leather or metal, although some older manufacturers used horn and ivory.

The large thimble to the left is an example of a brass, domed thimble from my own collection. It has hand drilled holes and dates to the 14th-15th century. The second thimble shown at the right is also from London, England from the 14th century, also both constructed from brass and has a small hole at the top which may or may not have been acquired in the manufacturing process.

The silver thimble at the right is also from London, England and is hand-punched. It is silver-gilt and bears an inscribed motto in medieval French, "MA JO IE" which means my joy. It also has engraved leaves. Such in item would have been quite expensive and used for fine work by a wealthy woman.

The thimble at left is known as a ring thimble because its design and open top lets it be worn on the finger like a ring. It is made of brass and dated to the 15th century England.
It comes from The Gilbert Collection.


Scissors and shears
Another of the basic sewing tools which has survived almost unchanged is scissors. Scissors proper and sprung shears have both been found throughout the medieval period and although of varying design, are much like the ones we have today.

The scissors shown at right are from the medieval period but the exact names and references I have are in Russian so you may look at the pictures until I find an English language translation, but I believe they are either from the London finds or the Novrogod finds.

The one at left of the pair are from the same find and are almost identical to the ones found in viking excavations and to the ones we use today. They are commonly depicted in illuminations where sheep shearing or the cutting of large bolts of cloth are shown.

The scissors shown below right date between 1350 and 1400. They are made of iron and were found at Baynards Castle in England. They are also very similar to scissors which have been produced in the 20th century.

Needlecases and pincases
What to keep one's small sewing tools in to save them getting lost has long been a question faced by women from as long as they had tools to use.

Needlecases and pincases during the medieval period were usually more or less cylindrical with a top which lifted off but remained attached via two cords, one at each side.

Many of these were made of metal and could be quite ornate although there have been a few examples of worked leather as well.

The 13th century hexagonal needlecase shown at near left is made from silver and has an ornate pattern embossed into its sides. It would have belonged to a wealthy woman. The needlecase shown at far left is dated from the 16th century in Venice but it is typical of the style used in the preceeding centuries.

Bobbins, reels and threadholders
Threadholders, bobbins and reels are another sewing item which has barely changed shape over the centuries. The two most popular shapes are long and thin, or shorter with a wide top and foot, similar to the ones of our grandmothers era with or without the hole at the top and bottom.

At the left is an example of an existant wooden thread holder from London.

Most modern households have an iron but only the well-off medieval woman might have an iron. Laundry accounts seem to mention some specific services- darning and washing, but not others. It seems that irons were used during the medieval period to flatten household linens and clothing.

Some were made of ceramic, some of Italian soapstone and others forged from iron by blacksmiths. In Textiles and Clothing published by the Museum of London, it mentions linen smoothers made from glass as being also known from the medieval period.

Among the comprehensive listing of sewing tools by Hugh of St Victor who lived between1096-1141, is listed-

loom, crisper, iron or any other kind of instrument out of any kind of material... All ... pertain to textile manufacture.

The image at left is of a 15th century iron described as with a salamander shaped-handle made from iron. It comes from the Allemoli Collection of antique irons and is used here without permission. If it is your iron, please contact me so I may seek your permission or have the image removed.

The lucet is a cord or lace-making tool which has been used since Saxon times. By wrapping the thread around the prongs in a manner similar to French knitting, a square braid or lace is produced.

This lace is strong, durable and doesn't easily slip when used for garment fastenings. As far as I can tell, there are no illustrations of braid being made using a lucet (or lucette, in French) but braid found matches that which could be made with a two-pronged tool such as these shown here.

Shown at near left is an item believed to be a bone lucet from York, in England. The decorated item at the right is made from whale bone and generally believed to be a lucet from prior to the 12th century.

Spindles and spindle whorls
The spindle and drop spindle, had long been in use before the medieval period, and its use continued right throughout the early and middle ages, only dwindling in use towards the very end of the 15th century.

Even with the introduction of the spinning wheel, the spindle was not abandoned straight away. It was cheaper, portable, available for home production, portable and surprisingly, still produced an end product which was superior in quality to that of the thread spun on the wheel.

A spindle was essentially nothing more than a slender, shaped stick with a weight at the bottom called a whorl. The wool, already cleaned and combed on the distaff was pried from the distaff onto the spindle while it was manually spun. This produced a fine thread which could then be woven into cloth.

The wooden distaff head shown at right is dated to the 15th century, and was used for linen. It is 115mm tall and was found in Dordrecht. The spindle whorl pictured at left comes from England and is made from the bone of a cow's leg.

The image detail at left is from the Luttrel Psalter, from the 14th century, and shows a women with her spindle and distaff outside feeding the chickens.

Spinning Wheels
The late 13th century saw the introduction of the spinning wheel into cloth production. The earliest illustration of a spinning wheel in use is dated at 1237 from Baghdad.

Originally, the spinning wheel was set on a table and powered by hand, as shown in the detail image from the 14th century manuscript, the Luttrel Psalter. The image shows that the table is mounted on wheels at one end, presumably to allow for the wheel to be moved.

At first, spinning wheels were not very well received because the thread was rough and uneven and much better results were gained spinning by hand. In 1280, it is recorded that the Draper's Guild banned its use for this very reason.

Eventually, the spinning wheel produced better results, but according the the 14th century Florentine book, Arte della Lana, it was recommended that the shorter fibres of wool be saved for use on the spinning wheel to make thread for the weft of a cloth, and the longest fibres only used for hand spinning to make the warp, which was where the fabric gained its strength.

During the 15th century, the foot pedal was added, leaving both hands free to focus on the wool.

While a women was in charge of producing yarn for weaving on the spindle or spinning wheel, the actual weaver of the household was was usually the head male.

There were two styles of loom during the medieval period. The early looms were upright, the later ones were horizontal. Upright looms are still in use today for the manufacture of handmade tapestries. Pictured at left is a detail manuscript by Boccaccio de Claris Mulieribus showing a woman working at an upright loom.

By the 12th century, the horizontal loom had been mechanized and was operated by foot-treadles. Instead of weaving the heddle bar by hand, the weaver needed only to push the treadles and every second warp thread rose above the others.

The next push of the treadle lowered those and raised the next set. The warp threads were rolled around a cylinder of wood at the far end of the loom and unrolled as needed. The finished cloth was gathered at the front of the loom.

By the 15th century, men's domination over the weaving industry had waned and women were also more regularly employed as weavers.

At the right is a detail from a 15th century image of Boccaccio's de Claris Mulieribus. It shows the horizontal loom along with the other steps necessary to produce the thread prior to weaving- carding, spinning and cleaning.


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