Skip to content

Wool Textiles in the Middle Ages

Cloth manufacture in the Middle Ages took a lot of effort, and engaged the time of men and women, peasants and nobles alike. Cloth was made primarily in the countryside and small villages, but some of the more specialized work was done in urban centers (weaving in particular). In the larger towns, the craftsmen were organized into guilds.

Types of Cloth
Material from wool was classed as woolens, worsteds, or serges, depending on the differences in the fibers used to make them. Woolens used fine, short-stapled fibers that resulted in weak yarns. They required finishing processes known as fulling and shearing, to make them stronger, more durable, and even to the touch. Woolens were the most expensive of the cloths made from wool.

Worsteds were made from longer, tougher strands of wool, making for a light, coarse material. A stronger material than woolen, worsted cloth didn't need to be fulled or sheared. The shorter manufacturing process meant they were cheaper.

Serge cloth was made from a mixture of woolen and worsted wool fibers, and required some fulling and shearing.

Preparing the Wool
The best wool came from mature sheep, though lamb's wool was used for cheaper cloths. Most of it came from shearing live sheep. The wool from slaughtered animals was known as woolfell. After shearing the sheep, the wool was separated by length and quality.

Next came cleaning. The wool was put into large tubs containing hot alkaline water, lye and stale urine (the ammonia of which acted as a detergent). 15-25% of the weight of the wool was removed by this process, as dirt and oils were washed away. The wool was next rinsed in cool water, then set in the sun to dry. After drying, the wool was put on tables and beaten with sticks to separate the fibers and remove any remaining dirt. The fine short-haired fibers destined for woolens and serges were then oiled or greased. This served to protect them from any damage which might occur during the later, harsher stages of production.

Combing and Carding
Wool could be either combed or carded, and both processes were done by women at home. The carding and combing was to remove imperfect fibers and dirt, and also to straighten the threads. Combing is the older process, used for all types of wool fibers. Carding was introduced later for the shorter fibers. Both combs and cards were used in pairs.

Spinning was the process of making long threads or yarns out of the combed or carded wool. Several methods existed over time, but they all involved separating out fibers, twisting them together to make a long thread, and winding the thread onto a spindle or bobbin. The process of spinning was eased by the introduction of the spinning wheel to Europe in the 13th century. Males at this job (few though they might have been) were spinners, and females were called spinsters.

The weaving could be done by men or women, and it took a lot of strength to maneuver some of the looms. In families making cloth for their own use, women typically did the spinning, and men the weaving. Female weavers were called websters. Noblewomen also did a lot of weaving.

Fulling was necessary for the woolen and serge cloths. It had several benefits: it improved the density of the material by shrinking loose fibers and causing them to twist together, and it removed any remaining oils that might be present. The process had several steps.
1 - Washing. The cloth was scoured in water with a cleaning agent, usually a mixture of urine and a clay known as fuller's earth. The urine came from people as well as animals, and the sale of a family's collected urine made a nice little extra source of cash. The cloth was beaten and walked on to aid the cleaning process. It was then rinsed in cool water.
2 - Burling. This was the removal of any knots.
3 - Fulling. Similar to the first stage, the cloth was again put into hot water and walked upon, in order to remove wrinkles and untwist the fibers. Oat flour was used, as well as a lot of soap. This one stage of the process took 2-5 days, depending on the quality of the cloth. At the end of fulling, the fibers were more closely wound together, making for a stronger fabric.
4 - Washing. Yet again.
5 - Wet shearing. This was an initial cutting off of the loose threads, sometimes while the cloth was drying on tenters.
6 - Tentering. The still wet cloth was stretched to dry on tenters in fields. Tenters were wood frames with hooks on the ends. As the cloth dried, it shrank. If the cloth had been stretched too far on the tenters, it weakened.

Dyeing was a specialized process that was usually contracted out to workers in towns. They would take the color and mix it with a fixing agent or mordant, usually alum.

The final process was to brush the material in order to raise the pile. Any loose threads were then cut off by the shearer. The shearer was a specialist, and the look and feel of the final product was due in large part to the care he took.

Basing, Patricia. Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts.
Galloway, Priscilla. Archers, Alchemists, and 98 other Medieval Jobs You Might have Loved or Loathed.
Joseph R. Strayer, ed. Dictionary of the Middle Ages, v. 11.

~Write-up by Kester*


*) denotes a former staff member.