Medieval Economy: Textiles


Figure 1.--

Just as cotton was at the center of the Industrial Revolution, wool was a key commodity in the Medieval era. Wool was the principal raw material used for textiles in Medieval Europe. It was usually woven to produce cloth, but some was used to produce felt. Wool is produced by sheep. Different breeds produce wool of varying quality. Some sheep have fine silky fleece. Other sheep have a very coarse fleece. High quality cloth required a fine yarn. This required the fleece to be carded, meaning combing with a large iron comb-like tool. The other principal fabric used to produce textiles in Medieval Europe was linen. Linen was produced from flax. Yarn was required to produce textiles. Yarn was produced from raw wool or flax fibers by hand. (The spinning wheels did not appear until the late Medieval era.) The raw wool or processed flax was placed on a drop spindle. A drop spindle was fashioned from wood or bone and weighted on the bottom with stone or metal. The yarn was produced by drawing the fiber out from the spindle and twisting it in the process. This was a tedious, labor intensive process, but only after the yarn was fashioned could the production of textiles begin. The next step was to dye the yarn. The yarn was then woven into cloth on hand looms. The woven cloth was then ironed by pressing with a whale bone (baleen) plaque, glass, or stone smoother which had been heated for the purpose. The final process was decoration by braided cords, tapestry, or embroidery. The center of the European wool trade was Flanders, but the damp Low Countries was not condusive to sheep husbandry. Conditions accross the Channel in England were ideal and sheep flourished there and it was a center of wool production. Thus critical economic ties developed between England and Flanders.

Raw Material

Wool

Just as cotton was at the center of the Industrial Revolution, wool was a key commodity in the Medieval era. Wool was the principal raw material used for textiles in Medieval Europe. It was usually woven to produce cloth, but some was used to produce felt. Wool is produced by sheep. Different breeds produce wool of varying quality. Some sheep have fine silky fleece. Other sheep have a very coarse fleece. There were many steps to the production of wool, including shearing, wool-sorting and preparation, combing, and carding. High quality cloth required a fine yarn. This required the fleece to be carded, meaning combing with a large iron comb-like tool.

Flax

The other principal fabric used to produce textiles in Medieval Europe was linen. Linen was produced from flax.

Spinning Yarn

Yarn was required to produce textiles. Yarn was produced from raw wool or flax fibers by hand. (The spinning wheels did not appear until the late Medieval era.) The raw wool or processed flax was placed on a drop spindle. A drop spindle was fashioned from wood or bone and weighted on the bottom with stone or metal. The yarn was produced by drawing the fiber out from the spindle and twisting it in the process. This was a tedious, labor intensive process, but only after the yarn was fashioned could the production of textiles begin.

Dyes

The next step was to dye the yarn. A variety of natural dyes were used, varying somewhat as the kinds of plants available locally. As we see in the paintings from the period, colors were very important. Peasants might wear garments done in brown and other natural colors. If they coud afords it,people wanted colors and often this meant very bright colors. As the medievalmperiod prigressed new dyes were developed and people learnedcmoire bout the process. Some people made the dyes themselves, but natural dyes could be purchased in village markets. Some of the common dies were: woad or indigo (blue), weld (yellow), madder(orange and red), brazil tree (reds), alkanet (lilac), and many other roots, berries, barks and lichens. The colors were fixed with urine. One shuders to think how they figured this out. It was the amonia in urine that fixed the dyes. It was widely belirved that male urine should be used. We do not know if male urine indeed was more effective in the fixing process. There are reports thatv there were vats on London streets that were set up to collect the urine. Presumably the same occurred in other towns and cities.

Weaving

The yarn was then woven into cloth on hand looms. The woven cloth was then ironed by pressing with a whale bone (baleen) plaque, glass, or stone smoother which had been heated for the purpose.

Cloth

Weavers produced a wide range of wool textiles, which were variously referred to as woollens, worsteds, and semi-worsted ‘stuffs’. These wollen goods ranged widely in both quality and price. Many peasants spun and wove their own cloth, known a honespun. In the villages and towns cloth could be bought ranging from cheap coarse fabric that common townspeople might purchase to luxurious woollen scarlets purchased by arisytocrats and beyond the ability of most commoners to afford.

Decoration

The final process was decoration by braided cords, tapestry, or embroidery.

Developing Industry

The wool trade was a central factor in the developing Medieval economy. Between the 10th and the 15th century, a rural domestic handicraft evolved into a complex, largely urban industry with a sophisticated division of labour. A variety of technical changed incvolved new industrial processes which often were designed to cut production costs, but often impaired quality. Producers involved in luxury markets often often rejected the technolical changes for fear of impairing quality. Craft guilds and governments imposed quality-controls. The production of textiles by the 15th century reached a techical level that changed little until the Industrial Revolution.

England

The principal source of wool in Medieval Europe was England. The heavy rainfall in England produced luxurious pastures that was ideal for grazing sheep. As a result, England was able to produce fine quality wool in great quantity. England did not have, however, the skilled craftsmen to make high-quality cloth. England thus exported much of its wool production, a great deal of it to Netherlands/Flanders where in the lower, damper climate sheep did not flourish. Thus a close relationship developed between England and the Low Countries. The English Crown imposed the the 'Staple', an export tax on wool As rge demand for raw wool increased, English nobles amassed great fortunes. They turned peasants off their small plots and converted their lands to sheep pastures. English kings attempted to control the wool trade. They restricted the wool trade to a few "Staple" ports so it could be more easily controlled. Two of the most important ports were Sandwich and Calais. (Calais was a French port controlled by the English.) Royal officials in the Staple ports carefull counted the bales and levied the export tax. Smuggling developed to avoid the toyal tax. Only slowly did an important weaving industry develop in England. One imprtant fabric was the soft fabric flannel produced in west of England and Wales. Weavers to the north in Scotland produced looser, rougher weaves that we today call tweeds.

Transport

thee cloth towns of Flanders (Bruges, Lille, Bergues, and Arras in Artois) were noted for their skilled craftsmen and quality of the wool cloth that they produced. I am not sure why these Flemish cloth towns develped the ability to produce such high-quality cloth. They imported raw wool from England. Transporing the English wool to the Flemish cloth towns was expensive. Roads virtually did not exist. The wool was transported by water. The imported wool not only had to be transported to English ports and then accroos the Channel, but river barges had to bring the wool up rivers to the Flemish towns. Boats could supply wool to cloth towns as far from the sea as St-Omer, Bethune, and Arras. There were, however, signoficant costs. Taxes had to be paid to the local lords through whose territory the wool passed. Rapids at required that cargoes be and carted along a short road a little upstream to be reloaded on barges. At Douai there was a lock on the river wher boats had to pay a tax to pass. All of this substantially increased the cost of the wool by the time it reached Flanders.

Flanders

Skilled Flemish craftsmen and women took raw wool and spun the raw wool into yarn and then wove it into the finest woolen cloth produced in Europe. Flanders had, however, a seious problem. The lower damper climate of the Lowlands was not condusive to sheep hubandry. Thus the Flemish had to find a source of wool. One was at hand in England accross the Channel where sheep thrived. Thus critical economic ties bound England and the Low Countries. England prodyuced and exported wool, the Flemuish bought the wool and woce cloth. And finally the English imported the cloth. As the cloth industry developed in Flanders, an essential rural artisanal operation became centered in towns and increasingly specilized. Craftsmen began to speciuslize in various finishing trades, like dying and fulling (giving cloth a shiny surface). Boys would begin at apprentices ar about age 12 to learn the required skills. The various trades were controlled by a Guild of master craftsmen. Flemish towns often specialised in specific garments like bonnets or stockings. Other towns specialized in tapestries.

Markets

The fine woolen cloth and textiles produced in Flanders were marketed by merchants at fairs in Bruges, Cologne, Paris, and other important urban centers. Transporting the woolen girls again significantly added to costs.

Dukes of Burgandy

Flanders was part of the territory controlled by the dukes of Burgandy. The Dukes of Burgandy were some of the most importsnt French nobels and at times in alliance with the Englih rivaled the power of the French monarchy. The woolen trade was an inportant element in the wealth of the Burgundians. The Dukes of Burgundy protected the Flemish cloth trade and as a result the "Golden Age" of Flanders occurred during the 14th and 15th centuries. The wool trade brought great wealth to Flanders. The Burgundian dukes were able to maintain spectacular courts in Bruges, Lille, and Brussels. Aristocrats there were able to afford luxurious outfits and began to set fashions trends throughout Europe. The Burgundians not only set clothing fashions, but also furnishings like tapestries to decorate the baren stone walls of castles. This in turn helped expand the demand for Flemish woolen goods.

Hundred Years War (1337-1453)

The wool trade closely tied Flanders to England. As a result, the Burgundians nomially owing loyalty to the Frenvch monrchy, often allied them selves to the English. The dukes of Burgandy saw this as a way of establidhing an independent monarchy. The Burgundians fought with the English for much of the Hundred Years War. Artois in the south was between France and Flanders was epecially affected. During this period, Flanders was not only ravaged by war, but also the Blavk Death which first struck Flanders in 1348.

The Hapsburgs

With the extinction of the Burgundian line, Flanders passed to the Hapsburgs. The Emperor Maximilien of Austria granted Tourcoing the right to hold an annual tax-free "Franche Foire" (tax free) fair which which helped promote the town's textile industry. Emperor Charles V divided his territories and Flanders passed to his son the Philip II and the Spanish Hapsburgs. King Philip II granted Lille the right to conduct business in the Vieille Bourse. This new Exchange was modeled on those in Antwerp and other Dutch towns. At the Vieille Bourse, 24 cloth merchants each had shops/offices arrayed around a common courtyard. Here they bought and sold their merchandise to foreign buyers and traders. Banking developed to arrange the needed finance.

Decline of Flanders

The Reformation and Catholic efforts to supress it played a major role in thge decline of Flanders as the economic center of Europe. The Reformation began in Germany, but spread to the Low Countries, referred at the time as the Austrian and later the Spanish Netherlands. When Philip II launched a campaign to supress Protestantism in the Netherlands, the people thgere fought for indepoendence. Philip lrgely succeeded in the souhern Netherlands, but failed in the north where the Dutch assisted by the Englidh were able to secure their indeprendence. After Philip King Louis XIV of France pressed his claims. By this time, Flanders had lost its former domance. The military campaigns had caused great damage. Many gifted Protestant craftsmen had fled to the saftey of Proitestant lands, including Ebgland. Thus the Flemish Cloth Towns no longer had a monnoply of the skills and technologies. Some towns like Arras or Hondschoote were virtually destroyed in the fighting. There was also competition from rural weavers who were no limited by the quality controls of the guilds. There cloth was often of poor quality, but it was much less expensive and thus found a ready market.






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Created: September 15, 2003
Last updated: 8:35 AM 6/17/2012