Weaving was not just a genteel accomplishment for rich ladies with nothing much else to do. It was the only way to clothe yourself, to make sails for your ships, to decorate your home, to make bags and sacks or blankets. It was a very lengthy process that in the end perhaps resulted in no more than one or two shirts. For each sheep you had on your farm or estate you could expect to receive just under a kilo of wool to work with which needed washing, combing, spinning, and dying before you even got close to weaving. You could not go down to the local shop and buy a bolt of cloth or a few balls of wool, you had to shear your own sheep and sometimes borrow some from a neighbour as well. What you wore was usually made by yourself or a family member and the time and effort used to make those clothes meant that you had only a few spares and mended what you had.
Below are some of my notes that I used to give me an idea of how the Anglo-Saxon and Vikings made their textiles. Most of the references I have used for this post (and all the other posts) are in my bibliography with some added links at the bottom.
When we think of weaving and woven goods or textiles most of us automatically think of wool. There is no doubt that in the early medieval period wool was the staple resource just as it was in the later medieval period, but it was far from the only material used. As well as wool, flax, hemp and nettles have all been found in the archaeological record preserved both as woven products and raw sources.
Within the Coppergate excavations at York, Archaeologists have found evidence for both annual and stinging nettles, as well as hemp. At West Stow in southern England and Birka in Sweden, hemp was also found in excavations. Such materials could be used in making rope, sailcloth and sacking but nettle and hemp cloth were not as coarse or as scratchy as we may initially think either. As in the case of the previously mentioned hemp fabric from Birka and other examples from Russia, the hemp and nettle fibres were prepared and woven so well that they were finer in some cases than linen.
Hemp in particular is known to be particular strong (which is why it is often used for ropes and sacks etc) and can produce fibres up to 12ft long. Nettle has the added advantage of being able to be grown on damp disturbed ground, meaning that it can be grown as a crop in the less than ideal areas of a field while corn and other cereals can be grown in the better soils. It is also used as a dye for cloth, fodder for domesticated animals such as pigs, cows and poultry and can even be used to make beer, tea, soup, porridge and even rennet for cheese making.
Flax was another crop that could be grown in northern Europe and turned into linen, a material known even today for its smooth and luxurious fibres. It could also be imported from the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
All of these resources were relatively easy to cultivate in many parts of Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia and therefore fairly economical, but other more expensive materials such as silk were known to have been imported from the Mediterranean and Asia as well (Byzantium, Persia, the Levant and of course from China along the silk road). In the 8th century, the great scholar Alcuin wrote about the silk hangings in the church of York and that they were intricately embellished, possibly with tales from the bible or Northumbrian history.
Cotton was used by Muslim countries during this time but the resource was not introduced into the Mediterranean by them until the 9th century. This happened first in Sicily and Spain and later Italy. If any cotton products reached further into Europe around this time it would have been a very rare and expensive product.
Those plant-based fibres such as hemp, flax and nettles underwent more or less the same processes before being made into fabrics. Before the plants had seeded and the stems had turned woody, the plants were harvested and dried. They then had to go through a process known as water-retting; when they were submerged in pits of stagnant water for 2-3 weeks so that bacteria could build up and soften the fibres for easy extraction. For the people whose task it was to deal with the rotting plants and stale bacteria infested water, this process was understandably quite smelly.
Once the stems had been softened by the retting and then dried once more, the tough outer layer of the plant was pounded with special paddles and removed. After this had been done the fibres were then combed through to remove any further parts of the tough outer casing of the plant.
Processing wool was no less smelly either. After the sheep were shorn (usually in June) the dirt and lanolin had to be stripped from the fleece. To do this the wool had to be soaked in ammonia… which came in its most available form of stale urine.
Once cleaned the wool had to be combed so that they could be spun into thread. This could be done using fingers or wool combs which made sure that all the fibres lay parallel to one another before spinning. Sometimes these wool combs could even be heated as an extra aid in removing the remnants of lanolin.
After all of this preparation it was finally time for the woollen fibres to be spun into thread. Unfortunately the spinning wheel was a little after the Anglo-Saxons so they had to do a lot more by hand. The fibres were rolled together to form a length of loose woollen rope that could be wound around a rod or stick called the distaff. Once this had been done the other end of this rope was attached to the spindle and whorl, usually made of wood or bone. The whorl acted as a weight pulling the thread and the spindle taut. The spindle rotated the wool so that the threads twisted tightly together to form a continuous woollen thread. As the spindle spun at the end of the new thread, the spinner fed more of the wool from the distaff between finger and thumb. Once the new thread reached a length that made the spindle touch the ground, the excess thread was wrapped around the spindle and the process started all over again.
It was a very lengthy process that occupied much of the spinner’s time. When reconstructing a man’s kyrtle that had been found in Scandinavia it took 500 hours for the re-enactors just to prepare the warp threads needed to weave the fabric.
The last step before the thread was made into clothes was dying. Dyes could be made from most plants and minerals found locally in the fields and forests. Berries, roots, lichen, fungi, insects … could all be used to give blues, reds, greens, browns, yellows and in some cases purple. Unfortunately most purple shades are very hard to get and were expensive. Only very rich people like royalty could afford it, which is why even today purple is associated with royalty.
To dye, the thread was wound onto a niddy noddy which separated the strands so that the dye could reach the fibres uniformly. A mordant of oxalic acid found in wood sorrel, iron or stale urine was added as a colour fastener. Sometimes just having an iron, copper or bronze cauldron to work with was enough to aid this process. Then the niddy noddy of thread was steeped in the cauldron of dye for a period of time before it was taken out to dry.
After all this preparation the weavers now had thread to weave cloth with. Up until 10th and 11th centuries the warp weighted loom was primarily used. This was a very basic construction that had not much changed in style or construction since the Neolithic period. A horizontal bar was supported at either end by a pole. This frame could be free standing or resting against a wall at a slight angle. From this horizontal bar the weaver suspended a number of threads called the warp threads, and these were weighted at the bottom by loom weights. Many of these doughnut and bun shaped weights have been found in excavations and could be made from many heavy materials, the most common being of clay or stone. The heaviness of the weights not only helped keep the warps in place but helped in determining the quality of the finished product. Generally the tighter the warp the finer the cloth, though this was done with extreme caution as the heavier the weights the higher the chances of the warp snapping.
Thread could then be woven in between these warp threads starting from the top and working down to form the weave of fabric. These horizontal threads were called the weft or sometimes the woof, old English terms meaning ‘that which is woven’.
Following these simple steps will get you a basic weave but you will probably find that the horizontal threads sag a little, leaving holes. Wooden weaving swords were then used to beat the horizontal threads in an upright motion which tightened the weave and made the fabric much stronger. Pin beaters were also used to make sure that knots did not form during weaving. Examples of these have been found of wood and also iron.
Once the weaver reached the end of the warp, the cloth could be looped over the horizontal beam at the top and extra thread unwound from around the loom weights at the bottom. Then the process started all over again. The length of the warp thread was predetermined before weaving began and varied depending on its eventual use (e.g. short warp for making a shirt or long warp if you want to make the Bayeux tapestry). Because some cloth could be quite long and even quite wide it was not unusual for weavers to work in pairs, one either side of the loom.
During Anglo Saxon times although domestic and international trade in cloth and silk occurred, most weavers would have produced cloth only for their families or communities as needed. Larger estates and in some trading wics weaving could be organised on a more industrial scale but this type of industry did not take off until the later medieval period. Even when there was a surplus to be sold it was not much.
Weaving was predominantly a woman’s job, from the lowly thralls to the queens and princesses. We know this because of the sagas and poems from this time period and the predominance of weaving related tools found in female burials in contrast to male. The word spinster in English meaning a single woman (often of a certain age) is linked to the occupation of spinning threads. There is of course exceptions to this rule too and we know this through the word Webbestre (like me you may even know a few people with the surname of Webster). Webbestre is the old English word for a male weaver (the female version being Webba), so we know that there were at least some men who also wove as well.
After the 10th and 11th centuries different varieties of looms were introduced, such as the two beam vertical loom and the treadle operated loom. These models improved the tightness of the warp but the processes employed were basically the same.
Most designs could be woven into the fabric on the loom or embroidered with finer threads after the cloth had been woven, but there were also a few other embellishments.
Tablet weaving was very popular and did not require a large loom. It worked on the basic principles of braiding coloured threads together and talented weavers could create intricate patterns and designs of animals. These ribbons of braided designs could then be attached to clothes or used as belts and girdles.
Naalbinding and sprang were not so much used to decorate woven products but compliment them. Naalbinding is similar to the art of knitting or crocheting whereby loops of thick yarn were linked together in rows with a thick needle. The end result was very similar to chainmail and was used for gloves, hats, socks, hoods or hairnets.
Sprang was another form of braiding that was popular within Scandinavian countries (sprang is a Scandinavian term for open work textile). This type of craft was very popular for caps, hairnets and stockings as the resulting fabric was very stretchy and springy.