The Art of Making Clothes in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages was a period of great craftsmanship, and the production of clothing was no exception. Wool was the main material used to make clothes, and it had to go through a series of processes before it could be turned into garments. The wool was selected and sorted, and then carded or combed to prepare it for spinning. After that, the yarn was woven into cloth on a loom.

The fabric was often dyed with expensive imported dyes, and then filled to clean and thicken it. This process involved heating and moistening the fabric, and mixing it with fermented dye and other elements such as natural glue, wine, vinegar, salts or bark. In the Middle Ages, wool was converted into cloth in the thriving wool production trade, in the domestic craft industry and in private homes for family use. The methods could vary depending on the producer's means, but the basic processes of spinning, weaving and finishing the fabric were essentially the same.

The wool was washed with soap and water to remove grease from wool (from which lanolin is extracted) and other oils and greases, as well as dirt and foreign matter. In some cases, hot alkaline water, bleach or even rancid urine were used for cleaning. Before the yarns could undergo the harsh processing treatment that was expected, they were greased with butter or olive oil to protect them. Those who produced their own clothes at home probably skipped the most rigorous cleaning, allowing some of the natural lanolin to remain as a lubricant instead of adding grease.

The next step in preparing wool for spinning varied depending on the type of wool, the instruments available and whether certain tools had been banned or not. Instead of carding or combing, some woolen garments underwent a process known as arching. The bow was an arched wooden frame, the two ends of which were joined together with a taut cord. The bow would be hung from the ceiling, the rope would be placed in a pile of wool fibers and the wooden structure would be hit with a mallet to make the rope vibrate.

The vibrating cord would separate the fibers. How effective or common leaning was is debatable, but at least it was legal.Once the fibers were combed (carded or arched), they were wound into a cane, a short, bifurcated cane that was prepared for spinning. Spinning was mainly done by women; they extracted a few fibers from the cane, twisted them between their thumb and forefinger as they did so, and attached them to a spindle. The weight of the spindle would pull the fibers down and stretch them as it spun.

The spinning action of the spindle twisted the fibers to form a thread. The spinster would add more wool from the cane until the spindle reached the ground; then she would wrap the thread around the spindle and repeat the process.Spinning wheels were probably invented in India sometime after 500 AD. Initially, they weren't practical sitting models operated by a pedal; rather, they were operated by hand and were large enough that women had to stand to use them. It may not have been easier for women, but much more yarn could be produced on a spinning wheel than with a folding spindle.Knitting was not entirely unknown in the Middle Ages; however, little evidence of hand-woven garments survives.

It is hard to believe that peasants did not weave outerwear with wool that they obtained from their own sheep; however, much more common than knitting in those times was weaving. Fabric weaving was practiced both in homes and in professional fabric-making establishments.In households where people produced fabrics for their own use, spinning was usually done by women while knitting was generally done by men. Professional weavers in manufacturing locations such as Flanders and Florence also tended to be men, although women weavers were not unknown. Initially, filling was made by immersing fabric in a tub of warm water and stepping on it or hitting it with hammers.Sometimes additional chemicals such as soap or urine were added to help remove lanolin from wool or grease that had been added to protect it in early stages of processing.

In Flanders abuser soil was used in this process to absorb impurities; it was a type of soil that contained a significant amount of clay and was naturally available in this region.Professional fabric manufacturers in wool-producing cities could produce fabrics from sorting stage to final pressing; however it was quite common to sell fabrics that weren't fully finished - undyed fabrics were very common so tailors and draperies could choose right shade for their needs. It wasn't uncommon either to omit cutting and roughing steps which reduced price of fabric for consumers who wanted and could perform this task themselves.Knitted fabric used to be stuffed too.

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