Medieval Tuesday – The World is Spinning

Fashion is big business.  So much of our modern lives and identities revolve around what we wear and where we bought it.  We have a huge amount of variety in the things we put on our bodies these days.  Most of it comes from far away countries and I’m not sure I want to know too much about the conditions it was all made in.

But I bet you didn’t know that the rise of the textile industry is actually a Medieval invention.  Clothes weren’t a super huge big deal back in the Ancient world.  That didn’t change much in the very early Middle Ages.  The clothing of the first part of the Middle Ages was a combination of Roman tunics with Barbarian cloaks and leggings.  Styles remained more or less the same for hundreds of years.  People wore simple designs made out of fabrics that were available to them locally.  Only the exceptionally wealthy and powerful could afford to import fabrics from the east.

All that changed in the middle part of the Middle Ages.  First, as we discussed last week, because agricultural technology advanced, greater stretches of land were able to be cleared and farmed.  Not only did this lead to an increase in food staples, it meant that there was more grazing land.  More grazing meant more livestock, and that included sheep.

Merchants buying wool from English shepherds

England was the Medieval sheep capitol of the world.  (Insert sheep joke here.)  The land was suitable for grazing and the value of wool as a tradable commodity encouraged landowners to raise sheep wherever possible.  But raw wool was just that, raw.  It needed to be processed, taken to market, transformed into cloth, and sold once again to make clothing.  This whole process formed the first and arguably most important industrial system in the western world.

But let’s take a step back.

In those early Medieval days of decentralization the production of cloth for clothing was a task that every household and every member of the household was involved in.  Women were primarily responsible for spinning raw wool or flax or even cotton where it was available into thread.  And a spinster’s work was never done.

Apparently a distaff could also be used as a weapon!

A common Medieval joke was that a woman was never without her spindle and distaff.  All day long, even as she went about other chores, a woman would have her fork-like distaff holding raw wool and the spindle that she was spinning the thread onto with her.  Apparently there’s even a Medieval illustration out there of a woman spinning while otherwise engaged in bed.  Spinning with a drop-spindle is a slow process too.  I have a modern friend who does it and she says it can take her months to spin enough thread to create one single piece of cloth big enough to make clothes out of.

The weaving, in these early days, was done mostly by the men.  At first, as in Ancient times, cloth was woven on a vertical loom.  This was a very basic contraption with weighted warp threads that was woven from top to bottom.  The process was revolutionized with the introduction of the horizontal loom around the 10th and 11th centuries.  These new looms allowed the man to sit while weaving.  They also allowed for longer and wider bolts of cloth to be produced.

As cities grew, the production of cloth gradually shifted from being a rural activity within each household to being an urban industry.  And remember, this craft was employing people in cities with the aim of high volume of production in an era long, long before the Industrial Revolution.  The great cloth-making outfits of the Middle Ages were organized and run by guilds.  There were guilds for every step of the process too, from fulling to dying to weaving.

I could go on for ages about Medieval guilds and their importance to the development of trade and commerce and the Medieval economy.  In fact, I think I will next week.

But back to the cloth itself.

Two developments in the later Middle Ages laid the groundwork for one of the most pivotal technological moments in the history of the world.  The first was the invention of the spinning wheel.

It is thought that the spinning wheel came to Europe from China or India in the 13th century.  What made this simple device so revolutionary was the fact that it sped up the process of making yarn and thread exponentially.  Rather than relying on gravity to create tension as a woman turned the spindle, the spinning wheel made it possible to turn one or even several spindles much faster.  This meant that the amount of thread being produced went up and therefore the total output of cloth grew by leaps and bounds.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages the “putting-out” system increased production to an even greater degree.  In the putting-out system a central merchant located in a city would purchase the raw materials to make cloth and distribute them to workers, usually women, who would work at home and then bring the finished product back to the merchant.  He would pay them a wage and be spared the cost of housing workers in the city.

In a nutshell, thanks to the technical and organizational developments in the cloth industry in the Middle Ages the sheer volume of fabric being produced meant that clothing was less expensive.  It meant that multiple pieces could be owned by more than just the upper classes.  And when clothing leans in the direction of a luxury instead of a necessity it means that greater risks can be taken with style and clothing can become a means of individual expression.

So really, the Middle Ages invented fashion.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But let’s take the progression a little further than the Middle Ages.

Because of the Medieval inventions that made the production of cloth faster and more efficient, the demand for cloth rose (and several fortunes were made).  Because clothing became so popular the demand for new technology skyrocketed.  Working off of inventions like the spinning wheel and the horizontal loom, intrepid entrepreneurs in the 17th and 18th centuries looked for even more methods to speed up the process.  This all came to a head, of course, when the textile industry combined with experiments in steam power.  It all came together and the Industrial Revolution was born.

But never forget that the Industrial Revolution was a direct result of innovations of the Middle Ages.


2 thoughts on “Medieval Tuesday – The World is Spinning

  1. Darn those medieval folk! Life would be so much easier if we still had the simple clothing choices they had back before cloth became bountiful. Fashion makes things way too complicated!

  2. Very nice page ! I’m currently trying to establish the reenactment of a german woolmerchant in medieval Frankfurt. Therefor I would like to ask if you let me know where the picture of the merchants buying wool is taken from (i.e. wich book, which library, etc) ?
    Thanks a lot in advance,

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