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Medieval Fabric Pieces (including knit)

Dark Ages piece, British Museum. I have enhanced this picture a little bit to correct for some blurriness. This allows you to see the weave of the fabric better, but distorts the color slightly. But I don’t think that matters much anyways, since this fabric is hardly the color now that it was when it was discarded, much less when it was actually made. It was certainly red in its former life, although what shade of red or how bright or dark it was is unclear. I seem to recall noting that it was a twill weave and almost certainly from wool. There’s nothing really in the picture to give you an idea of the scale of the threads, but I thought them rather medium in coarseness. It wasn’t a fine piece of cloth, but it certainly wasn’t the burlap-like fabric that Hollywood likes to put people in when doing medieval movies. If I could hazard a guess, I would estimate that this cloth was for an average sort of person. I know in the High Middle Ages they could spin and weave nicer cloth than this, and I have a sneaking suspicion that people of the Early Middle Ages, armed with the exact same distaff and drop spindle, could spin equally fine thread for rich patrons.

The display did not say what this fabric was originally, if they could even take a guess. It definitely was not fulled as I could see the weave clearly. Please ignore what looks like a dark line up the center, and the odd color variations; this is just a reflection of Stuart in the glass. There were no seams or other stitching visible in this piece of fabric (which was a good deal smaller than it appears on this picture), and the color was uniform. It's a shame no one ever makes museums for anal-retentive freaks like us; there would be no-glare coatings on all the glass cases and everything would have a ruler beside it for scale.

These two swatches of fabric are from the Museum of London’s collection. They are both of a very finely woven silk. I’m sure that they are so fragmentary, their original purpose is unclear, but what is quite striking, to me, at any rate, is the fact that one piece is clearly orange.

I have been wondering for a while as to whether or not orange was a color in use in period. An 18th century re-enactor friend said that it was relatively easy to get orange from onion skins (and if the moon is in the right phase and Jupiter aligns with Mars, you can get an orange to rival that on hazard signs and safety cones), so, given that onions were extensively available in Europe in the middle ages, and knowing through my own experiments in dying how one can be overcome with the thrill of discovery and start throwing anything and everything into a pot of boiling water, I truly believe that medieval people had both the knowledge of and ability to make orange dye. But, I have yet to see any visual representation of orange clothing in paintings, nor have I read a description of it in any accounts. There are several possible explanations for this: one, orange may not have been an option as a paint color; medieval artists had to work with a much smaller palette of colors than do modern artists. Secondly, distinguishing shades of color is a fairly modern notion. So if medieval people went to Lowe’s to look at the paint swatches, they would not bother to distinguish between hunter green, lime green or sage green; they would have all been “green”. So, it is possible that orange was an actual color in use, but was described in contemporary accounts as red because medieval people didn’t have a separate word for orange. Finally, it is possible that orange was quite well known as a dye, but wasn’t a popular color, for whatever reason, and no one bothered to color their clothes that color.

However, given that there is this swatch of orange silk in existence, I think that it is probably more likely that orange paint and the words to distinguish orange from red are the reason why we aren’t real familiar with orange as a period color. While it’s not evident from the picture, due to distortion, the other piece of fabric was most certainly red originally. Since these two pieces of fabric were found in similar soil, I think it’s not very likely that the orange fabric began life as a red piece of fabric and then faded; otherwise, why wouldn’t the other piece of red silk have turned to orange as well? No, I am quite certain that that piece of fabric began life as a shade of orange. Which, given how well people of the high middle ages loved bright, primary colors, orange seems right up their alley.

Here is quite possibly the most famous piece of clothing/fabric excavated in the London digs. I seem to recall that my book on the digs does not show this piece in color, so here you can see it close to its true color (or very close to it). Clearly it began life as a red sleeve. I think this is believed to have been from a woman’s dress, as women seem to have been more fond of buttoned sleeves than men (although buttoned sleeves weren’t exclusively theirs).

What this picture doesn’t show is the size of this piece. This sleeve is so much smaller than I expected. Even though my “Textiles and Clothing” book shows it to scale, it still doesn’t register in the mind that it really is that small until you see it in person. The buttons are a little bigger than your average pea. The smallest cloth buttons I have made, were made using a quarter as a template, and these are still smaller than my buttons. I'm thinking a nickel as a template for these buttons.

This picture is from the tomb of Katherine and Thomas Beauchamp in the Church of St. Mary in Warwick. Katherine is depicted wearing a sleeve almost identical in scale to the one in the Museum of London. Because I was able to touch the tomb (thank you wonderful people at St. Mary’s), I was able to get my finger into this shot so you can see how tiny the buttons are. I guess I should have used my pinkie in comparison instead of my index finger, as the width of the buttons are closer to the width of my pinkie fingernail. I would say that on both sleeves, the buttons were placed about the same distance apart.

The stitching around the buttonholes on the Museum of London piece was quite fine and likewise tiny to match the scale of the sleeve. In fact, I was rather impressed by the stitching that I could see, as my Museum of London books typically zoom in so close on the stitches that it makes them look rather rough. When you look at this piece in perspective, however, you see that they are not nearly so crooked and uneven as they are under very close scrutiny. I will certainly work to improve my own hand-stitched buttonholes. Also, they did certainly use a buttonhole stitch on their buttonholes (something I haven’t been doing lately, as my buttonhole stitches don’t look as neat as simple whip stitches—something else I have to work on).

Another thing we don’t typically do very often in the SCA is line our clothing. Of course, as someone once pointed out, Meridies is on the same latitude as Northern Africa, while Maine is on the same latitude as France. We got to go to a re-enactors’ market outside of Coventry (think Gulf Wars shopping experience, only indoors, with a few other centuries thrown in), and everyone in medieval clothing there was wearing it lined. Of course, there was still over a foot of snow on the ground in the Highlands in March, so you can see why medieval Europeans would have been fond of lining their clothing. In any case, back to the point I originally wanted to make: the edges of the sleeve are top-stitched through the fabric to hold the lining in place. These were wonderfully small, even stitches. They weren't backstitched, so you don’t have a continuous line of stitches (as you do with machine sewing). The “Textiles and Clothing” book published by the Museum of London will give you more views of the stitching.

This is a knitted sock from the Museum of London. There were several knitted pieces on display (some of which are featured in the “Textiles and Clothing” book), but this was, by far, the most interesting piece.

NEW! I finally found some information on the sock on The Museum of London's website, including a better picture. Medieval Sock

You can see a number of things here. One, the gusset on the side of the sock has been made separately because the knitting in the gusset is turned 90 degrees to the sock itself. I don't know how anyone can knit that, except to do it in two separate pieces and then join them together, either by sewing or some form of crochet. Also, in the better-quality Museum picture, you can see that there is also a seam around the bottom of the sock, which would indicate to me that the sole is also a separate piece.

Also, note that the discoloration marks on the sock in my picture do not match up with the spots on the sock in the Museum of London. This is not a matter of picture reversal: you are seeing one side of the sock in my picture and another side of it in the Musuem picture. So it has gussets on both sides.

Why all the pieces? It is my theory that people did not yet know how to knit a sock all in one piece. I think that we are seeing the evolution of sock knitting at work here. First there was knitting. Then, someone thought that a knitted sock might be nice. But how to get a knitted sock? How do you make a regular sock? You cut out pieces and sew them together. So why not knit separate pieces and sew them together?

I don't think this is a crazy theory; after all, modern-day sweaters and T-shirts (which are also knit, don't forget) are made in pieces. Why not a sock?

I'd love to hear from anyone that makes a sock like this--and the method for how they did it.

Go to another section:

Medieval and Roman Jewelry
Medieval Fabric Pieces (including knit)
Medieval Shoes, Pattens and Misc. Wearables
14th and 15th Century Clothing (representations only)
Late Medieval Armor (as it relates to fabric only)
Medieval Home Furnishings
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