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Medieval Fabrics & Sewing

The construction pattern of most medieval clothing did not differ between a woman of small means and a woman with a large budget. How the clothes went together was essentially the same. What really set the classes apart, was not the quality of workmanship, but the quality of the fabric from which garments were made.

All of the clothing was hand stitched, and there is no reason to believe that a woman living in the country was less capable of wielding a needle and thread than her city counterpart. Both women might use wool to make a kirtle, but the city woman's fabric would be substantially finer and have richer colours than a woman who lived in the country.

Even naturally dyed clothing could be relatively colourful, and while laws prohibited some colours to some classes, a poor woman could avoid looking dowdy by good use of mixing of colours for her wardrobe, limited though it may have been. This page takes a look at sewing and making basic medieval dresses.

For more information on patterns from existing clothing, visit the clothing section on the links page.

Scroll down for a look at cloth widths, marking patterns out, medieval fabric self-patterned weaves and brocade designs.

Scissors, needles, thimbles, irons etc. Tools in a woman's sewing kit.

Stitches, seams, eyelets and how they went together.
- EYELET MAKING TUTORIAL - How to make eyelets
- BUTTONHOLE MAKING TUTORIAL - How to make buttonholes
- CLOTH BUTTON MAKING TUTORIAL - How to make buttons to match your clothes
- LUCET CORD TUTORIAL - Making lacing cord for your gown

How to construct your own medieval patterns!
- EASY T- TUNIC TUTORIAL - How to make a basic medieval gown
- EASY 13TH CENTURY TUNIC TUTORIAL - How to make an overgown with short, wide sleeves
- EASY WIDE-SLEEVE GOWN TUTORIAL - How to make an overgown with really big sleeves
- BASIC EASY LACED GOWN TUTORIAL - Basic gown with front or back lacing
- KIRTLE OR GOWN TUTORIAL - How to make a medieval dress with buttons
- LADIES HOSE TUTORIAL - How to make hose based on the London hose pattern
- EASY EARLY HOOD TUTORIAL - How to make an early medieval hood
- HOOD WITH SHOULDER GORES TUTORIAL - How to make a 14th or 15th century hood
- BASIC SURCOTE TUTORIAL - How to make a surcote with 4 seams
- SIDELESS SURCOTE TUTORIAL - How to make a sideless surcote with gores
- FORMAL SIDELESS SURCOTE TUTORIAL - How to make a noblewoman's sideless surcote

A look at some commercial patterns and how to adapt them.

Dyestuffs, dyeing and colour names

Those referred to in documents and their descriptions.

Spangles, pressed metal and gauffres, jeweled bands and embroidery.- on clothing.


A compliation of notes from shared sources.

Cloth widths
The width of a horizontal loom governed the size of fabric which was available. The most common measurements for cloth were the yard (the length of an outstretched arm), the nail (two and a quarter inches wide) and the ell.

Of these, the ell was the most common length used for the measurement of cloth. In England, this distance was usually 45 inches if the cloth is English. If it is Flemish, an ell measured 27 inches. If Scottish, an ell measured 37.2 inches.

This difference in measurements must surely have caused serious issues between importers and exporters of cloth and is possibly why the yard and inch persist today and the ell does not.

Although these were fairly standard measurements for regular cloth production, it was possible to produce woven fabric of larger sizes for special commissions. In 1304, two women wool merchants, Aleyse Darcy and Thomasin Guydichon, are recorded as having sold to the Earl of Lincoln: piece of cloth, embroidered with diverse works in gold and silk.. eight ells (thirty feet) in length and six ells (twenty-four feet) in breadth...

for the huge sum of 300 marks. It doesn't record what the cloth's intended use was, but it does give us an idea of the possible size of cloth manufacture at that time.

Some looms which required two workers permitted fabric to be made in lengths up to 30 metres and as wide as two metres, although this was not the general standard for clothing. The fulling process required to produce certain fabrics reduced the width of most material to about a metre and a half. Shown above is an illustration for clothes from the 14th century manuscript, Tacuinum Sanitatus showing the stages and processes of cloth production.

Generally, for the bulk of the medieval period, the most common thread used for sewing garments by far was linen. Raw cotton was imported and used for a variety of purposes in England, but although it was used plied for candle wicks, it seems it was not used for sewing.

Some existing stitching in hems may be flax. Silk thread was used extensively for silkwork and in some cases, for sewing woolen clothing, for buttonholes and and eyelets. It is probable that linen threads were used for the main seams and the silk threads used for visible stitching or decorative stitching as there are indications that both types of thread are used on a single garment.

Commonly mentioned silk threads are white, black, yellow, blue, green, red, flame and purple. In the Museum of London Series, Textiles and Clothing by Crowfoot, we read that although linen is harder to dye and was likely to be used undyed where it could not be seen internally, coloured linen threads were used:

"The linen thread supplied to the Great Wardrobe in the 1330s cost between 2s. and 2s.8p. per lb and came not only in different thicknesses, but also in a variety of colours."

There are examples of woolen thread being used for stitching in lower classes both overseas and in England.

Marking cloth for making patterns
The Goodman of Paris gives this recipe for making a liquid for marking linen.

Take axle grease (the dirt at both ends of an axle tree of a wagon), add ink, combine oil and vinegar, and boil all this together. Then heat your marker, moisten it n this mixture, and set it on your linen.

It seems unlikely to me to wash out afterwards, and I don't know why, if ink is one of the ingrediants, it was not just used watered down by itself. It is also possible that this is a recipe for block printing on cloth.

Self-patterned weaves, brocades and damask designs
Fabric was often woven into brocades and geometric designs. Diamond and square patterned cloths known as diaper were woven from silk, linen and in some areas, cotton. The fabric pattern was woven in a one colour only.

With linen, there is a large amount of evidence for being woven into a number of designs for use on table cloths, towels, napkins and pillowcases. These self-patterned weaves were single colour and several existing examples have been found in London, as early as 10th century in York. The earliest record of self-patterned linen is the shroud of St Bathild who dies in 680AD in Northern France but other fragments from Anglo-Saxon burials also include designs like lozenges and herringbone.

Damasks, rich patterned heavy material of silk or linen featured cloth which the pattern appears reversed on the back of the fabric. Intricate patterns of brocaded silk were a feature of silk velvet on velvets. The artichoke cynara scolymus was grown plentifully during the medieval period and was featured in many medieval fabric designs from the 13th to 15th centuries.

Other patterns featured repeated designs within circles and teardrop shapes with flowers and animals within. A beautiful example of this is the silk woven with gold thread patterned silk, at left, from Sicily dated at between 1325 and 1350. It belongs to a garment often referred to as St Elizabeth's Cloak.

Very early examples of single-needle knitting known as nahlbindning are found throughout Europe during the pre-medieval period. This is not the kind of knitting we are looking at here.

Examples of knitted items have been found in the medieval period, although not many are complete. Shown at right is a knitted woolen cap from the Museum of London. It was found in a London deposit dated before or around 1500. There are a few other examples of two-needle knitting from early England- gloves, vests and caps. Most of these appear to be the same stocking stitch we use today.

In a late 14th century altarpiece, Mary is depicted knitting, although in her essay Weaving and Gender Division of Labour in the Middle Ages, the author Ruth Karros asserts that knitting was, in fact, a craft which was restricted to men. I would imagine that like many of the other regulated town crafts, this did not apply to the country woman who did her own clothing production at home.

Shown at left is a pair of red socks which are housed in the V&A Museum. They are dated somewhere about 300-500 AD, are in good repair and have no moth holes. Image used with kind permission of Amanda and Jane at THEWOMANSROOMBLOG. While this is substantially earlier than the medieval period and uses the single needle technique of nahlbindning, it shows that the skill of knitting items such as socks was known at that time. These particular socks would have been worn with a sandals like the ones we have today.

Information from the Tacuinum of Vienna describes linen clothing thus:

The nature of linen is cold and dry in the second degree. It's optimum is light, splendid and of the beautiful kind while it is described as useful to moderate the heat of the body. The dangers of linen, however, are that it presses down on the skin and blocks transpiration.

In order to neutralize the dangers of wearing linen, one was instructed to mix it with silk. The effects were described as drying up ulcerations and primarily good for hot temperaments, for the young, in summer and in the southern regions.

As with most other fabrics, linen came in varying degrees of quality and fineness, from thick opaques to the very fine. The quality varied for its intended use and the status of the wearer. Linens were used for bedding, napery, underclothing, lightweight summer clothing and veiling. The image shown at right comes from the Tacuinum Sanitatis.

Processing the flax into fibres, weaving and finishing was primarily done in rural areas. By the mid-14th century, the development in looms enabled workers to produce a much longer fabric woven all in one piece, which required great skill and was prized. In the late 14th century, Flemish linens were known as the finest. Some samples of linen damask show a thread count of between 60 to 200 threads per inch, making them suitable for fine veiling.

At times plain, undyed linen thread was used for sewing, but there are records of dyed linen thread being used for sewing. In the Museum of London book, Textiles and Clothing, information about linen thread says:

The linen thread supplied to the Great Wardrobe in the 1330s cost between 2s. and 2s.8p. per lb and came not only in different thicknesses, but also in a variety of colours.

Wool was the staple of medieval clothing for all classes- the quality varying hugely between the worsted fabrics of the poor to the very fine wools produced in England which were exported to Europe. Wool was weighed by the tod, which was usually measured at 28lb, although this was liable to local variation. The standard sack of wool for export was 364 pounds, and it was calculated that approximately 240 sheep were needed to provide the wool required for one sack.

By the 13th century, there were about 50 different grades of wool. Woolen clothing and its properties are discussed in the medieval text Tacuinum Sanitatus of Casanatense as:

having a warm and dry nature, the optimum kind being "the thin kind from Flanders." It's usefulness is it protects the body from cold and holds warmth although its dangers were that it causes skin irritation.

Neutralization of the dangers of wool were advised by the wearing of thin linen clothing, presumably underclothing, worn between the wool and the skin. Shown at left is Wool, from the Tacuinum Sanitatus.

By the 13th century, Italian woolens and cottons were being sold internationally and there was an estimated eight million sheep in England alone. By the second half of the 14th century, Paris was at the very top of the field in the production and export of middle range woolens called biffes.

Wools produced in Flanders in the 14th and 15th centuries became better and eventually rivaled the English ones for quality. The shorter the woolen fibre was, the tighter the weave and the heavier the finished cloth would be. The difference between better woolens and the lesser worsteds was essentially in the fulling and finishing. After fulling, the wet woolen cloth was stretched, burls removed, and the imperfections repaired before being placed over a bar and then teased before the final shearing. Dry shearing could be performed by repeated napping and clipping to produce a silky, smooth finish.

Often woolen clothing was dyed twice- once in the wool and again in the piece. Prices for woolen cloth varied depending on the finishing process- the more times a cloth had been sheared and finished, the more expensive the cloth was. Because of their expense, wills and bequests often made particular mention of woolen clothing and specified the worth of the garment indicating what quality it might be.

In 1313, Anicia atte Hegge, a widow from Hampshire, made a will on the surrendering of her holding to her son which included the stipulation that among other things, she would be provided with various items of clothing including a woolen garment every other year worth 3 shillings.

Silks were expensive in the early part of the Middle Ages but popular with the wealthy, not only for the fabric's luxurious texture but its ability to hold dye and produce brilliant colours not available in other fabrics.

Oriental silks were imported from the east and patterned or brocaded silks are often written about. Unlike other fabric, silks were almost always sold by the ounce rather than by length.

Shown above are some existing samples of Italian silks from the mid-to-late 14th century. They show a diverse range of designs, colours and themes which were probably brighter when new.

In Europe, silks were also locally produced. By the 14th century, silks from Lucca, Venice, Genoa and Bologna were known to produce silks of exceptional quality which were much desired by nobility. Records from 1324 indicate that Paris was producing silk and gold thread brocades and that English Royal household accounts show purchases of Parisian silk from the years 1324 to 1333.

Velvets and velvet blends
Silk velvets were extremely expensive and were a luxury fabric only for the richest of the rich. They were often brocaded with large patterns, often floral. The green, patterned silk velvet shown at right was made in Venice in the late 15th century and features an artichoke design. It is interesting to note that the artichoke was believed to have strong aphrodisiac powers and one wonders if wearing artichokes was hoped to invoke the same feelings of desire to the wearer.

Velvet was produced with either simple or compound weaves being elaborated by introducing a supplementary warp over a series of very small rods. The rods are removed leaving small loops, which can be shorn or left as loops which form the velvet pile. Both simple and compound velvet weaves can be enriched by sets of yarns on the surface of the cloth which produces a brocade.

is known to be a 15th century cloth from Muster-de-Villiers. It is suggested that the name may also be derived from mestier de velours meaning half-velvet- similar to velveteen.

Archaeological evidence exists of a garment in which King Philip 1 of France was buried, was constructed of woolen velvet. It is dated at 1108. A further reference to woolen velvet comes from a study of velvet production in the early middle ages from Tournai in 1380. According to research by Lydie LaBarthe:

fragments of twill and cotton velvet have been found dating back to 9th century in France. The textile known as pile on pile or double velvet is also one of the oldest known velvet weaving techniques. Three dimensional textiles with looped or cut pile are supplementary weft compound weaves. As early as 2000BC the Egyptians made linen fabrics with extra linen weft pulled out into loops for both effect and warmth.

Hemp was cultivated for cloth production in the middle ages. There are several references to crops of hemp which were to be harvested for textile use.

One such reference comes from Christine de Pisan in Le Livre des Trois Vertus. She writes of the duties of an aristocratic wife and says that while such a wife may not actually do any of the weaving in her household herself, she must be knowledgeable about every facet of the process so that she may oversee each and every stage of the process- from the selection of the fleeces to the final construction of finished garments. She adds specifically:

..she will have her tenants grow hemp that her chambermaids will spin and weave on winter evenings.

It appears that clothing made of cotton or cotton/linen and cotton/silk blends was not entirely unknown, although the production of cotton is specific to certain time periods and countries. From the 7th to the 13th century, cotton and cotton/silk blends came out of the far east. Merchants in Egypt exported flax, dyes and cotton fibres. It is not unusual during that period to see references in Europe to clothing made entirely or partially of cotton.

During the 13th century, according to Mazzaoui's publication the Italian Cotton Industry, the manufacture of cotton items in northern Italy rivaled wool in the numbers of workers it employed. The cloth produced was of medium weight and used for undergarments, bedding and summer clothing.

According to Piponnier & Mane's Dress in the Middle Ages, in Northern Italy, Spain and Southern Germany, it was often mixed with hemp or linen to form an expensive twill fustian. Another source, Ibed, speaks of cotton clothing and blankets, flannelettes and quilted cottons which competed with coarse linens. It should be mentioned, however, that Italians did not produce luxury cotton fabrics, prints, tapestry weaves or brocades for clothing.

Frances and Joseph Gies, in their book Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel, Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages discuss weaving of cotton and go on to say that during the 14th century, the use of cotton spread throughout the continent and Europe for use as coifs, veils, wimples, handkerchiefs, purses and clothing linings. There seems to be no reference to cotton clothing in England at these times.

Tiretains were produced with a linen warp and woolen weft. It was commonly believed to be a fabric which was low-priced and lightweight- a fairly popular fabric for those of low status.

Recent research suggests that tiretains were bought and used by nobility and royal household accounts show the purchase of it also for clothing, indicating that some tiretains were not as rough as we used to believe or that like wool, tiretains were produced in varying degrees of quality. It appears to have been used for lightweight summer clothing, usually lined with silk and in one instance, lined with fur. One assumes that silk linings were not used in conjunction with a low-cost fabric popular with the lower classes.

In one record of the 1315 accounts of the Mahaut of Artois, there is a mention of tiretain being purchased at 26 ounces, also indicating that silk was an ingredient of that particular piece of fabric. It is speculated that in that particular example, the silk may have replaced the linen warp.

It appears also that kermes, an extremely expensive dye, was used to dye tiretain. In 1268, two kermes-dyed tiretains were purchased for the English king.

In 1328 the widow of Louis X owned an outfit of black tiretain, also dyed with kermes.

When the French Queen Clemence of Hungary died, it was noted that 4 of her 35 garments were of tiretain of different colours and her husband the King had a coat also lined with tiretain. A dye as expensive as kermes would not have been wasted on a fabric which was not of a suitably high quality, and the fact that it was purchased for king's clothing also indicates that the quality of the fabric was far superior to the rough fabric it was previously supposed to be.

Fustian appears to be constructed in the same way as velvets, being described as a coarse twilled cotton cloth sometimes made with a linen warp and cotton weft, woven in the same way as velvet and with a sheared surface. As mentioned above, Piponnier & Mane's Dress in the Middle Ages, in Northern Italy, Spain and Southern Germany, states that cotton was often mixed with hemp or linen to form an expensive twill fustian used for making doublets, outer summer clothing and winter underwear.

The word fustian can be found in records as early as the 11th and 12th centuries and is associated with heavily wefted materials, especially those with weft floats that could be cut to produce pile. Fustian was made in Italy, Spain, Germany and Holland and was first mentioned in England in 1114.

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