COMMERCIAL PATTERNS &
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM
FUR & LEATHER NAMES
NEEDLES - PINS - THIMBLES - SCISSORS & SHEARS
- NEEDLECASES - REELS - IRONS
LUCETS - SPINDLES - SPINNING WHEELS - LOOMS
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
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
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. Prior
to the 18th century, the dimples were hand punched, sometimes
in a decorative pattern, but more usually to cover the entire
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.
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 late 15th century England.
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.
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.
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
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
Among the comprehensive listing of sewing tools by Hugh of St
Victor who lived between1096-1141, is listed-
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.