By Danièle Cybulskie
When it comes to medieval clothing, Europeans got by on five major components: leather, linen, wool, silk, and fur. Leather was used for belts and shoes, armour and heavy aprons. Linen, being light, breathable and not as itchy as wool, was used for the garments next to the skin, including dresses and tunics, as well as some headdresses. Outer garments were made of wool, because of its weight and warmth, and its great ability to absorb moisture. Most expensive was silk, so it was reserved for the wealthy and the aristocratic. Sumptuary laws outlined which fabrics and colours could be worn by whom in order to make a person’s social class instantly recognizable at a glance, changing over time to reflect social changes and fashion. Sumptuary laws also extended to furs, allowing peasants to wear the easily-attainable furs, such as rabbit, and reserving the rarest furs, such as ermine, for aristocrats.
While linen was pretty available everywhere, the English and the Flemish boasted the best of the wool market, while the Italians supplied a large amount of the silk, most likely because of their solid trade connection with Asia (hence “The Silk Road”), as you can see if you read The Travels of Marco Polo. Every garment was hand-spun, hand-woven, and hand-stitched, so peasants tended to only have a few articles of clothing. As Margaret Scott remarks in Fashion in the Middle Ages, “Most people … could never aspire to more than a passing acquaintance with high fashion, in the shape of accessories such as belts or shoes” (p.10). Ordinary people could buy high fashion articles, fabrics, and trimmings like silk ribbons from travelling merchants at village fairs, or (in big urban centres) from stores with international connections. Otherwise, they would rely on local talent, mainly their own.
Margaret Scott’s Fashion in the Middle Ages is a gorgeous book of mainly medieval illustrations from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Scott’s explanations of fabric terminology are so clear and concise that I thought they were worth sharing verbatim. Without further ado, here is an excerpt from Scott’s “Glossary of Dress and Fabric Terms” from the back of her book:
brocade – fabric in which contrasting colors are woven into specific areas to make patterns
cendal – lightweight silk, often used as lining
dyaspin/diasper – white-on-white patterned silk
ermine – white winter fur of a type of weasel, also utilizing the black-tipped tail
kermes – the most expensive dye, made from crushed insects that lived on oak trees; produced the colour crimson [also, Scott notes on page 17, the root of our word “crimson”]
miniver – gray and white fur of squirrel in winter
purple – silk fabric, not necessarily in the color purple
samite – slightly shiny silk fabric with a diagonal rib in its structure
scarlet – the most expensive woolen material, often dyed with kermes, the most expensive dye
strandling – the rusty red fur of squirrel in autumn
taffeta – silk fabric of plain weave
tiretaine – fine woolen cloth
velvet – silk fabric with pile surface
I definitely recommend Fashion in the Middle Ages for anyone interested in medieval fashion, manuscript illustration, or just pretty books for the coffee table. To learn more from independent scholars who are currently in the trenches, learning about medieval fashion by experimenting with it themselves, check out the DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics and Fashion) website.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist