Textiles and the Wool Trade in the Middle Ages
For about the last 50 or 60 years, much of the clothing purchased in the western world has been made of some kind of a manmade textile, or a blend of natural fibers and manmade materials. Most of us have a selection of polyester, rayon, nylon, acrylic, acetate, and cotton/poly blends in our closets. Natural fibers like linen, cotton, silk, and wool can be more expensive than the manmade fabrics. And today, wool, which many of us remember unpleasantly from our childhood as the picky, prickly, uncomfortable top layer our mothers wrapped us in, is often viewed as unwieldy.
But once, natural fibers were all that were available. Medieval Europe from at least 1000 B.C.E. forward highly prized wool fabrics. Wool was warm, long-lasting, relatively inexpensive, and plentiful. It could be grown, harvested, spun, and woven right at home. Wool was a necessity for everyone in the middle ages, including the elite. All houses were cold and drafty, heated only by fireplaces, and wool was the only way to keep warm.
To get help on the subject of textiles, my wife, Elizabeth, has agreed to be interviewed for this blog. Although Elizabeth’s training and work is in the sciences (biochemistry, genetics, and nutritional psychology), she also has an affinity for working with textiles of all kinds and is a big history buff for the time period of the middle ages.
Don: When did you first become interested in textiles?
Elizabeth: I got an early start. Both of my parents worked with textiles extensively; my dad had been trained by his father in the family business—upholstery and furniture- and drapery-making, and my mom had learned to sew from her mom and grandmother and made most of my clothes while I was growing up. She also loved to crochet, so there was yarn as well as lots of fabric around. I loved it all. My grandmother didn’t sew much by the time I came along, but she had cupboard after cupboard of fabric. She always wanted to visit fabric stores, especially the mill-end stores that peppered the southern US during those years. She bought fabric wherever she went, and she and I and my sister Lydia regularly hauled out the teetering stacks to enjoy them and dream of what could be made from their bounty. She taught me to sew on buttons and repair garment hems by hand. My grandfather always had a project on his workbench. I loved seeing what beautiful pieces of furniture he had conceived. Hand tufted, tucked, beautifully finished velvet or brocade, brass nail studded pieces were his favorite. He loved the ornate. My dad had 6 brothers, all but one of whom also did upholstery, so any family visits also involved ‘going to the shop’ of each respective uncle and seeing bolts of colorful cloth, pieces of furniture waiting to be picked up, and works-in-progress on the bench.
Don: What do you enjoy most about textiles?
Elizabeth: The sense of possibility. There are literally countless possibilities for every yard, inch, or skein, and I get to imagine and decide which possibilities are the most beautiful, creative, expressive, and functional. Beauty and function intersect intrinsically when I allow my creativity to blossom in the presence of textiles. It is said that form follows function, but I believe beauty leads the way. Working with textiles is a contemplative pursuit, and allows me to focus on the process of making something, rather than on the end product. Don’t get me wrong: the end products are wonderful in and of themselves, but immersing myself in the process of imagining, creating, problem solving, and making something is where the real experience is for me. We have to look for such opportunities in modern life; all too often, our work and home life focuses solely on getting as many things done in as short a time as possible. That approach shortchanges us emotionally over time. By nature, we are process-oriented beings, and the more we can get back to that foundation, and learn to enjoy the process of doing and being, the more fulfilled and at peace we can be.
Don: Today, there are a lot of synthetic or man-made textiles available. What are some of the manmade textiles and what is the upside and downside to man-made textiles?
Elizabeth: As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, the most common textiles of the era were man-made from a variety of petroleum products. Who can forget the horrors of Quiana, leisure suits, and clothing made from what was admiringly called ‘bullet-proof’ polyester, so-called because it literally never wore out? The upside of man- made textiles were primarily those of convenience and a low need for maintenance. Few of them ever needed ironing, the terms ‘drip-dry’ and ‘wash-and-wear’ were coined as their main selling features. The world was a rapidly changing place in the decades after the second World War, partly due to the increase in income, which allowed for more leisure time than people had ever had the luxury of having in history. Labor saving devices and products at times bordered on the absurd, but spoke to the ethos of the era. What ‘lady of the house’ wanted to starch and iron 7 shirts and pairs of slacks, or 7 dresses for each family member every single week when she could purchase synthetics and spend her time on the tennis court or playing bridge with her girlfriends?
But those conveniences came at a price, which didn’t become part of social awareness for many years. Synthetic fabrics were (and still are) made from chemicals derived from coal, oil, and natural gas. The process is called polymerization. It begins with monomers, identical molecules that have the ability to be joined together to make larger molecules called polymers. Liquefied polymers then go through a high pressure process that forces the chemicals through a plate covered with tiny holes called spinnerets to make the slick fibers that can then be dyed and woven into fabric. The processes necessary to make these textiles are hard on the environment, and produce fabrics that can’t naturally biodegrade. Synthetic fabrics can only be melted down and re-spun into more fabric, or burned, which releases toxic gases and fumes into our environment. Experts estimate that 12% of landfills are comprised of non-biodegradable textiles. (See reference footnotes).
Don: What are your favorite textiles and why?
Elizabeth: Natural fibers like wool, cotton, and linen, are my favorites. Unlike the slick, hollow fibers of man-made origin, these fibers have an integrity to them that allows them to intertwine and cling to one another as they are worked with. Wool, for example, has tiny barbs on each fiber that allow it to be pulled from shorn fleeces and twisted easily into a plied yarn that can then be knit, crocheted, or woven into fabric. Wool is springy and elastic, even cuddly! When I’m making a quilt, each triangle or square naturally clings to its neighbor as the pieces are sewn together. Clothing from these textiles are a delight to wear. Rather than trapping body heat and moisture, all natural fibers ‘breathe’, allowing perspiration and excess heat to escape naturally. And while each natural fiber takes dye in its own unique way, the un-dyed colors of different cottons, wools, and linens have their own quiet, understated beauty.
Don: Looking back at medieval times, what kinds of textiles did they have? What was the most prevalent?
Elizabeth: That’s a really big question, with a really big answer. I’ll append some links to some excellent references by experts on the topic. The short answer is that linen, wool, and silk featured predominantly. Early on, guilds or professional associations of skilled crafts persons like weavers and wool growers developed and leveraged the position of such vital trades in medieval society. Subsistence-level production of wool, whereby most families had flocks and made the necessary clothing from its shearing, went on for hundreds of years, so literally from the most humble slave to kings and queens, the textile base of raw materials was the same, albeit more refined and skillfully woven for royalty or the gentry.
Don: How important was the wool trade in medieval times?
Elizabeth: John H. Munro, ‘Medieval Woollens: Textiles, Textile Technology and Industrial Organisation, c. 800-1500’, in The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume 1, ed. by D. T. Jenkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 181-227 (at 181) states: “No form of manufacturing had a greater impact upon the economy and society of medieval Europe than did those industries producing cloths from various kinds of wool.” The book “The English Wool Market” by Adrian R. Bell and Chris Brooks calls the time period “an era when trade in wool had been the backbone and driving force in the English medieval economy.” Wool as a commodity created a whole list of new jobs and trades, even scientific discoveries, new dyestuffs, manufacturing procedures, new spinning wheels and looms, and mechanized fulling (cleaning the wool for cloth-making) and napping (shearing off the fuzzy halo of wool fibers on finished cloth to make it smooth). Trade, transportation, and banking all changed as a result of the demands of the new business model for wool products and exports.
Don: Anything else about textiles and wool specifically you’d like to share?
Elizabeth: I encourage our readers to think about what they buy when it’s time to purchase clothes or textiles for the home. What would it be like to buy fewer articles of clothing, but to buy better quality products that are sustainably made from natural fibers? It can require a change in mindset and shopping habits, but the health of our environment stands to gain, which benefits us all. Many families like to thrift shop at used clothing stores. Here’s a link to multiple clues one can use to determine fiber content of unlabeled vintage clothing: http://www.rebeccablood.net/domestic/fiber_content_tests.html