“Of all the proceeds of human artifice, string is perhaps the most widespread and least appreciated.” -Tim Ingold
Basic Textile History
Textiles were certainly an important part of life during the Early medieval period. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the materials used, there are very few remnants from this period. Much of the information surviving about clothing from this period comes from a few scattered objects found on the European continent, or from supposition based on archeological records. The design of early Anglo-Saxon women’s dresses, for instance, has been surmised based on the surviving metal fasteners, including brooches and wrist clasps, found in women’s graves scattered throughout early British burial sites. Indications of the processes of such as spinning, weaving, and rope-making are occasionally left by indentations and patterns of decay in graves or the sites of decayed buildings, not to mention the discovery of many loom weights and spindle whorls in domestic areas. Given the lack of textual or remaining physical evidence of Early Anglo-Saxon textiles, many of their nuances may remain a mystery, but they will likely continue to fascinate historians due to the tremendous impact they had on the everyday lives of ordinary Anglo-Saxons.
Spinning & Weaving
Spinning in Early Medieval England began with carding and cleaning the wool, unless you wanted to leave the lanolin in to make the cloth more waterproof, in which case you would leave it unwashed. The wool was then spun into yarn using a drop spindle, basically a stick with a bead-like spindle whorl on it to help it turn. We procured a drop spindle and tried out spinning some wool into yarn, but most of ours was over-spun, causing the yarn to twist around itself and break off of the main cloud of wool more often.
We didn’t get a chance to try out weaving our minimal amount of yarn, since we had made nowhere near enough yarn to weave so much as an inch of cloth. However, Early Medieval people would use giant looms with sticks to pull out alternating threads on the frame to speed threading yarn through it.
Since linen would have been available, if not exactly common, during the Early Medieval period, we set out in search of tablecloths (we definitely didn’t have time to weave our own cloth). Sadly, Target didn’t have cheap, non-printed tablecloths, so we instead went for a sheet set. Fast forward through several hours of ripping the seams and elastic out of a fitted sheet, and we begin attempting to figure out how to make an Early Medieval gown.
The sources we had showed what was basically a large cylinder, the two sides pinned together at the shoulders with brooches, tied around the waist with a considerable amount of extra fabric bunched over the belt. So we began by pinning together the sides at various different widths, trying to figure out how wide, exactly, the cylinder needed to be to allow enough extra room for arm holes without making it look like we were actually wearing a sheet.
There was also the question of whether we should sew the gown in a straight cylinder, or taper it a bit at the top to give it the slightly more drapey look in the pictures in our sources. In the end, we settled for more or less a perfect cylinder, a few inches longer than the person it would fit to allow for the bunched, loose top over the belt. Sewing was a straightforward affair: we just hemmed the bottom and stitched up the single seam at the sides. The two shoulders we pinned together with safety pins, as we were short authentic Early Medieval brooches.
On the skeleton we used at the fair for our burial, the gown was a bit loose, but it looked satisfyingly authentic. And it was, after all, a skeleton fairly short on flesh.
Rope making is one of the foundations of farming communities like those of the early medieval period in England. It is the area where textiles leave the exclusive domain of the home and become part of the larger economic driving force used both in domestic and more industrial settings such as farming and fishing. We took inspiration for this activity from the descriptions of Tim Ingold in his philosophical treatise Making. In it he describes the process of making two core rope with palm leaves as a means of discovering the full possibilities involved in creating through the hands. Our somewhat less ephemeral purpose, was to explore the process involved in this basic medieval craft, and to find a greater appreciation for the labor involved and the quality of the rope obtained. This began with a search for materials that would best serve our purpose. Palm leaves seldom grow in Minnesota (nor do I imagine they were common in medieval Britain) so it was necessary to find an alternative source of fiber. In this case, rather than trying to find the fibers that would have been used by the early Anglo-Saxons, we focused instead on how they would have solved the problem themselves, they would have found the best material they could source locally. We followed suite using the dried leaves of last year’s prairie grasses we collected as a substitute fiber.
Once we had collected the leaves, the most arduous step of the process was tearing them into long strips that were thin enough to be incorporated into rope. This time consuming step would have occupied craftsmen a good deal longer than the actual creation of the rope and, depending on the amount of rope desired, might have taken weeks or months to complete. After this process was complete, the fibers had to be soaked overnight to make them pliable for weaving (enter our authentic medieval trash can).
After this step, we were ready to begin the rope-making process. Using the process of ‘hand rolling’ string described in Ingold we attempted to weave the rope. This involved rolling two bunches of the fibers between the two hands before lifting one bunch over the other so that the twists work against one another to hold the rope straight.
While Ingold suggested using your hands to roll the rope, I found this to be much more difficult than weaving it on my lap. I discovered that rolling the rope in hands would have been difficult, especially for women with smaller hands, and that they likely would have rolled in on another surface (though it also stained everything it touched which suggests that aprons or some other sort of covering for clothes must have been used for similar tasks).
Actually recreating some of the textile items Early Medieval people would have used allowed us to get a sense of the logic behind their creation process that we wouldn’t have gathered simply by reading about it or seeing it in a museum. For example, the cylindrical gowns would have allowed for easy adjustment during periods of growth — useful in a place where creating fabric was an arduous, multi-person task and children might or might not survive the next year. Spinning and weaving would probably have been a task for multiple people, as the many different tasks necessary to perform could have been done fairly simultaneously. Our efforts gave us a better understanding of the world of Early Medieval England, beyond the farming and fighting that we usually associate with it. Also, making rope is a strikingly applicable skill in braiding hair:
Owen Crocker, Gale. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2004.
Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Brimscombe Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2003.
Ingold, Tim. Making. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Fleming, Robin. Britain After Rome. London: Penguin Books, 2011.