Manufacturing Cloth from Wool

Medieval methods for spinning yarn and making fabric from wool

Sheep Herd in New Zealand
clickhere / Getty Images

In the Middle Ages, wool was turned into cloth in the thriving wool production trade, in home-based cottage industry, and in private households for family use. Methods could vary depending on the wherewithal of the producer, but the basic processes of spinning, weaving and finishing cloth were essentially the same.

Wool is usually sheared from sheep all at once, resulting in a large fleece. Occasionally, the skin of a slaughtered sheep was utilized for its wool; but the product obtained, which was called "pulled" wool, was an inferior grade to that shorn from live sheep.

If the wool was intended for trade (as opposed to local use), it was bound up with similar fleeces and sold or traded off until it reached its final destination in a cloth-manufacturing town. It was there that processing began.

Sorting

The first thing done to a fleece was to separate its wool into its various grades by coarseness, because different types of wool were destined for different end products and required specialized methods of processing. Also, some types of wool had specific uses in the manufacturing process itself.

The wool in the outer layer of a fleece was ordinarily longer, thicker and coarser than the wool from the inner layers. These fibers would be spun into worsted yarn. The inner layers had softer wool of varying lengths that would be spun into woolen yarn. Shorter fibers would be further sorted by grade into heavier and finer wools; the heavier ones would be used to make thicker yarn for the warp threads in the loom, and the lighter ones would be used for the wefts.

Cleansing

Next, the wool was washed; soap and water would usually do for worsteds. For the fibers that would be used to make woolens, the cleansing process was particularly stringent, and could include hot alkaline water, lye, and even stale urine. The aim was to remove the "wool grease" (from which lanolin is extracted) and other oils and greases as well as dirt and foreign matter.

The use of urine was frowned upon and even outlawed at various points in the Middle Ages, but it was still common in home industries throughout the era.

Following cleansing, the wools were rinsed several times.

Beating

After rinsing, the wools were set out in the sun on wooden slats to dry and were beaten, or "broken," with sticks. Willow branches were often used, and thus the process was called "willeying" in England, brisage de laines in France and wullebreken in Flanders. Beating the wool helped remove any remaining foreign matter, and it separated entangled or matted fibers.

Preliminary Dyeing

Sometimes, dye would be applied to fiber before it was used in manufacturing. If so, this is the point at which the dyeing would occur. It was fairly common to soak fibers in a preliminary dye with the expectation that the color would combine with a different shade in a later dye bath. Fabric that was dyed at this stage was known as "dyed-in-the-wool."

Dyes usually required a mordant to keep the color from fading, and mordants often left a crystalline residue that made working with fibers extremely difficult. Therefore, the most common dye used in this early stage was woad, which did not require a mordant.

Woad was a blue dye made from an herb indigenous to Europe, and it took about three days to use it to dye fiber and make the color fast. In later medieval Europe, such a large percentage of wool cloths were dyed with woad that cloth workers were often known as "blue nails."1

Greasing

Before the wools could be subjected to the harsh processing treatment that lay ahead, they would be greased with butter or olive oil to protect them. Those who produced their own cloth at home were likely to skip the more rigorous cleansing, allowing some of the natural lanolin to remain as a lubricant instead of adding grease.

Although this step was done primarily to the fibers intended for woolen yarn, there is evidence that the longer, thicker fibers used to make worsteds were also lightly greased.

Combing

The next step in preparing wool for spinning varied depending on the type of wool, the instruments available and, oddly enough, whether certain tools had been outlawed.

For worsted yarn, simple wool combs were used to separate and straighten the fibers. The teeth of the combs might be wooden or, as the Middle Ages progressed, iron. A pair of combs was used, and the wool would be transferred from one comb to the other and back again until it had been straightened and aligned. Combs were usually constructed with several rows of teeth and had a handle, which made them look a little like a modern-day dog brush.

Combs were also used for woolen fibers, but in the central Middle Ages cards were introduced. These were flat boards with many rows of short, sharp metal hooks. By placing a handful of wool on one card and combing it until it had been transferred to the other, and then repeating the process several times, a light, airy fiber would result. Carding separated wools more effectively than combing, and it did so without losing the shorter fibers. It was also a good way to blend together different types of wool.

For reasons that remain unclear, cards were outlawed in portions of Europe for several centuries. John H. Munroe posits that the reasoning behind the ban could be a fear that the sharp metal hooks would damage the wool, or that carding made it too easy to fraudulently blend inferior wools into superior ones.2

Instead of carding or combing, some woolens were subjected to a process known as bowing. The bow was an arched wooden frame, the two ends of which were attached with a taut cord. The bow would be suspended from the ceiling, the cord would be placed in a pile of wool fibers, and the wooden frame would be struck with a mallet in order to get the cord to vibrate. The vibrating cord would separate the fibers. Just how effective or common bowing was is debatable, but at least it was legal.

Spinning

Once the fibers were combed (or carded or bowed), they were wound on a distaff -- a short, forked stick —in preparation for spinning. Spinning was chiefly the province of women. The spinster would draw a few fibers from the distaff, twisting them between thumb and forefinger as she did so, and attach them to a drop-spindle.

The weight of the spindle would pull the fibers down, stretching them out as it spun. The spinning action of the spindle, with the help of the spinster's fingers, twisted the fibers together into yarn. The spinster would add more wool from the distaff until the spindle reached the floor; she'd then wind the yarn around the spindle and repeat the process. Spinsters stood as they spun so that the drop-spindle could spin out as long a yarn as possible before it had to be wound up.

Spinning wheels were probably invented in India sometime after 500 A.D.; their earliest recorded use in Europe is in the 13th century. Initially, they weren't the convenient sit-down models of later centuries, powered by a foot pedal; rather, they were hand-powered and large enough so that the spinster would need to stand to use it. It may not have been any easier on the spinster's feet, but much more yarn could be produced on a spinning wheel than with a drop-spindle. However, spinning with a drop-spindle was common throughout the Middle Ages until the 15th century.1

Once the yarn was spun, it might be dyed. Whether it was dyed in the wool or in the yarn, color had to be added by this stage if a multi-colored cloth was to be produced.

Knitting

While knitting wasn't wholly unknown in the Middle Ages, scant evidence of hand-knitted garments survives. The relative ease of the craft of knitting and the ready availability of materials and tools for making knitting needles makes it hard to believe that peasants didn't knit themselves warm clothing from wool they got from their own sheep. The lack of surviving garments isn't at all surprising, considering the fragility of all cloth and the amount of time that has passed since the medieval era. Peasants could have worn their knitted garments to pieces, or they may have reclaimed the yarn for alternate uses when the garment grew too old or threadbare to wear any longer.

Far more common than knitting in the Middle Ages was weaving.

Weaving

Weaving cloth was practiced in households as well as in professional cloth-making establishments. In homes where people produced cloth for their own use, spinning was often the province of women, but weaving was usually done by men. Professional weavers in manufacturing locations like Flanders and Florence were also usually men, though women weavers were not unknown.

The essence of weaving is, simply, to draw one yarn or thread (the "weft") through a set of perpendicular yarns (the "warp"), threading the weft alternately behind and in front of each individual warp thread. Warp threads were usually stronger and heavier than weft threads, and came from different grades of fiber.

The variety of weights in warps and wefts could result in specific textures. The number of weft fibers drawn through the loom in one pass could vary, as could the number of warps the weft would travel in front of before passing behind; this deliberate variety was used to achieve different textured patterns. Sometimes, warp threads were dyed (usually blue) and weft threads remained undyed, producing colored patterns.

Looms were constructed to make this process go more smoothly. The earliest looms were vertical; the warp threads stretched from the top of the loom to the floor and, later, to a bottom frame or roller. Weavers stood when they worked on vertical looms.

The horizontal loom made its first appearance in Europe in the 11th century, and by the 12th century, mechanized versions were being used. The advent of the mechanized horizontal loom is generally considered the most important technological development in medieval textile production.

A weaver would sit at a mechanized loom, and instead of threading the weft in front of and behind alternate warps by hand, he'd merely have to press a foot pedal to raise up one set of alternate warps and draw the weft underneath it in one straight pass. Then he'd press the other pedal, which would raise the other set of warps, and draw the weft underneath that in the other direction. To make this process easier, a shuttle was used -- a boat-shaped tool that contained yarn wound around a bobbin. The shuttle would glide easily over the bottom set of warps as the yarn unspooled.

Fulling or Felting

Once the fabric had been woven and taken off the loom it would be subjected to a fulling process. (Fulling wasn't usually necessary if the fabric was made from worsted as opposed to woolen yarn.) Fulling thickened the fabric and made the natural hair fibers mat together through agitation and the application of liquid. It was more effective if heat was part of the equation, as well.

Initially, fulling was done by immersing the cloth in a vat of warm water and stomping on it or beating it with hammers. Sometimes additional chemicals were added, including soap or urine to help remove the natural lanolin of the wool or the grease that had been added to protect it in the earlier stages of processing. In Flanders, "fuller's earth" was used in the process to absorb impurities; this was a type of soil containing a significant amount of clay, and it was naturally available in the region.

Though originally done by hand (or foot), the fulling process gradually became automated through the use of fulling mills. These were often quite large and powered by water, although smaller, hand-cranked machines were also known. Foot-fulling was still done in household manufacturing, or when the cloth was particularly fine and wasn't to be subjected to the harsh treatment of hammers. In towns where cloth manufacture was a thriving household industry, weavers could take their cloth to a communal fulling mill.

The term "fulling" is sometimes used interchangeably with "felting." Although the process is essentially the same, fulling is done to cloth that has already been woven, whereas felting actually produces cloth from unwoven, separate fibers. Once cloth was fulled or felted, it could not easily unravel.

After fulling, the fabric would be thoroughly rinsed. Even worsteds that didn't need fulling would be washed to remove any oil or dirt that had accumulated during the weaving process.

Because dyeing was a process that immersed the fabric in liquid, it may have been dyed at this point, especially in home industries. However, it was more common to wait until a later stage in production. Cloth that was dyed after it was woven was known as "dyed-in-the-piece."

Drying

After it was rinsed, cloth was hung up to dry. Drying was done on specially-designed frames known as tenterframes, which used tenterhooks to hold the cloth. (This is where we get the phrase "on tenterhooks" to describe a state of suspense.) The sturdy frames stretched the fabric so that it wouldn't shrink too much; this process was carefully gauged, because fabric that was stretched too far, while large in square feet, would be thinner and weaker than fabric that was stretched to the proper dimensions.

Drying was done in the open air; and in cloth-producing towns, this meant the fabric was always subject to inspection. Local regulations often dictated the specifics of drying cloth in order to ensure quality, thus maintaining the reputation of the town as a source of fine cloth, as well as that of the cloth manufacturers themselves.

Shearing

Fulled fabrics—especially those made from curly-haired woolen yarn -- were often very fuzzy and covered with nap. Once the fabric had been dried, it would be shaved or sheared to remove this extra material. Shearers would use a device that had remained pretty much unchanged since Roman times: shears, which consisted of two razor-sharp blades attached to a U-shaped bow spring. The spring, which was made of steel, also served as the handle of the device.

A shearer would attach the cloth to a padded table that sloped downward and had hooks to keep the fabric in place. He would then press the bottom blade of his shears into the cloth at the top of the table and gently slide it down, clipping the fuzz and nap by bringing down the top blade as he went. Shearing a piece of fabric completely could take several passes, and would often alternate with the next step in the process, napping.

Napping or Teaseling

After (and before, and after) shearing, the next step was to raise the nap of the fabric enough to give it a soft, smooth finish. This was done by grooming the cloth with the head of a plant known as a teasel. A teasel was a member of the Dipsacus genus and had a dense, prickly flower, and it would be rubbed gently over the fabric. Of course, this could raise the nap so much that the cloth would be too fuzzy and had to be sheared again. The amount of shearing and teaseling necessary would depend on the quality and type of wool used and the result desired.

Though metal and wood tools were tested for this step, they were considered potentially too damaging for fine cloth, so the teasel plant was used for this process throughout the Middle Ages.

Dyeing

Cloth might be dyed in the wool or in the yarn, but even so, it would usually be dyed in the piece as well, either to deepen the color or to combine with the previous dye for a different tint. Dyeing in the piece was a procedure that could realistically take place at almost any point in the manufacturing process, but most commonly it was done after the fabric had been sheared.

Pressing

When the teaseling and shearing (and, possibly, dyeing) was done, the fabric would be pressed to complete the smoothing process. This was done in a flat, wooden vise. Woven wool that had been fulled, dried, shorn, teaseled, dyed and pressed could be luxuriously soft to the touch and made into the finest clothing and draperies.

Unfinished Cloth

Professional cloth manufacturers in wool production towns could, and did, produce cloth from the wool-sorting stage to the final pressing. However, it was quite common to sell fabric that wasn't completely finished. Producing undyed fabric was very common, allowing tailors and drapers to choose just the right hue. And it was not at all uncommon to leave out the shearing and teaseling steps, reducing the price of the fabric for consumers willing and able to perform this task themselves.

Cloth Quality and Variety

Every step along the manufacturing process was an opportunity for cloth-makers to excel -- or not. Spinners and weavers who had low-quality wool to work with could still turn out fairly decent cloth, but it was common for such wool to be worked with the least possible effort in order to turn out a product quickly. Such cloth would, of course, be cheaper; and it might be used for items other than garments.

When manufacturers paid for better raw materials and took the extra time required for higher quality, they could charge more for their products. Their reputation for quality would attract the wealthier merchants, artisans, guildsmen and the nobility. Although sumptuary laws were enacted, usually in times of economic instability, to keep the lower classes from garbing themselves in finery ordinarily reserved for the upper classes, it was more often the extreme expense of the clothing worn by the nobility that kept other people from buying it.

Thanks to the diverse kinds of cloth manufacturers and the many types of wool of different levels of quality they had to work with, a wide variety of wool cloth was produced in medieval times.