Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part IVa: Dyed in the Wool

This post is also available in audio form, thanks to the efforts of our volunteer narrator.

This is the first half of the fourth part of our four part (I, II, III, IVa, IVb) look at the production of textiles, particularly wool and linen, in the pre-modern world. Last time, we spun our wool and flax fibers into thread and then wove that thread into fabric. And in doing so, we mostly discussed household production. This week, we are going to be talking about the key tasks in finishing woven fabric (linen or wool), particularly fulling and dyeing cloth.

Now the popular image of most ancient and medieval clothing is typically a rather drab affair, with the poor peasantry wearing mostly dirty, drab brown clothes (often ill-fitting ones) and so it might be imagined that regular folks had little need for involved textile finishing processes or dyeing; this is quite wrong. We have in essence already dispatched with the ill-fitting notion; the clothes of poor farmers, being often homespun and home-sewn could be made quite exactly for their wearers (indeed, loose fitting clothing, with lots of extra fabric, was often how one showed off wealth; lots of pleating, for instance, displayed that one could afford to waste expensive fabric on ornamentation). So it will not be a surprise that people in the past also liked to dress in pleasing colors and that this preference extended even to relatively humble peasants. Moreover, the simplest dyes and bleaching methods were often well within reach even for relatively humble people.

What we see in ancient and medieval artwork is that even the lower classes of society wore clothes that were bleached or dyed, often in bright, bold colors (in as much as dyes were available). At Rome, this extended even to enslaved persons; Seneca’s comment that legislation mandating a ‘uniform’ for enslaved persons at Rome was abandoned for fear that they might realize their numbers, the clear implication being that it was often impossible to tell an enslaved person apart from a free person on the street in normal conditions (Sen. Clem. 1.24.1). Consequently, fulling and dyeing was not merely a process for the extremely wealthy, but an important step in the textiles that would have been worn even by every-day people.

That said, fulling and dyeing (though not bleaching) were fundamentally different from the tasks that we’ve discussed so far because they generally could not be done in the home. Instead they often required space, special tools and equipment and particular (often quite bad smelling) chemicals and specialized skills in order to practice. Consequently, these tasks tended to be done by specialist workers for whom textile production was a trade, rather than merely a household task. So this week we are going to look at those finishing processes as well as the social status of the people who did them.

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Via Wikipedia, English ploughmen (c. 1000). Note particularly the colors these rather humble men wear. The blue is likely a product of inexpensive woad dye, the yellow made with weld and the red (of the hose) with madder. The brown (of the right-most man’s shirt) may be a walnut stain (see below for a discussion on common dyes).
People wore color!

Full of Fullers

Our woolen fabric now has another step before it is fully finished, a mechanical and chemical processing known as fulling , which might both be done as a finishing process for newly woven fabric or as a cleaning process for clothing that had become soiled (though it should be noted that worsted wool is not generally fulled, so not all woolen products would be put through this process). Fulling accomplished two things, it scoured, which removed any remaining oils in the fabric (remember that, even if the wool had been scoured raw, it is likely to have been reoiled to aid spinning and protect the fibers) which cleansed the wool, while the mechanical action of fulling matted the fibers together, increasing the strength of the wool and allowing it to more effectively repel water. The process, as done in the ancient and medieval world, was generally fairly simple: fabrics were immersed in a solution with a cleaning agent in a large basin and then trampled underfoot by a fuller. The actual act of mechanically treading the cloth underfoot was called ‘tucking’ or ‘walking.’ This mechanical trampling enabled the cleaning agents to penetrate fully into the fabric and dissolve away whatever grease, oils, dirt or other impurities might be there.

The cleaning agents for fulling wool varied by time and place. Roman fulleries generally used urine allowed to sit for a time (becoming ‘stale’ – such urine is known as ‘wash’) because that concentrated the ammonium in the urine which acted as the cleansing agent. By the Middle Ages, we see the use of ‘fuller’s earth‘ (ammonia-rich clay), although urine continued to be used as well, presumably for its greater availability. As J.S. Lee notes (op. cit., 53), from the late twelfth century, we begin to see the use of water-power to replace the fullery worker as the treading agent, with the use of heavy wooden hammers driven by a water wheel to pummel the fabric.

Once this process was done the clothes or fabric were removed from the basin, scrubbed and wrung out fully, before being rinsed. In the Roman context – Roman fulleries (fullonicae) are fairly well archaeologically preserved and so give clues to the process at that time – the rinsing basins are set up to allow workers to walk in and out of them (some have working benches) which suggests that rinsing may have included additional scrubbing and wringing to make sure to remove both all of the impurities as well as all of the cleaning agents (Flohr, The World of the Fullo, 179-81). Fabrics would then have to be hung to be dried. In the Roman context, artwork tends to show clothes hung over high beams in the fullonica to dry; in the medieval context they were often hung to dry outdoors on long wooden frames called ‘tenters.’

Via Wikipedia, mural painting from a fullonica in Pompeii (now in the National Museum of Naples), showing napping (left). The cage being moved on the right is probably that described by ancient sources for use in sulphuring. The worker carries the cloth to be sulphured over his shoulder and the lump-sulphur in the pot he is holding. The cage would be set on the ground, the cloth stretched over it and the sulphur burned underneath so that the sulphur dioxide would float up through the cloth, whitening it.

Finally, the cloth would be ‘napped’ (also called ‘raising the nap,’ ‘rowing,’ ‘teasing,’ or polishing), which may have actually been the most labor intensive part of the process. Cloth would be brushed first, to raise the nap (the fuzzy, rough raised surface on woolen cloth), which would then be sheared to leave the cloth smooth. This stage also provided an opportunity for burling (and now you know why the coat factory is in Burlington), the inspection of the cloth and the manual removal of burrs, knots and other defects. Flohr (op. cit.) argues that this stage in the process consumed the bulk of the time and labor of fulling (a point on which J.S. Lee concurs for the Middle Ages). It is to a significant degree unfortunate that the sensational ‘they washed clothes in urine!’ element of fulling has tended to eclipse the rest of the process in not only the popular imagination but occasionally in the scholarly discourse (the already cited Flohr, The World of the Fullo is a good antidote to this).

The position of fulling in the production chain of textiles seems to have varied a bit over time. In the medieval and early modern periods, fulling was generally done only once, as a final finishing stage in cloth production. By contrast, as Miko Flohr argues (op. cit., 57ff), the primary job of the Roman fuller was effectively as a laundry (though they may have treated freshly woven wool as well). Part of this probably has to do with differences in Roman clothing; Roman clothes were generally fairly simple in shape which must have made them easier to put through a fullery as a completed garment. Myself, I wonder if the changing role of fulling has to do with the introduction of soap during the later Roman Empire, which would have made it more possible for clothes to be laundered domestically (the Romans cleaned their bodies with oil, scraping it off with a strigil, which while perfectly good for cleaning skin would obviously not do for clothes, but soap and scubbing will work for both).

Fulling was generally a commercial (that is, not household) operation, done by professional fullers and we’ll talk about them (along with dyers and cloth merchants) in just a moment in terms of their place in society.

Via Wikipedia, 18th century tenterframes in Otterburn Mill, Northumberland, where fabric would have been left to dry during fulling.


The next concern is color treatment. First it is worth noting the base colors that undyed and unbleached linen and wool are likely to offer. Contrary to Hollywood, undyed fabrics are not, in fact, generally mud-brown. Rather, undyed linen is generally a light grey color, sometimes verging on white, sometimes with a hint of brown, while undyed wool follows the color range of sheep, in white, greys, black and light browns. That said, entirely undyed and unbleached clothing is actually a rarity in ancient and medieval artwork, even for relatively poor people. Some very practical garments might be kept undyed and unbleached, and some undergarments (especially those in linen) might be left in their natural color, but for the most part, clothing was dyed, bleached or both.

That said, bleaching was particularly important for linen because it is notoriously difficult to dye (though it can be colored and stained, just not nearly so well or so frequently), as the fibers are generally more impermeable than wool and so make it difficult for the dye to stick in places where it would not wear off or be washed off. It could, however, be bleached to produce a crisp, bright white fabric, just as wool (but wool could also be more readily dyed other colors).

Via Wikipedia, a painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger (c. 1650), Bleekveld in een dorp (‘Bleachfield in a Village’)

The standard method of bleaching any kind of fabric was through sun exposure, laying the fabrics out exposed to the sun in an open field known in English as a bleachfield and letting the sun do its work, generally over a series of months (sometimes as many as six months). The fabrics being bleached were generally kept moist, which protected the fibers from damage; often this was aided by selecting a grassy field where the morning dew would soak into the fabric each day, though the fabrics might also have to be moistened regularly. Various chemicals might be added to aid in the bleaching process. By the early modern period in Europe, we know that alkaline substances, typically lye, were used to aid in the bleaching process and there is some indication that the Romans may have used a sulphur treatment where cloth were stretched over a frame beneath which was burned lump-sulphur, with the sulphur dioxide (SO2) bleaching the fabric (though on this process and its misunderstanding, see Flohr, op. cit. 117-120; this sulphur process seems to have been done in Rome by fullones and sulphuring, like chalking, may have often been an extra treatment to bring out the luster of already bleached garments).

Because this process was so long and because bleached clothes were hard to keep so shining white, bright white clothes tended to be luxury items. In Egypt, some types of bleached linen had sacred connotations (indicating purity, e.g. Plut. Mor. 352D). In Rome, the bright white toga (the toga candida) was the equivalent of the politician’s suit (contrary to Hollywood depictions, most Romans didn’t wear lots of white outside of formal occasions, but preferred dyed wool; this is something HBO’s Rome gets correct); the formal but more general toga pura (aka the toga virilis) was the off-white of undyed naturally white wool. Part of the reason you see so much white in portraits of early modern European royalty is that bleached, brilliantly white fabric was expensive to make and keep white.

To Dye For

Cloth fibers could be dyed at several points during production (though again, note above that dyeing was far more common for wool than for linen). Assuming wool was scoured after shearing, it could be dyed at that point (thus the phrase ‘dyed in the wool’) though unscoured wool will not generally take a dye because the natural oils of the wool will prevent the dye from setting into the cloth. Alternately, wool might be spun and then dyed either as thread or as finished woven cloth. In the early modern period, undyed woven fabrics fit for dying were called ‘whites’ and might either be dyed locally or in some cases shipped significant distances to be dyed elsewhere (in no small part because, as we’ll see, the availability of dye colors was regionally dependent).

Via Wikipedia, Rubia tinctorum or Dyer’s Madder, the roots of which provide the pigment for a red dye. Madder is one of the oldest dyes, in use since at least the third millennium BC.

Today, we are used to the effectively infinite range of colors offered by synthetic dyes, but for pre-modern dye-workers, they were largely restricted to colors that could be produced from locally available or imported dyestuffs. If you wanted a given color of fabric, you needed to be able to find something in the natural world which, when broken down could give you a chemical pigment that you could transfer to your fabric in a durable way. That put real limits on the colors which could be dyed and the availability of those colors.. Some colors simply couldn’t be produced this way – a good example were golden or metallic colors. If something in a dress was to be truly golden (and not merely yellow), the only way to do that prior to synthetic dyes and paints was to use actual gold, weaving small strands of ultra-thin gold wire into the cloth or embroidering designs with it. Needless to say, that was something only done by the very wealthy. Alternately, if the dye for a given hue or color came from something rare or foreign or difficult to process (for instance, in all three cases, Tyrian or royal purple, which came from the murex sea snails – if you have ever wondered why no country has purple as a national color this is why, before synthetic dyes, coloring your flags and uniforms purple would have been bonkers expensive), then it was going to be expensive and rare and there just wasn’t much you could do about that.

Via Wikipedia, yarn dyed red with madder. A skilled dyer can control the hue by controlling how much of the pigment is absorbed by the fibers, from deep, dark reds to much lighter, almost orange shades.

What dyes were available thus varied based on where you were and how much you could afford to import. Determining ancient dye availability is often tricky, since fabric so rarely survives, but we know that the Romans prized a wide range of colors; Pliny gives us some clues as to some of the more expensive dyes in his Natural History (such as saffron for a rich yellow), along with more common colors like blue (from woad), red (from madder), brown (from walnuts), and a cheaper yellow from weld. Similar sets of dyes were available in the Middle Ages, J.S. Lee notes the principal dyestuffs in use in England were woad (blue), madder (red), weld (yellow), ‘grain’ red (scarlet, this is kermes dye), cinnabar (vermillion), saffron (yellow) and various other vegetable and fruit dies (op. cit. 62). Many of these were imported; madder and weld from Germany, France and the Baltic, kermes and woad from the Mediterranean, Cinnabar from the Red Sea area. Madder, weld and woad in particular were the cheapest and most common dyes and served as the foundation for clothing color in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean (which is, consequently, while colors that can be produced by those dyes, or by mixing them, are so common in medieval artwork depicting clothing).

Eventually (‘true’) indigo blue dye came all the way from India (it was known to the Greeks and the Romans) but because of its imported nature it was an expensive luxury product in Europe prior to European colonial expansion. Indigo is a particularly good example, however, of how a dye (and its associated color, the deep blue) could be relatively inexpensive and available in one place and a rare luxury good used as a status symbol in others. While the dyes available were somewhat restricted, dyers could of course combine pigments to get composite colors, giving a fairly wide range of colors, assuming one had the money for the pigments; this website has a good set of examples of what can be done with various dyes and lists ingredients.

Via Wikipedia, Medieval workmen from the Maciejowski Bible (c. 1250). The white fabric is bleached linen, while the reds and blues are of course wool dyed with madder and woad. Overdyeing yellow (weld) with blue (woad) could produce green, as with the man on the left. Even these very humble workers wore bright colors.

(By the by, there is a similar process of discovery and dissemination for paint pigments. You can see a nifty chart of available colors by period here, some of which overlap with dye colors).

The actual dying process varied based on the pigment being used and there were likely local craft differences as well. Still the process could be complex, with dyestuffs often needing to be ground down or broken up and then often heated (sometimes boiled) in order to get the pigments ready before the cloth would be immersed in the dye. J.S. Lee (op. cit., 63) gives as an example the process for using woad:

Woad was generally imported in casks in dry balls, which were then broken up, moistened with water and fermented for several weeks with the temperature carefully regulated to ensure that all the woad underwent the same degree of fermentation. Potash was then added as the alkali and a temperature of about 50 degrees celsius needed to be maintained for two to three days…woad did not require a mordant but needed an alkali such as potash…

Other dyes might require a mordant, a fixing agent which enabled the pigment to set on the fibers of the fabric. Alum was often used; in the Middle Ages it was sourced from Asia Minor and so needed to reach Europe via Mediterranean trade (although Italian sources of alum were found in 1462; it was only produced domestically in England in the 17th century and after). In other cases, as with the use of dyes produced from wood, tannic acid might be used as the mordant. Each dye had its own unique preparation process to produce the dye; some involved boiling, others fermenting, some grinding down the products and so on. Dyers needed access to quite a lot of water, both for the processes of making dye, but also to discharge the various effluent from the process – spent dye mixtures and waste water. Once the dye was made, the fibers, which might be unspun wool, spun wool thread or woven wool cloth, were immersed in the dye and then agitated; the agitation was done with a ‘dyer’s posser’ and introducing or removing the cloth was done with tongs.

Via Wikipedia, the woad plant, which provided the most common blue dye in the greater Mediterranean world. Woad actually produces the same chemical (indigo) as true indugo (Indigofera tinctoria) but just in much lower concentration.

Because these processes involved a lot of capital investment in terms of boilers, casks, basins, water-access and other facilities, dyehouses were often quite expensive. J.S. Lee (op. cit., 63-4) notes a dyehouse belonging to John Winchombe II valued at £40 in 1558, a considerable sum of money (going by Lee’s own figures (op. cit. 73), it would have been around five years wages for a skilled professional weaver at that time).

Commercial Cloth-Workers

So now we have our cloth, finished and either dyed or bleached and now ready for final use in a garment or for commercial sale. We’ll talk about commercial sale in a moment, but first we ought to talk about all of the workers we’ve stacked up in the previous section: fullers and dyers mainly, but it is also time to talk in more depth generally about the production of cloth for the market rather than for the household.

Now it is necessary to caveat this upfront: in terms of raw amounts of cloth produced, household textile production is likely to have outstripped commercial textile production until the start of the industrial revolution, so while commercial textile production is more visible to us (in part because rich businesses tend to leave records and their owners tend to be the sort of people to be literate and write things like wills which we can read) they weren’t the majority of production. So while clothiers and cloth merchants and professional weavers often get more attention in the sources (and consequently may get more attention in some modern treatments) they were likely a minority of cloth workers and cloth production prior to the early modern period.

At the same time, it is clearly wrong to think of the household production chain as being completely divorced from the commercial production chain; the two were clearly intermingled. Fullers and dyers seem to have represented a point where the two production systems converged; fulling and dying were difficult to do at household scale and required special skills and so it seems that even a household producing its own textiles would have a use for the fuller and the dyer to finish those clothes (because, again, people liked to look nice). Moreover, as we’ve discussed already, commercial clothiers often sourced the spinning and weaving they needed through the putting out system, paying domestic spinners and weavers (mainly women) on a wage or piece-work basis (that is, per-unit of thread or fabric). Probably there was also a degree of specialization within producers inside of domestic production, mediated either by personal or market relationships (on this in a nineteenth century context, see K.A. Bowie, “Unraveling the Myth of the Subsistence Economy: Textile Production in Nineteenth-Century Northern Thailand” Journal of Asian Studies51:4 (1992): 797-823, where Bowie observes that in any given village, some women specialized in spinning, others in weaving, with small scale market interactions to exchange production; as noted before in some pre-Roman Italian burials, age seems to have been a factor driving specialization, S. Lipkin, op. cit.)

But of course there were also purely commercial workers making cloth, including elements of production that couldn’t be brought into the household (like fulling and dyeing) but also producers who worked primarily for the market. The emergence of large-scale textile production for markets – what we might term commercial production – seems closely connected to the rise of large cities, presumably because those cities contained both elites who might want to buy more (or finer) fabrics than their household could produce as well as poorer workers whose households (which might just be themselves) lacked the ability to produce textiles at all. Long distance trade was also clearly a factor that drove the emergence of large-scale cloth production; wool products were major exports as early as third millennium BC Summer (on this, note several of the chapters in C. Breniquet and C. Michel, op. cit.).

Via Wikipedia, workers in a fullonica hanging up clothes to dry, from Pompeii, first century AD. Also note how these (probably fairly ‘blue-collar’) workers are wearing clothing with bright colors (now somewhat faded by the passage of time)! Lots of blues and yellows (see below for the dyes likely used).

So how do these folks fit in to the broader society, if they aren’t producing directly for their household but are instead producing for the market? Unsurprisingly, it varies quite a lot based on the work they do. Wage data from the ancient world is very rare, but J.S. Lee’s look at the medieval English clothing industry provides some insight on the relative earning power of various parts of the trade. He presents (op. cit., 40), for instance, a table of poll tax returns between 1377 and 1381 organized by occupation, giving a decent sense of the relative earning power of different kinds of workers at that point (which is before the spinning wheel collapses spinner’s wages):

OccupationAverage tax paid (in pence (d))Range of Tax paid (in pence (d))

Another table lists estimated daily wages (and I want to be clear, these are estimates, not attested wages!) for different tasks in the wool production process in an effort to estimate the total cost and time requirements of production, though this list is set in the 1540s, at a point where the spinning wheel was beginning to have an impact on the wages of spinners (J.S. Lee, op. cit., 73):

ProcessDaily Wage (in pence (d))
Wool Sorting1.5
Yarn Preparation (read: spinning)2
Packing and transport4

In both cases, we can see that dyers tend to be rather more highly paid than other textile workers, while second place goes to fullers (in the second chart, note that fulling, cleansing and finishing were all done in a fullery; it is the last task, I think, that would be done by the fuller himself (or herself) rather than paid workers or – in the Roman context – enslaved workers), with skilled professional weavers in the third place. The range of tax paid though gives a real sense of how there might be a considerable separation between the earning power of small-scale producers (or apprentices and other hired workers in a larger operation) and producers working at a larger scale (or making elite products).

Dyeworks (and fulleries in the medieval period) tended to be located just outside of urban centers, in part because of the smell (both kinds of work tend to smell quite bad). Because both dyeing and fulling made use of bad smelling mixtures, older scholars often assumed that the workers in these occupations were low status individuals and looked down upon. And while it is true that there does seem to have been some sense that these places were not terribly sanitary, more recent scholarship tends to show little evidence that the people who worked there – particularly the skilled, professional dyers and fullers – were low-status themselves.

In terms of the social position of cloth-makers, one indicator we can look to is professional associations and guilds. In the Roman world, professional associations (collegia) of fullers seem to have been quite common and Miko Flohr (op. cit.) argues persuasively that Roman fullers were respectable professionals, similar to other artisans – well below the political and social elite (whose wealth was in large landholdings), but not disreputable. Fuller’s collegia could be significant politically though; Flohr notes that Roman fullers seem to have been politically active, for instance, in Pompeii’s local politics (most famously dedicating a statue of Eumachia, a local aristocratic woman, outside of the ‘building of Eumachia’ the purpose of which is still under some dispute (but perhaps a market-place for fabric?)). Flohr notes that the collegia of fullones (fullers) seem about as prominent as collegia of fabri (smiths, carpenters, joiners), and that is probably where we should place fullers in Roman society (with skilled dyers marginally higher).

In medieval Florence, the various guilds of the city were ranked; the wool-workers guild (the Arta della Lana) ranked third or fourth, out of 21 total guilds and always among the ‘greater guilds’ (the Arti Maggiori), a clear indication of the significant prominence and wealth that wool-working professionals had collectively (though we should note that the guild included wool merchants as well, who were likely its most prominent members). The Arta della Lana was sufficiently wealthy to take up the patronage for the construction of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence Duomo (and officially the second best duomo in Tuscany), attesting to the relative power of the guild collectively. Linen production was far less important in Florence, yet the Arte dei Linaioli e Rigattieri, which covered linen merchants and manufacturers, along with tailors and retail cloth and rag dealers, was one of the ‘middle’ guilds, ranking between the 12th and 16th position; still solidly respectable (peers, in this case, of the stonemasons and the vintners).

Via Wikipedia, the crest of the Arte Della Lana of Florence, prominently displaying the sheep that was the basis of all of their production.

So while the landed elite will have looked down their nose as textile workers (they looked down their nose at everyone), skilled professional textile workers represented fixtures in what we might see as a lower-middle-class of sorts in pre-modern cities. Because there were so many of them (and because they were attached to cloth merchants who might be truly wealthy) they often exerted a significant political and cultural pull. Thus there is an enormous range in the status of cloth-workers, from the well-to-do dyer who might be a respected professional artisan to the poorly paid spinner working in the ‘putting out’ system in her spare time when she wasn’t making clothing for her relatively poor farming family.

Next week, we’re going to cap off this look at commercial textile production by looking at last at our clothiers and cloth merchants themselves – both the individuals who coordinated domestic production as well as merchants involved in trading textiles (including imported textiles) over long distances.

113 thoughts on “Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part IVa: Dyed in the Wool

  1. Were commoner clothes ever a non-solid color in the medieval period? Could you paint pictures onto clothing with dye? When did plaids and tartans and florals become common?

    1. Patterns such as stripes and checks could be woven into the cloth. Check patterns seem to have been common from the bronze age on, and have been found as far afield as the Taklaman basin. Patterned borders were used to decorate clothing in the mediterranean world. Minoan images suggest that women wore tiers of patterned flounces.
      Painted cloths were used as wall decorations in the early Middle Ages and for heraldic displays on banners and surcoats but embroidery was a more expensive alternative.
      I don’t think printed florals came in till the eighteenth century discovered chintz and other cotton fabrics.

      1. Cotton takes dyes very well, and India exported lots of printed cottons from very early – possibly as early as 200 CE. It had a lead in both dying and printing that lasted until the late 18th century (it took a century or more of restricted imports and state funding for Britain to take this over). Medieval merchants would have gone to Alexandria for cloths as well as spices.

          1. I read a book on it a while back – as a sense of the process, one common approach was to draw on designs with wax, and then dye the fabric – the waxed areas would be left un-dyed, allowing nearly arbitrary patterning with the full colorfastness of a dye bath. Then you melt and wash the wax out, and you can repeat it for different colour baths to get more complex multi-colored designs.

            It’s a pretty nifty process. Sounds like it really sucked for India when Europe industrialized, though – it also told stories of people who went from being well-paid skilled professionals to working menial jobs for starvation wages during their lifetimes. All because some continent they barely knew anything about had found better ways to make printed fabric, and there wasn’t enough of a diversified economy for them to do anything else.

          2. Is this at all related to the still common “madras” cloth patterns? I know they are especially noted for bleeding colors, but I’m not aware of whether they were dyed as yarn or as cloth. Given the typical plaid patterns dying as yarn seems much easier.

          3. Indian cotton seems to have been grown as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization (c.2500 BCE) making it as old as Old Kingdom Egypt. The situation with the Indian textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries was less due to the development of synthetic dye in Europe and more due to the East India Company causing all manner of hell in India and turning village indigo planters and cotton growers into near-slaves, and getting rid of the weavers who made the cloth they’d once imported on top of it.

            By the time synthetic dyes had proliferated in Europe the Indian textile industry had been beaten down into a shambles and turned into a raw material source. It didn’t help that most of the finished textile material was imported into colonial India at a premium – classic 19th/early 20th century mecantilism at its expllotiative best. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers wearing homespun garments was meant to be a form of economic protest against a system that exploited so many Indians (I remember reading an entire book on this and found it fascinating. Embarrassingly, I’m terrible at remembering the names of the books that I read…)

    2. Provided you dye your fibres either in the wool or in the yarn (or have sorted wool from different-coloured sheep), weaving stripes or checks is a breeze – it’s actually no more labour-intensive than weaving a solid colour. So they would not necessarily have been any more expensive, and ordinary people could perfectly well have worn them. Some of the very earliest surviving textiles known are patterned in this way, e.g. the clothing of the 3,000-year-old mummy from the Xinjiang region known as Cherchen Man.

      In the Middle Ages the Spaniards seem to have particularly liked to wear bold horizontal stripes. These crop up constantly in medieval Spanish illumination, e.g. here:

    3. It is entirely *possible* to dye yarn and weave stripes/checks/plaids but it wasn’t much done. There is a painting of Mary I’s fool in a striped apron, and some sailor’s garments. So… yesbut.

      Asside1 – weld is glorious day-glow yellow on alum mordanted wool. Bugs love it, mobile blackwork… (it’s a weed, you can probably try this at home, but don’t use pots you make food in)

      Asside2 – woad in your garden -> blue slugs (the woad process is totally different, involves urine, and stinks; murex is similar but requires you to find a ton of bloody snails, which is why it costs so much; and it was only quite recently figured out again, modern dyes are so much easier)

      finally – everyone’s linen *ends up* bleached, although only rich buggers buy it that way. It bleaches from washing and sun, and you wash it a lot. Distressed jeans for the middle ages (rich buggers also buy it finer which is harder to make and wears out sooner)

    1. If you’ve ever used your “Prang” watercolors set to try this, you’d know. Most mixtures of red and blue pigments yield a very muddy color (as Roxana noted), not even always recognizable as trying to be purple!

      1. This was also a problem with green.

        The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St Clair has a lot of interesting information on dyes, even if arranged more for amusement than research purposes.

      2. This is a problem in other areas even today! For example your monitor almost certainly is unable to display proper violet. Instead it will simulate it with purple.

    2. They did.. you could dye them one, dry it out, then over dye it a send time to get purple. or eventually mix the two dyes directly. but the tint and vividness wasn’t quite the same as with something that produced a natural purple. so such mixed colors tended to be considered as inferior and looked down on by those who could afford the expensive natural versions. comparable to “knock off” and generic brand clothing today.

      1. Which is why Alexander the Great thought purple dyed yarn was a gift fit to give to queens.
        The story is he gave such a gift to the captive queen and queen mother of Persia, not knowing that unlike royal macedonian women they would be offended by the suggestion they did textile work.

    3. The red dyeing process and the blue dyeing process were very different; they required different temperatures and different mordants (things to make the dye stick to fabric or enhance the color). Because of this, different dyers specialized in different colors and there was also an idea of “trade secrets” around dyeing. Eventually, the red dyers were not permitted to dye in blue and vice versa (though dyers could usually work in adjacent colors- red dyers in yellows, blue dyers in green). In general, the medieval people were not fond of mixing; it was considered a bit unsavory.
      For more information, check out Michel Pastoureau’s series on colors, especially the volumes on blue and red.

    4. It makes violet. And you can’t mix them, but you dye one and then the other (madder and woad are very different processes) it’s a nice colour, but it is not the same purple as murex. And it is expensive, because it’s dyed twice, but not as expensive as the damn snails.

  2. I immediately thought of Pompeii, the Fullery of Stephanus and the building of Eumachia. I have a number of mostly picture books of Pompeii, I’m a sucker for ground plans and reconstructions.
    The the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters a successful Fuller proposes a marriage of convenience to the female owner of a weaver’s shop, pointing out how their businesses compliment each other. Peters was very good at period detail and goes into some detail of how the wool business operated in medieval Shrewsbury.

    1. Also in Pompeii, the public urinals which were collected for cloth processing as above.

    2. That’s right…I had forgotten that detail. Maybe I need to reread Cadfael as well as Heaventree.

  3. Typos:

    “moral painting” -> “mural painting”

    died -> dyed
    “(but wool could also be more readily died other colors).”

    dying -> dyeing
    “undyed woven fabrics fit for dying were called ‘whites’ and”

    “The actual dying process varied based on the pigment being used”

    “fulling and dying were difficult to do at household scale”

    Also on the last, should that be “a household scale” or “the household scale”?

      1. This is why radiologists make a point of saying “contrast agents” and not “dyes” because you really wouldn’t want a patient to half overhear you and get worried!

  4. Ha-ha! Bret, I must start by congratulating you on the numerous puns you manged to include (aside from the usual punning part heading). I noted the following (and probably missed others!):

    “the ill-fitting notion; the clothes of poor farmers”
    “if you enjoy the yarn I am spinning for you here”
    “before it is fully finished..processing known as fulling”
    I enjoyed these!

  5. Now I’ll leave another response to list the typos I noticed:

    remaining oils in the fabric … which cleansed the wool,-> (seems to be repetition)
    they were often been hung -> often hung (delete been)
    Caption to illustration: moral painting from a fullonica -> mural
    or polishing), -> or ‘polishing’),
    more readily died -> dyed
    field were the morning -> where
    more general…was generally -> (fix redundancy/?)
    points doing production -> during
    such saffron for -> such as saffron
    dyestuffsin use -> dyestuff [insert space] in use
    (on this is a -> this as OR this in
    production which couldn’t -> that couldn’t
    millennium B.C. Summer (on -> BC. (on
    one indicator … are -> is
    wool working professionals -> wool-working
    down their noise as textile -> nose at

  6. Do you think that madder, weld, and woad led to the belief that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue?

    1. Probably not those specific dyes—red and yellow dyes, at least, are extremely varied. But I would be shocked if the most common dye colors didn’t influence how we view colors in general.

    2. It’s not clear how dyes (which are a fairly limited part of the range of colors ancient people would have encountered) would be reflected in the linguistic recognition or perceptual primacy of colors. Certainly the thing jumping out at me, comparing dye availability to the hierarchies laid out in, say, the Berlin-Kay study or its more comprehensive successor, the World Color Survey, is that although orange is an easily produced dye color (check out those light madder dyes), it’s a late-arriving and rare linguistic term (the first use of the word in the English language to describe a color, rather than a fruit, was in the 16th century!).

      1. We don’t need names for all the colors we see, but we need names for the colors we make.

        There was a linguistic study years ago that found that the number of colors in a language correlated to how advanced their technology was, and color words tend to show up in a certain order. Another study figured out that it was actually one specific technology: paint.

        1. However that does not explain how some languages have color names for certain colors while others have no equivalent. Or why one study found that some people from a certain culture without a “name” for a shades of blue apparently could not even discern the differences.

          1. But *I* don’t know names for different shades of blue, and I can see them. (I thought azure just meant blue.)

            I read about a study involving people whose language had one word for red, pink, and orange. They showed them colored cards and asked if they were the same color. They couldn’t distinguish between red, pink, and orange cards shown a few minutes apart, but could easily see the difference when shown the cards at the same time.

          2. Well, I know. I was surprised too, and I do not remember the details from when I read the article many (20? 30?) years ago.

          3. The result I recall from cognitive science grad school is that having lexical terms makes discernment faster. Russians, with separate words for light and dark blue, can label/discern them faster than Americans. This is different from not being able to see a difference at all.

            This is in line with Sapir-Whorf ideas: a strong form, of language constraining thought, is considered bupkiss; weaker forms, of language biasing thought or making some easier, are more viable.

          4. I’m reminded of an argument I had with a make co-worker a while back. He called a newly painted wall pink. I told him it was peach. He refused to see the difference or said he did. 😁

          5. Well, then there’s also the problem of colorblindness. Color perception may be as different for different people as for different electronic monitors.

      2. I do note that there were other terms for the colour: Swedish has burning-yellow (“brandgul”) for instance. (which predates the use of orange for the colour9

        1. I’m not a professional linguist (closer to linguistics than history, though), so I may be mischaracterizing their work, but neither in the Berlin-Kay schema nor the WCS would brandgul qualify as a color classification. The schema they use for identifying something as really qualifying as a color is that it serves as its own lexical object independent of other lexical objects (i.e. “blue-green” is not a color because it’s lexically built out of the subordinate lexical units “blue” and “green”, which are colors). I think “brandgul” falls afoul of this problem. The major other disqualification for a term being a Berlin-Kay/WCS color classification is if it’s generally regarded as being a shade of a more broadly-defined color (so “azure” being a kind of “blue” makes “azure” not a color term; whereas, as long as “orange” isn’t regarded as being a kind of red or yellow—and it usually isn’t, at least for the last few centuries—then orange is a color on its own).

          There’s room to criticize the Berlin-Kay definitions, and alternative approaches to the question “what distinct colors are linguistically recognized?” have been proposed, but it is a reasonably well-regarded and justified approach to the question. Certainly people described objects which are orange in English before the 16th century, but they did so in terms of other color classifications, mostly red and yellow, rather than as a color classification in its own right.

          1. “The major other disqualification for a term being a Berlin-Kay/WCS color classification is if it’s generally regarded as being a shade of a more broadly-defined color (so “azure” being a kind of “blue” makes “azure” not a color term”

            In English. In Italian, azzurro and blu are distinct colors.

    3. From what I remember on the subject the RYB model comes out of painting/art around the 16th century or so. Rooted in the mixing of pigments. You can not mix pigments to get pure red, yellow or blue. But you can mix those pigments to get the secondary colors. Same process and some of the same pigments, but the whole primary/secondary thing is a later, modern system from art theory.

      Other color models or systems are based on refraction of light, various printing processes, and display standards. With the same practical root. Which colors can be produced directly, and which require a mix in a given medium.

      It’s not a culture belief, but a practical system. We teach RYB as “the” primary colors because RYB is the simple model in basic art instruction, and it applies to thing like crayons, clay, tempera paints and water colors.

  7. I’m probably missing something obvious, but given that the dying operations seem to have been quite centralized, while the clothing creation is incredibly decentralized, how did the homemade clothes get there and back to the homes of the folks who’d made them?

    I guess you could bring them one market day and pick them up the next? But that seems a bit risky and has the dyer holding onto the clothes for quite some time, subject to theft/loss/damage

    1. Pre-modern societies tend to run on trust and reputation. You get this on an interpersonal level through high-frequency interactions; you get this on a societal level because everyone in your village knows and trusts you, and if the dyer screws you over he’s going to have a black mark on his reputation.

    2. I wondered about that, too! If the woven cloths or spun yarn was of similar quality, maybe the farmer gave the dyers 1 cloth plus x (to pay for their work!) and took 1 cloth already finished in similar quality?
      The dyers could sell plus x cloth for money to the rich people.

      1. If you’re constantly producing fabric to be dyed, that’s a possibility Arrive on Monday and leave a yard of cloth, back back on Thursday and drop off another load and pick up Monday’s load now dyed with woad.

  8. Its commonly said that linen is hard to dye, but dyers in western Europe in the 14th century don’t seem to have been taught that, so they produced large quantities of linen in a wide range of colours including red. I have also seen references to dyed linen from Viking Age sites like Hedeby and Birka. Its possible that there was a change in dying technology sometime between the Bronze Age and 1350, or that modern hobbyist plant dyers are not as skilled as their professional ancestors.

    1. Necessity breeds stubbornness. If you’ve got linen and want colorful clothes, then by golly you’re gonna dye linen one way or another. If you can choose from a variety of cloths, there’s not as much reason to bother.

      1. Most clothing in late medieval Europe was wool and worsted, linen and canvas were for linings, underwear, children, and domestic textiles and cotton and silk had specific uses. So the professional dyers producing bales of coloured linen to sell to merchants were doing it because there was a market.

    2. The story i heard when looking up sheet and clothing information is the linen is harder to dye, so you see less color range (probably also that linen is expensive and not nearly as used, so there isn’t as much point to having lots of colors) but it is is still very much doable. So both of these points seem accurate as far a they go.

  9. Seneca’s comment that legislation mandating a ‘uniform’ for enslaved persons at Rome was abandoned for fear that they might realize their numbers…

    A friendly reminder that the powerful have always feared the powerless understanding the situation they were in.

    In the early modern period, undyed woven fabrics fit for dying were…in some cases shipped significant distances to be dyed elsewhere (in no small part because, as we’ll see, the availability of dye colors was regionally dependent).

    Huh. I had assumed dyes were less bulky (and hence cheaper to ship) than undyed cloth (and also that undyed cloth from different parts of the world would be considered more fungible than regional dyes), leading to relatively little incentive to ship raw cloth. Shows what I know.

    1. I mean, you’re right: you also see several references to large-scale shipping of dyes. It is, all else being equal, less bulky and thus easier to ship. Very likely it was considered preferable to ship the dyes to the cloth rather than vice versa.

      I think the other factors are perishability and knowledge. If a certain dying process requires fresh ingredients (dyes or mordants) that can’t be grown in England, you aren’t likely to be able to set up production there and you’ll have to ship the cloth.

      Likewise, if a dying process is tricky, importing that knowledge may be difficult. For one thing, experimentation with dyes and materials shipped over long distances is going to be expensive. For another, the process of translation can be fraught: what if the dying process depends on local conditions the local dyers aren’t even aware of (like, say, seasonal humidity) so even a willing and eager exporter can only tell you the steps that worked in Spain and not why those same steps don’t work in Norway?

      Look at that description of imported woad, for instance: you’ve got the stuff, but now you need to ferment and prepare it, and that’s before you can even worry about actually using it. And likely there was another step where it was grown, to prepare it for shipping in such a way that it wouldn’t ferment on the road. That’s much more involved than “oh, the shops have lots of purple RIT here in Tyre, I’ll ship you a couple boxes.”

      1. Certain center of cloth production became famous for unique tints. Lincoln green for example.

      2. The local conditions can be important even now. I know a spinning fiber dyer who discontinued some of their colorways after moving to the other side of the country; they said that because of the difference in the water in their new home, they couldn’t get those color combinations to set correctly.

  10. Something I’m confused by: You’ve said here (I think) here that most people would have had at least some nice colourful clothes. But if fulling and dyeing required more of an industrial base and mostly happened outside of major urban centers, how would your typical rural farmer who doesn’t live anywhere near one of those get his family’s clothes fulled and dyed? Did people in the middle ages typically take an annual trip to the closest urban center to get their clothes done?

    1. There was often a degree of specialization even within fairly small villages, one person might be the designate dyer or fuller even if he was also a farmer. (the same is true for eg. smiths)

      That said, it shouldn’t be taken entirely as specialized, especially outside of the urbanized cultures like Italy: People did sometimes dye at least some clothes on their own, from dyes they made themselves.

      1. Indeed, the fact that Fuller and Walker (which is a synonym for fuller, as Prof. Devereux’s explanation of the process makes clear) are frequent surnames suggests that this was a specialized trade, with approximately one practitioner per village. You couldn’t distinguish a villager as the farmer or the yeoman or the husbandman or whatever, but the fuller, along with the smith, the she(a)rman, the turner, and the wheelwright, was a known individual, whose son frequently continued the trade.

  11. What about tailors and tailoring? Making cloth into clothes means either a lot of sewing, or clothes that are very loose-fitting.

    I’m assuming that is a household process, but I know nothing about medieval tailoring.

    1. I may do sewing and tailoring as an addendum later, but it would require its own mess of research and honestly given how many people still sew today and how complex tailoring can be (and the fact that I do not sew) I am hesitant to go too much into it.

    2. Home production and professional tailoring seem to have co-existed for centuries. As fashion became more complex people starts making a living by sewing for those who could afford to pay but much sewing was still done at home, especially linen under-garments. Catherine of Aragon used to make Henry VIII’s shirts which became an issue when Anne Boleyn demanded to take over the task.

    1. In fact, can you write a book on “how they did it,” covering the entire pre-industrial world? (This is actually a serious request, not to mention a career suggestion.) We haven’t discussed furniture, or house construction, or transportation (except as an adjunct to the things transported), or a host of other topics.

      1. I’d back this up as much as is practical. I’d almost certainly buy that book. (And will look to see if one actually exists)

      2. Grain part 4. has a chapter “Transport or One if by Sea, Twenty if by Land”. Logistics is a regular topic in the military-centric articles, too.

        House construction: I’m not a historian, but I’m pretty sure that almost nothing can be said about the topic _in general_ because local variation overwhelms almost any attempt at generalization. People used whatever materials were available and suitable where they lived, shaped for whatever climate they lived in. We might also include mobile housing (yurts and tipis, discussed in the recent Dothraki series) to completely frustrate any attempt at generalization.

        The one thing I’ve found is that construction was much more expensive than it is today, and as a result, there was very little privacy. Look at a yurt, a European Iron Age roundhouse, a medieval great hall, an Iroquois longhouse, or pretty much anything else, and you’ll find at least half a dozen, in some cases far more, people sleeping in direct view of each other. (The Roman domus is possibly an exception.)

        1. Who built the ships? Who manned them? Who owned them? How were they financed? What were the sails made of? Who made the sails? What about the rigging? And for wagons, some of the same questions.

        2. Interesting sidelight is that late medieval English timber houses were built to a modular standard (like traditonal Japanese houses, built to the standard tatami mat). The beams were pre-cut and drilled and delivered with a bag of pegs. Ikea houses!

          1. And now I want to learn more about these. Could you provide a reference/link to learn more please?

          2. scifihughf – learned this from an architect friend in the west of England who was adding to a Jacobean cottage. He bought an Elizabethan barn (same area, same timber frame and infill construction, about 80 years older). He took the barn apart (took out fill, knocked out pegs), trucked it up the hill and married it to the cottage with no problem – same module.

      3. A good layman’s overview on “how much things changed” is Bill Brysons “At home” where he takes a simple country house (of a vicar) in UK and explains how much things changed, why and when: simple stuff like candles before electric lights, or how artifical dyes changed not only clothes, but also painting.

        It’s not such a detailed, annotated historical look, though.

  12. Interesting as usual.


    such saffron for a rich yellow


    consequently, while colors -> why

    true indugo

    wool products were major exports as early as third millennium B.C. Summer -> Sumer


    “with the temperature carefully regulated”, “a temperature of about 50 degrees celsius needed to be maintained for two to three days” — now that raises questions, before instruments to even measure temperature. 50 C is 122 F, which seems an awkward temp: too high for anything normal, too low to be near a fire.

    1. From other web pages:

      Domestic dyes:

      “In certain districts of Scotland, as Aberdeenshire, almost every farm or cotter had its tank or barrel (“litpig”) of putrid urine (“graith”) wherein the mistress of the household macerated from lichens (“crotals” or “crottles”) to prepare dyes for homespun stockings, nightcaps or other garments. The usual practice was to boil the lichen and woolen clothes together in water or in the urine-treated lichen mass until the desired color, usually brown, was obtained. This took several hours, or less on the addition of acetic acid, producing fast dyes without the benefit of a mordant or fixing agent. The color was intensified by adding salt or saltpeter. This method was prevalent in Iceland as well as in Scotland for those homespuns best known to the trade as Harris tweed.”

      Urine uses:

      “Better living through chemistry was the motto of the day. For instance, I wanted a green wool and after dyeing a hank first in turmeric and then indigo, I was surprised (and dissappointed) to get brown. I already had brown. Lots of brown. “Toss it into the ammonia bath.” Which I did and instantaneously it turned the most lovely shade of moss green. The batch of wool that I dyed in weld and indigo needed no ammonia bath to turn green. But who would have thought. And now we know why urine was so popular for dyeing fibers. It was the period ammonia and it could work wonders.”

      Onion skins are said to be another source of mordantless yellow and red/brown

      I’m not sure the existence of dying guilds rules out domestic dying of at least simpler materials and colors.

      “Just red cabbage and yellow onions skins produce a whole rainbow of colors- blue (red cabbage and salt), pink and red(red cabbage and vinegar), purple (just red cabbage), green(cabbage and soda), yellow and brown (onion skin), and orange (onion skin and cabbage plus vinegar).”

      1. A Russian gentleman of the late eighteenth century, Sergei Asakov, describes life on his grandfather’s estate when he was a child. One of the details he mentions is that the Asakov serfs were known for their red clothes, dyed with madder that grew wild on the property. It is unlikely that they were sending their clothes out to be dyed given the family lived on what was then the Russian eastern frontier and were basically pioneers.

        1. Though an ‘estate’ sounds like it could support a specialized dyer, vs. every housewife doing her own. I make no claim, just pointing out possibility.

          1. Estate is perhaps putting it rather grandly but there did seem to be some specialization among the serfs. Grandfather Asakov was the proud owner of a good mill and seems to have been interested in technology such as it was.

      2. Onion skins, red cabbage etc. have come back as simple organic dying agents for easter eggs – no fixing though – in the past decades.

    2. Mm, it’s actually not THAT hard to manage. It’s a lot of work, from workers with at least some experience, which makes it expensive. But it’s not a massive technical challenge. You can adjust the temperature over successive batches: make a small batch, see how it goes. Make the next batch, but a little closer to the fire, see if it’s better or worse.

      And maintaining 50C isn’t a particular challenge either: sure, it’s not as simple as maintaining 100C (just keep it on the boil), but there are lots of ways to do it. Perhaps you maintain a certain distance from the fire. Perhaps you keep everything moist by periodic applications of hot water (in which case you can moderate the temperature either by changing how often you add the water or by mixing boiling and cool water in certain proportions). If you need more precision, you can use hot stones from a fire, and allow them to cool for a certain time before putting them into the vat. Probably, since this is a process of fermentation, you get some help from the exothermic reactions happening in the woad itself (much as a compost pile generates heat), and you can use that to help adjust the temperature.

      I don’t know what the actual methods used in this industry were, but it’s quite doable without a modern thermometer. (Or you can make your own thermometer: modern and medieval blacksmiths gauge the temperatures of metal in exactly the same way, because visually assessing the color of the metal is a better technique for most purposes than using some kind of IR thermometer. 50C seems like it would be within the range of “touch the stone with the back of your hand/stick a finger in the water and count, it’s the right temperature when it starts to hurt around eight or twelve.” That’ll be a little different for everyone, but you can be taught it quite repeatably if you have a mentor there to show you.)

      1. Re. guestimating temps, when students get trained in our pilot food processing plant we teach them to estimate vessel temperatures by feel. It’s pretty simple to tell the difference between 40°C, 50°C and 60°C.

  13. Hmmm, I’m not sure how long we are supposed to draw the “dyeing was a specialized task” thing, even something like old Cajsa Warg’s cookbook from the 18th century (admittedly aimed at wealthy households) included recipes for dyeing. There are also plenty of examples of people dyeing cloth on a household scale, though getting the fixatives could require some trade. There were specialized dyers you could buy from to get “The good stuff”, but people seems to have dyed quite a bit on their own (and also sometimes redyed cloth that had lost colour)

    I know clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum, “mattlummer”) was sometimes used as a mordant in scandinavia.

    1. Late Bronze Age texts divide coloured textiles into eg. red and blue and “market red” and “market blue.” Plant dying is fiddly, and some of the ingredients are rare (alum, kermes, Tyrian purple) or dangerous (arsenic) so experts could make nicer colours more reliably than most families could.

      1. That’s definitely true, my point was more to the blanket statement that “Dyeing was something done by specialists in centralized locations”, which In my impression is a bit overstating it: Dyeing was certainly something specialists did, but that didn’t mean people did not do most of it at home.

        One thing that should probably also be mentioned is that a lot of clothes can be re-dyed in case the colours start to run or get bleached.

  14. Note: “stale” at the time didn’t have a pejorative meaning, aged ale was also called “stale” (unaged was “mild).

  15. While bleaching is the predominant form of whitening, is there much record of natural white dyes?

  16. So, in that first picture, of English ploughmen, am I seeing three levels of social standing? Seedthrower in shoes and stockings, Ploughman in shoes and stockings and leggings, and bare-footed, bare-legge Ox-driver?

    1. Just possibly – but it it’s hard to see why a seed-thrower, who required no particular skill, should be dressed ‘better’ than an ox-driver, who did. It is quite possible that the artists simply wanted to vary his scene by showing different outfits.

  17. I’m curious about what the fruits are in the crest of the Arta Della Lana. From the upper right pine cones going clockwise, I’m guessing medlar, date, apple, pine cone, plum, grape, apple. Is that correct or am I wrong on a few?

  18. I know you did an addendum for the grain series about rice in Asia…

    Can you talk about how these processes differed in Asia?

    I know that silk production in China was a village affair and I’m curious what was different in India, which was famous for making the best pre modern textiles.

    1. My impression is that silk production in China was both a home industry and professionalized the degrees depending on the dynasty. In Tang and Soong times even elite women would weave their own trousseau silk and take an interest in dyeing it as well. Village women wove bolts of silk to pay taxes with. As in the west textile work was gendered female.

  19. Walking becomes waulking in scots Gaelic, and in turn leads to waulking songs. Sung by workers at a raised bench or table, working the fabric for Harris Tweed production into modern times.

    1. Not Gaelic. “Scots” and “Scots Gaelic” are two different Scottish languages.

      I didn’t know the word “waulking” until I looked it up just now, but the word being pretty close to English made me correctly suspect it was Scots rather than Scots Gaelic.

  20. I greatly anticipate the next entry in the series. Indeed, I feel as if a fuller has hung me across one of those frames you discuss.

  21. How was dyeing of cloth produced in the household for household use managed? Did a family take their cloth to a fuller and dyers to have them prepared for sewing back at home? Did they sell the home-produced cloth and obtain some different cloth already of whatever colors they needed? Some other arrangement?

    1. That sounds like the thing that would vary a lot, potentially.

      Depending on how the local fuller and dyers choose to do business, and how available they are, and local custom, you may be better off (from a “how many hours of labor does it take to get a pair of pants around here” standpoint) making homespun cloth and trading it for finished cloth. You may be better off bringing a specific batch of cloth to be prepared and having it given back to you for a fee. You may be better off saying “to heck with it” and trying to do these jobs at home, resulting in a lower quality of fabric and dye job in exchange for not having to spend money or make more than X yards of fabric to get back X yards of fabric in the first place.

      1. The more specialised producers would have been central to the gift/status economy. Robes, bright garments, fine cloth and other textiles were very common gifts, and worn to mark favour and status. Even for a peasant, a length of ribbon bought at a fair was a very acceptable courting gift, and the lord of the manor might hand out clothes to retainers at ceremonial occasions. Icelandic sagas, which are fairly terse, often describe garments, with bright colours a mark of status.

  22. What is actually happening to the wool during all these processes is very complex and wasn’t elucidated until the end of the 1930s. Molecular biology was founded as an academic discipline at Leeds University in the 30s, the first department in the world, specifically because the Yorkshire woollen industry wanted to finally find out why wool changes its properties as you scour, card, full, burl, dye, and spin it, in the hope of improving their techniques. They did it, too – x-ray crystallography techniques made it possible to identify that there are two possible structures for the keratin in the wool, roughly a flattened helix and a stretched helix, and wool processing flips it from one state to the other.

    After that they got cracking on how blood clotting works, defined the discipline as a research project centred around the principle that “structure determines function”, and started trying to image nucleic acids…

  23. Bret:
    If I recall correctly the most usual liturgical colour for western tradition churches is green. (Liturgical colour varies depending on which part of the religious calendar is currently active.)
    I’m wondering if there would be a reason (if the tradition dates back far enough) based on ease of access or exclusivity of dyes for this?

    1. Interesting question; though the colours I most associate with (Roman Catholic) Western Christianity is:

      purple – because “Papacy is the rotting corpse of Roman Empire”

      blue: became associated with Virgin Mary and hence symbol of purity etc. because good blue for paintings (not clothes) used a semi-precious stone, lapislazuli to get Ultramarine. Because it was mineral, not plant, it lasted long and didn’t fade, but because it was expensive, it was “worthy” of being used for Mary.

      Also shows the difference between pigments for painting, which might be lightly roasted (burnt sienna) and need an agent (linseed oil, eggwhite for gold) but no other chemical process possible, whereas dye for clothes could use ammonium (or vinegar) for chemical reactions to get lasting blue.

      Looking at wikipedia, I just saw that the story of how the expression “blau machen” (lit. making blue = laze off) came about in German: because dyers dunked the cloth into a yellow-greenish fluid (ammonia/ urine plus dye) then laid it into the open air and waited for the chemical process, they “made blue” happen by lazing around – has been disproven because the process only takes about an hour. It was such a nice story that Armin Maiwald re-enacted as ancient Egyptian dyer.

  24. Actually, you can’t weave threads of pure gold with premodern technology. What you see in shot brocades is a fabric thread, preferably silk, with gold foil wound around it. Pure gold thread can only be used in embroidery, and nearly all goldwork techniques involve fastening a gold thread on top of a fabric, without the gold thread ever passing though the fabric.

  25. In regard to the Arte Della Lana crest: Maybe I’m missing a joke here, but that’s not just “a sheep”. It’s a standard traditional rendering of the Lamb of God, referencing Revelation; that’s why it’s got the halo and the flag with a cross on it.

    But of course it makes perfect sense the guild to have picked that particular patron, so point stands, I suppose.

  26. (my first comment here: thank you, I love your blog)

    Regarding Florence: I’m no expert here, but I think fullers and dyers were not part of the Arte della Lana, it was mainly merchants. They even revolted against the government twice (1344 and more famously 1378) and one of the things they advocated for was the ability to create their own guilds and be able to be selected for institutional roles. In the second case they managed to get recognition for three new (short-lived) guilds: Fullers, Tailors and Dyers.

  27. I remember being told by people from a medieval re-enactment group that the Low Countries (present day Belgium and The Netherlands, with a bit of north France thrown in) and then especially Flanders, Zeeland and Holland, were known for the fact that far more people dressed in red clothing than in other countries. This was apparently remarked upon by quite a few travels through those parts. And is was presumably because the madder plant was very common there, and so much used as a cloth dye. and the relative ease of shipping it around locally, because of the abundance of waterways.

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