Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make it? Part IVb: Cloth Money

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

This is the second 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 looked at commercial textile workers and the finishing processes for textiles (fulling, dyeing, etc) which generally took place in a commercial context. This week, we are going to look at the other major element of the commercial textile trade, which were the merchants who traded in textiles both rare and common.

As always, if you enjoy the yarn I am spinning for you here, please share it; if you really like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon. If you want updates when each new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for not merely updated but also my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Via Wikipedia, Cloth Market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Brabant, c. 1530 (which also appears in J.S. Lee, op. cit. pl V).

Produce Local, Think Global

Fabric as a finished product is somewhat different from the other products (grain and iron) we’ve discussed in this series so far. Bulk grain is a commodity – which means that one kilogram of grain is pretty much like the next. When grain gets traded in bulk it is because of differences in supply, not generally because grain in one region or other is particularly tasty. Consequently, you only get bulk grain trading when one area is producing a surplus and another not producing enough. The same is more loosely true of iron; Iron wasn’t a perfect commodity in the pre-modern world since some ores produced better quality metal than others and some trade in high quality ores or metal (like wootz) happened. But for every-day use, local iron was generally good enough and typically available. Iron could be – and often was – treated as a commodity too.

Fabric is not like that. While the lower classes will often have had to make do with whatever sorts of cloth is produced cheaply and locally, for people who could afford to have some choices the very nature of textile production produces lots of regional differences which incentivized trade. Almost everything about textile production is subject to regional variations:

  • What fibers are being used. Major wool and linen producing regions tended to be separate, with wool (and sheep) in colder climates and uplands while (as noted) flax tended to be grown in warmer river-valleys with rich alluvial soil. Meanwhile, the cotton-and-silk producing regions generally (with some notable exceptions, mind) did not overlap with the wool and linen producing regions.
  • The nature of the local fibers. We’ll get to some specific examples in a moment but ancient and medieval writers were well aware that different growing conditions, breeds of sheep or flax, climate and so on produced fibers of subtly different qualities. Consequently, even with the exact same processes, cloth produced in one region might be different from cloth produced in another region. But the processes were almost never the same because…
  • Local variation in production processes. Again, we’ll have some examples in a moment, but the variance here could be considerable. As we’ve seen, the various tasks in cloth production are all pretty involved and give a lot of room for skill and thus for location variations in methods and patterns. One might see different weaving patterns, different spinning techniques, different chemical treatments, different growing or shearing methods and so on producing fabrics of different qualities which might thus be ideal for different purposes.
  • Dye methods and availability. And as we discussed last time, available dyestuffs (and the craft knowledge about how to use them) was also often very local, leading to certain colors or patterns of color being associated with different regions and creating a demand for those. While it was often possible to ship dyestuffs (although not all dyestuffs responded well to long-distance shipping), it was often more economical to shift dyed fabric.

Added on top of this, fabric is a great trade-good. It is relatively low bulk when wrapped around in a roll (a bolt of fabric might hold fabric anywhere from 35-91m long and 100-150cm wide. Standard English broadcloth was 24 yards x 1.75 yards; that’s a lot of fabric in both cases!) and could be very high value, especially for high quality or foreign fabrics (or fabrics dyed in rare or difficult colors). Moreover, fabric isn’t perishable, temperature sensitive (short of an actual fire) or particularly fragile, meaning that as long as it is kept reasonably dry it will keep over long distances and adverse conditions. And everyone needs it; fabrics are almost perfect stock trade goods.

Consequently, we have ample evidence to the trade of both raw fibers (that is, wool or flax rovings) and finished fabrics from some of the earliest periods of written records (spotting textile trade earlier than that is hard, since fabric is so rarely preserved in the archaeological record). Records from Presargonic Mesopotamia (c. 2400-2300) record wool trading both between Mesopotamian cities but wool being used as a trade good for merchants heading through the Persian Gulf, to Elam and appears to have been one of, if not the primary export good for Sumerian cities (W. Sallaberger in Breniquet and Michel, op. cit.). More evidence comes later, for instance, palace letters and records from the Old Babylonian Empire (1894-1595) reporting the commercialization of wool produced under the auspices of the palace or the temple (Mesopotamian economies being centralized in this way in what is sometimes termed a ‘redistribution economy’ though this term and the model it implies is increasingly contested as it becomes clearer from our evidence that economic activity outside of the ‘palace economy’ also existed) and being traded with other cities like Sippar (on this, note K. De Graef and C. Michel’s chapters in Breniquet and Michel, op. cit.).

Pliny the Elder, in detailing wool and linen producing regions provides some clues for the outline of the cloth trade in the Roman world. Pliny notes that the region between the Po and Ticino river (in Northern Italy) produced linen that was never bleached while linen from Faventia (modern Faenza) was always bleached and renowned for its whiteness (Pliny, NH 19.9). Linen from Spain around Tarragona was thought by Pliny to be exceptionally fine while linens from Zeola (modern Oiartzun, Spain) was particularly durable and good for making nets (Pliny, NH 19.10). Meanwhile Egyptian flax he notes is the least strong but the most fine and thus the most expensive (Pliny NH 19.14). Meanwhile on wool, Pliny notes that natural wool color varied by region; the best white wool he thought came from the Po River valley, the best black wool from the Alps, the best red wool from Asia Minor, the best brown wool from Canusium (in Apulia) and so on (Pliny, NH 8.188-191). He also notes different local manufacture processes producing different results, noting Gallic embroidery and felting (NH 8.192). And of course, being Pliny, he must rank them all, with wool from Tarentum and Canusium (Taranto and Canosa di Puglia) being the best, followed more generally by Italian wools and in third place wools from Miletus in Asia Minor (Pliny NH 8.190). Agreement was not quite universal, Columella gives the best wools as those from Miletus, Calabria, and Apulia, with Tarantine wool being the best, but demoting the rest of the Italian wools out of the list entirely (Col. De Re Rust. 7.2).

In medieval Europe, wool merchants were a common feature of economic activity in towns, with the Low Countries and Northern Italy in particular being hubs of trade in wool and other fabrics (Italian ports also being one of the major routes by which cottons and silks from India and China might find their way, via the Mediterranean, to European aristocrats). Wool produced in Britain (which was a major production center) would be shipped either as rovings or as undyed ‘broadcloths’ (called ‘whites’) to the Low Countries for dyeing and sale abroad (though there was also quite a lot of cloth dyeing happening in Britain as well).

Patterns of Trade

We have already discussed some of the basic patterns that trade tended to follow in the ancient and medieval world in our discussion of the impact of local geography on cities and in discussing the grain trade and much of that is applicable here although there are some importance differences that are worth discussing.

Transport costs remain a significant factor in the organization of textile trade. Prior to the invention of the steam engine and thus the train, moving lower value goods in any kind of bulk overland any significant distance was prohibitively expensive. In contrast, seas and rivers represented blue roads and highways, allowing for far cheaper and faster transport of bulk goods. The typical estimate, derived from the Diocletian’s Price Edict (and thus dating to the Late Roman Empire, so this is with the system of Roman roads; take those away and things get even worse for land transport) is that the ratio of the cost of land, river and sea transport was roughly 20:4:1, with sea transport thus being four times cheaper than river transport and twenty times cheaper than road transport for bulk goods (like fabric).

It should thus be of little surprise that regions involved in major textile production for export were often concentrated either on coasts or on rivers that were navigable to the sea (one may map the regions Pliny lists as major wool and linen exporters to find that they are all accessible by sea). While the sheep themselves may be grazed part of the year up in the uplands far from the coast, one of the great advantages of transhumance is that the sheep may transport themselves under the care of their shepherds to villages and lower pastures not too far from coastal towns which may serve as centers of textile production and major points of sale.

Now those transport costs become less and less significant the more valuable the goods being transported are. For a bulk good like grain (or common wools), transport may represent a majority of the costs. But if one is shipping something extremely valuable (particularly valuable per unit weight), the cost of acquisition at the source (and the profits of final sale) are much larger relative to the transport costs and less efficient methods of transportation become useful, thus the viability of silk and other expensive luxury goods being transported overland across Eurasia on the famous silk road.

Via Wikipedia, fresco from Pompeii depicting a Roman market; fabrics are being traded on the left.

Very high value fabrics didn’t need to come from so far afield though. In the Roman world, the province of Asia (corresponding roughly to western Turkey today) had several notable centers of production for particularly high valued textiles (on this, see I. Benda-Weber, “Textile Production Centers, Products and Merchants in the Roman Province of Asia” in Gleba and Pásztókai-Szeöke, op. cit.). Thyateira’s guild of purple-dyers (the πορφυροβάφοι) seem to have had trade contacts for their wares – wool dyed Tyrian purple via the murex snail – all over the province as well as in Macedonia and Italy. Weavers in the region were also known for producing fabrics with complex woven patterns and Miletus, one of the major ports in the region, had as noted the reputation for producing the best dyed wool in the Mediterranean. Such fabrics were highly valued and we find evidence that such fabrics were bought not merely by the Roman elite, but also made overland as far as Persia where such wares were valued at the Achaemenid (550-330 BC) court.

Neverthless, not all fabrics moving through trade in antiquity or the middle ages were rare or high value fabrics. As Jinyu Liu notes in a study of inscriptions relating to the textile trade, “coarse wool and wool of medium quality, and products made of these non-luxury wools dominated the market” in the Roman Empire, often being ‘pulled’ through trade towards both large population centers in the interior of the empire and towards the Roman armies in the frontier provinces, both of which must have outstripped local production in their demand for textiles (Liu, “Trade, Traders and Guilds (?) in Textiles” in Gleba and Pásztókai-Szeöke, op. cit.). This trade included not just fabrics but also ready-made products like garments or blankets which must have been aimed at fairly modest people, neither the very poor (who couldn’t afford them) nor the wealthy (who wouldn’t have been caught dead in ‘ready-made’ one-size-fits-no-one clothing), but rather the middling urban workers and common soldiers (and perhaps small farmers, though we might assume their households would produce most of their own textiles in the countryside where wool and flax, being agricultural and pastoral products, might be more available).

In Medieval Europe, just as in the ancient world, the centers of textile trading tended to follow the water as it made transport easier. England was a major wool-producing center in the high and later Middle Ages (and into the Early Modern period), with J.S. Lee (op. cit., 9) estimating production per capita exploding from around 1.3 pounds per person in the early 1300s to 7 pounds by the 1550s as the textile production system in England reoriented towards export. Wool products, produced in towns mostly in towns that were nearly coastal or had river-access flowed down by coastal trade and up the Thames to London to either be sold and used there or to be further exported to the dyers and fabric markets of the Low Countries (where fabrics could use the Rhine to travel further into the continent) or to be bought by the merchants of the Hanseatic League and so head into the Baltic.

Cloth Merchants and Clothiers

Unlike farming and trade in grain, where the producer (the farmer) and the merchant are almost always separate entities, in cloth trade there is a fair evidence for what in modern parlance we might call ‘vertical integration,’ with clothiers (managing the middle and finishing stages of production) also acting as merchants and sometimes owning initial production (that is, flax fields and herds of sheep), though it was also common for each stage of production and distribution to be handled by different people buying and selling products between stages. Moreover, while we don’t see much evidence for dedicated ‘grain traders’ in the ancient world (though there is more evidence for such in the Middle Ages), it is clear that in both the ancient and medieval Mediterranean that fabric trading was often the occupation of specialized merchants and clothiers.

Those specialized dealers in fabric could run up and down the social and economic spectrum, though they were of course always people with some property (since we’re now talking about the owners of businesses in manufacture and trade, rather than the workers in them) and generally also did not reach the highest levels of society (which remained reserved for large landholders and military aristocrats), though they could often become very prominent within local civic organizations. So you have often humble dealers and manufacturers of local fabrics for relatively local consumption alongside wealthy merchants dealing in foreign cloths or expensive dyes (especially Tyrian purple) all of who might be captured under the heading ‘cloth merchants.’

I. Benda-Weber (op. cit.) for instance looks at what we know of seven individuals involved with textile production and trade in Asia Minor. Interesting inscriptions distinguish between purple-dyers (a πορφυροβάφοσ) and purple-sellers (a πορφυροπώλης or – we do sometimes see women as purple-sellers, πορφυρόωλις). Both Thessaloniki and Philippi (in Greece) apparently had guilds of purple-dyers (both with members from ancient Thyateira (modern Akhisar, Turkey), itself a production center of purple-dyed cloth); in Philippi, an ‘Antiochos, son of Lykos, the Thyateiran’ a purple-dyer, was even honored as a benefactor of the city (indicating he had undertaken some significant public service).

Purple sellers could be more prominent still. An inscription from Hierapolis (near modern Pamukkale, Turkey) attests that one purple-seller, a Marcus Aurelius, son of Alexandros Moschianos was, in the late-second or early-third century, a member of the city’s council, indicating that social respectability and a degree of political clout. (Saint) Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) was apparently a purple-seller in Phillipi who welcomed (Saint) Paul of Tarsos; interestingly she appears to be sui iuris (under her own legal authority) given that she is a merchant of high value purple cloth, is able to house Paul and his companions and converts with her household. It seems likely she was the wealthy owner of either a purple-cloth dyeing workshop or a shipping operation, rather than a textile worker herself.

Dealers in more humble fabrics might be more humble people, but if they were trading in bulk, they might also be significant in their communities. Liu (op. cit.) notes inscriptions attesting to the operations of centonarii (rag-dealers), sagarii (cloak-sellers) and vestiarii (clothes-sellers) who seem to be trading in lower quality or ready-made textiles. Gaius Rusonius Secondus, who had a tombstone in Vienne, was a sagarius who had been an elected magistrate (one of the sexvir or ‘six-men’) in Lugdunum and seems likely to have been a significant fellow there (Lugdunum, modern Lyon, seems to have been an important market in textiles, which makes sense, given that it sits on the Saone and Rhone rivers). More humble Roman cloth merchants are increasingly hard to see (they tend not to have fancy tombs and inscriptions we can read) but it is clear that such traders were fairly common in the towns and military settlements of the empire.

Medieval English clothiers – individuals, mostly men, who managed both the making and marketing of woollen cloth, typically as business owners rather than laborers (although humble clothiers might do both) – are much better attested. J.S. Lee is able to trace the family backgrounds of clothiers, noting that they tended to be either the relatives (sons or nephews) of existing clothiers or the sons of relatively well-to-do families (prosperous smallholders, artisans or other sorts of merchants), because setting up in the wool-trade business required capital and access to apprenticeships to learn to the trade (while men are the majority of English clothiers, women clothiers working alone did exist, though they seem frequently to have been widows of male clothiers carrying on their deceased husbands businesses, J.S. Lee, op. cit., 193-4).

Lee notes that a poor rural clothier might live not very differently from a smallholding yeoman farmer, while a poor urban clothier would have lived in a way much resembling urban craft-workers. At the same time, we also read of much larger scale clothiers, with large operations and houses that resembled ecclesiastical and civic dignitaries with enclosed courtyards and who could make benefactions (like funding extensions or decorations to local churches, or even commission entire new civic buildings in their home towns). Some of the more successful clothiers were – much like our Roman-era town councilor cloth-dealers – able to join the gentry and obtain respectability but this seems at least somewhat rare.

In any event, and this should be stressed, the clothier or cloth merchant was in both the ancient and medieval world, generally in no real danger of penetrating into the upper levels of the landholding elite military aristocracy which dominated above the local level (there are a few exceptions in medieval England, but they seem to be quite few). Wealthy merchants might become gentlemen or significant local civic figures, but generally no more. In some cases, efforts were made to make sure this was so. In Rome, senators were forbidden from owning ships above a certain, quite paltry, size (though, being wealthy and powerful, already existing senatorial families seem to have avoided this by simply investing in the trade activities of other, ‘socially inferior,’ men). In 1576, Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire limited land acquisitions by clothiers to no more than twenty acres, apparently attempting to block successful clothiers from buying their way into the gentry. In places where local civic politics were the highest level of politics – for instance in medieval Italian civic governance in Northern Italy – one might find the most successful cloth-dealers active there (though medieval Italian civic governance is a topic best left for its own post).


Textile production is often neglected in popular portrayals of the past. If it appears at all, it is in the form of very high status women engaged in something like embroidery as something like a hobby. While the popular image of the past often includes the forging of metal objects (mostly weapons) and sometimes even some farming, scenes of women patiently spinning and weaving are rare to vanishing. This, I have often thought, leads to the painfully prevalent assumption I find made by students that prior to what they imagine as the ‘entry of women into the workforce’ in the 1900s that women were essentially idle or did cooking and cleaning in the manner of a 1930s American housewife (though this latter assumption is made with no real understanding of how much more labor intensive those two tasks were before washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens and so on).

In fact, ancient and medieval women – often even very elite women – were very much involved in production in the household. They were always ‘in the workforce’ and the relative invisibility of that fact should caution us as to the ways in which the social value placed on certain kinds of labor effects their visibility. Of course ‘women’s work’ in the pre-modern did not end with textiles, but they represent a substantial portion of female-gendered labor in the pre-modern household. Even when textiles were being produced for commercial sale, often the work of producing them was done by these women either working as professionals or through operations that harnessed household production by paying household producers for their work (the ‘putting out’ system).

After agriculture itself, textile production was probably the single largest sector of the pre-modern economy, rivaled only by construction. Much like agriculture, textile production and trade stretched from some of the humblest people in society – the women in subsistence farming families – to wealthy merchants who might serve as town councilors or embellish their local churches as a show of wealth and piety. Fabric was, perhaps, the quintessential trade good and commercial textile production in the pre-modern period was a larger part of economic life than trade in things like ceramics, metal or stonework which may appear more prominently in either the written sources (because male writers tend to focus on male occupations or on occupations important for male elite display) or because they are more likely to survive in the archaeological record.

It was also a necessary task, both as a matter of simple survival in less temperate climates, but also as a matter of comfort and social respectability. Textile production was not some optional frivolity, but as important for the success of a family as farming or blacksmithing or any other craft or trade (and rather more important than many of them). For humble people in society, well-made homespun clothes could be a made to assert at least some basic level of dignity. For the elite, whose position required them to ‘look the part’ in order to retain the legitimacy that position depended on, suitable expensive and eye-catching clothing was often required for success. And of course textiles were used not only for clothing itself, but for blankets, containers, rags and all other manner of household goods (some of which might be made out of fresh textiles, others of which might be produced by combining scraps of older worn-out textiles).

Fortunately, the last several decades, increasing amounts of scholarly attention have been paid to the production of textiles in the household and to the commercial status of textiles in the broader pre-modern market. Textile studies really remain a relatively young field compared to, for instance, the study of ancient ceramics or statuary or farming or even blacksmithing, but hopefully I have given some impression of the tremendous strides that have been made. One may hope that, bit by bit, that understanding will creep into the popular conception of the past and we may do away with the image of the ‘idle’ pre-modern housewife, replaced instead by the skilled and industrious (or equally enough careless and indolent; just as not everyone today is diligent, so too of the ancient world) household textile worker.

But that ends our overview of textile production. I do hope to make a few addenda to this series (though perhaps not right away) to discuss, for instance, complex weaving patterns, tablet weaving, embroidery, and some of the other means by which textiles might be rendered a bit more fancy. For those looking to read more on the topic, remember that the first post has a selected bibliography.

Next week, something different!

78 thoughts on “Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make it? Part IVb: Cloth Money

  1. Do you plan on covering construction sometime in the future? If anything that trade seem even more invisible than weaving and farming.

    1. Agreed. You hear a lot about ancient architecture, but almost nothing about construction techniques, unless it’s someone talking about how no, aliens aren’t the only possible explanation for the Pyramids or Stonehenge.

      1. And if you do hear anything about construction, it’s almost always about the construction of castles. Castles are cool as hell, but I also wanna know how other buildings were constructed.

          1. Heard a lecture years ago by an architect/historian who explored how cathedrals were built over decades without plans. He reckoned they used the ground-plan to set all subsequent measurements, using a combination of the Fibonacci series and set rules (so nave-transept=height to clerestory sort of thing).

  2. Surprised you didn’t mention the significance of Tyrian purple as a marker of status in Rome. I believe that by the Fourth Century, only the emperor was allowed to wear purple. Before that it was restricted to senior magistrates and generals.

  3. Fascinating set of articles. Ironically, I recently came across something when studying Gemara. In the then current Jewish religious law, there’s a concept in marriage that by default, the husband manages the household finances, including the confiscation of money his wife (or more rarely, wives) earned, but in turn was required to support the women of the household at a certain level of comfort dependent on the overall household income.

    The only time you get mention of women’s occupations are in two listed cases where women brought their husbands to court to try to opt out of the situation. (Both cases involved noted unusual ones where the women were earning the majority of the household’s income) So they were necessarily unusual cases, and of course the authors just assume that you know what most women are working at. It’s good to see where that almost certainly was.

    1. Seven women will take hold of one man on that day, saying: “We will eat our own food and wear our own clothing; only let your name be given us,put an end to our disgrace!”

      That is, in the wake of a disastrous war, women will be so desperate that they will normally be willing to give up that situation.

      1. that’s almost what happened in paraguay after their disastrous war w i think uruguay and argentina

  4. I think there’s a typo: shouldn’t a female seller of purple cloth be a porphyropolis, not porphyroolis? (I can’t do the Greek letters in comments.)

  5. “After agriculture itself, textile production was probably the single largest sector of the pre-modern economy.” This is a fascinating set of articles, and I think one thing that really stood out to me was the degree to which this turns out to be the case, and how little I’d ever thought about it before. Seven hours a day, every day of the year, to cloth a single household!

    I wonder how much of the lack of awareness of this in modern society is due to the fact that the invention of the spinning wheel, and the subsequent decrease in time spent on this activity, is so old. My grandparents grew up in a society dominated by farming, but not one dominated by spinning. Popular books on “ye old times” which actually describe the late 1800s (I’m thinking of the Little House series for kids in particular, but lots of books fit into this framework) will depict a society like this — one in which agricultural work is common, but textile work much less so.

    If our popular imagination of the entirety of the ancient past is “like the 1880s but without the steam trains” then it makes reasonable sense for us to picture a society where textile work doesn’t take up nearly as much of the frame as it actually would have ~400 years ago.

    1. The spinning and weaving part of textile work was industrialized early though in the United States home production lingered into the 1800s on the frontier and on plantations where there was plenty of labor available.
      But sewing, not only of clothing but of household linens and such, continued to be a domestic chore right up to the 20th century. For most of the 19th century buying a dress meant buying fabric and a pattern which might be run up at home or handed on to a professional seamstress. A pair off middle class sisters in mid Victorian London were able to afford large and fashionable wardrobes by doing most of the sewing themselves. They apparently enjoyed making the clothes as much as wearing them and were quite proud of how economical it was. One of the sisters laughed at her fiance’s concern that a dress allowance of 75 pounds wouldn’t be enough for her, telling him she’d never paid more that 50 a year for her clothes.

      1. Yeah, this is exactly the situation I was thinking of as being depicted in the Little House books, which portray an American household in the 1860s-1880s. The family does a ton of agricultural work, and lots of sewing, but tends to buy its fabric premade. IIRC there’s only one weaving scene (not actually in the series’ main household) and no spinning in the entire series, and this is a series that takes the time to discuss everything from training oxen to making door latches.

      2. Hone spinning continued into the nineteenth century, but spinning in late colonial and nineteenth-century America was done with a spinning wheel, not a distaff and a drop spindle. It is the world of the spinning wheel that is described in Ulrich’s “The Age of Homespun” and vaguely remembered in oral tradition (e.g., when I was a boy, some of my elderly female relatives had grandmothers who had spun, although I can’t say that is what we talked about much).

        1. I remember seeing women using drop spindles to spin llama wool while doing things like waitong for the bus in rural Bolivia in the early 90’s so even that persisted a very long time in some places.

          1. I have no doubt that some people still use drop spindles and the like, but our cultural narratives are dominated by the wealthiest people and cultures, and in the wealthier parts of the world almost everyone wears clothes made in a big factory (or sweatshop) in some unknown, distant place.

      3. The picture I get from Prof. Devereux’s articles, including the linked videos, is that for most ancient and medieval women, distaff and drop spindle spinning functioned the way knitting did for some women of my mother’s generation (though not my mother). When I was a boy, there were women who spent several hours a day knitting, not exactly as a gainful occupation, but it reduced their family’s need for store-bought sweaters, scarves etc. It’s an activity that can be combined with watching children or socializing with friends, and it doesn’t demand a high level of mental attention once you’re good at it. In contrast, my mother sewed, but sewing on a machine is not generally compatible with other activities.

      4. But sewing, not only of clothing but of household linens and such, continued to be a domestic chore right up to the 20th century.

        Well up into the 20th century. My mother (b. 1936) had some store-bough clothing as a child, but much of her family’s wardrobe was homemade (albeit from industrial commercial fabrics). I was maybe half-dressed in homemade clothes as a small child in the ’60s. I still wore some items made by my mother when I was in high school. I was unusual in that, and by then my mother’s seamstressing was more recreational than economically necessary, but she learned the skills to save money.

        1. Spinning was too. The SpinWell Co. of Sifton Manitoba made flat pack spinning wheels that were sold all over Canada and the U.S. during the Depression. They had unusually large bobbins for the time, a lot larger than the bobbins on Canadian Production Wheels, and came with their own lazy kates for plying. They were real utility wheels. I own one, and it came with lots of wear on the treadle, it was obviously used a lot.

          Trivia for knitters, a spin off of the SpinWell Company became Mary Maxim.

        2. My mother could make a 3 and a half yard skirt with 3 yards–and match the plaid (this may explain why I’m so good at Tetris ). She also spent some real money on fabric and made evening dresses much more cheaply (she was socially ambitious but still had to feed us along with my dad. She made my dad’s shirts for decades).

    2. My takeaway was that with the spinning wheel women ended up spending about as much time spinning; it produced more yarn, and improved looms increased how quickly that yarn could be consumed.

      But an early part of the Industrial Revolution was water-powered textile factories in the 1700s, and machines like the spinning jenny and spinning mule, with one worker managing from 8 to over 1000 spindles at once. So some early 1900s farm family using horses and home food preservation might have been wearing factory-made textiles for 100+ years. As Roxana says, sewing (repair, adjustments, making clothing from cloth) could still be domestic but spinning and weaving had been eclipsed by the factories.

      1. Yeah, so I guess the spinning wheel was not the only factor here. But as you say, the main point is that the world in which textile-making takes up a ton of household time is, for most of us, generations in the past.

    3. It didn’t help that the Industrial Revolution is frequently regarded as beginning with the spinning jenny for good reason.

    4. But “Little house on praire” takes place in US Midwest, right? So too dry for sheep, too much work for cotton, too dry for flax – what would they have spun?
      Especially after spinning machines beyond the wheel had been invented.

      The professor described Europe and Mediterreanean, not early-industrial US.

      1. The US Midwest is not at all too dry for sheep. That said, I don’t think they’ve ever been a big portion of the livestock raised in the US Midwest. But “too dry for sheep” is *extremely* dry.

  6. I don’t know about the Gemara, but in the Tanakh, as far as I know, the only occupation ever ascribed to a woman is the oldest profession. Their work is not condemned (viz. Rahab) but they presumably aren’t marriageable.

    1. No, there are definitely other working women than Rahab in Joshua. For instance, you have those midwives in Exodus, Shiphrah and Puah, there are assorted female servants like Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah, (Although as a note, they tend to only get mentioned by name if they become a concubine, otherwise it’s just generic female servants who are there in the background), and you have a couple of prophetesses, and “prophecy” in the Tanach is something of an interlocutor or emissary from a God, so it is most definitely a profession, with occasional mentions of schools to teach them how it’s done. And while not a seeming full time occupation, there are plenty of scenes in the Tanach of women collecting water for animals, with both Jacob and Moses meeting their future wives when said women run into trouble at the wells.

      Circling back to weaving, we have a couple of mentions of women specificlaly weaving, the most notable being in Exodus 35, where after collecting a bunch of wool, the “wise hearted” women spin it up to what they need it for to build the tabernacle. But it clearly was not exclusively women’s work too, a couple of chapters later, (39), when they’re making the robe for the High Priests, you have a man weaving it.

      1. Proverbs has a picture of a wife whose worth is beyond rubies and textile work features heavily in the account.

        1. And indeed, assuming you’re referring to the “worth beyond pearls” of Proverbs 31, this depiction is very well-known among Jews, being recited (as “Eshet Hayil”) every Shabbat.

        1. The status of a concubine depends very much on their birth status and the laws and customs of their culture. In Rome for example a concubine was a free woman of lower status than a wife but like a wife exclusive. A man could not have two concubines or a wife and a concubine. Unlike a mistress a concubine had legal status and rights.
          In Ancient China a concubine was distinct from a slave maid used for sex. She was also distinct from and subject to the wife. Her exact status tended to depend on the attitude of the man, of the legal wife and of the woman herself.
          Basically concubine and slave were not necessarily the same thing.

    2. What about Proverbs 31:10 -31? Verse 24: “She makes cloth and sells it, and offers a girdle to the merchant.”

      1. To be honest, I had forgotten about it. I was thinking about actual figures in the Tanach doing actual jobs, not proverbial ones. But things don’t usually become proverbs unless they’re commonplace, or at least memorable

    3. The back 3/4 of Proverbs 31 (often recited independently as Eshet Hayil) is probably more indicative, as it’s specifically trying to describe everyday women’s work (though in an idealize way). Narratives tend to push that “obvious” stuff into the background.

      It’s an acrostic poem, so has a lot of lines with relatively little thematic ordering, but I’ve counted up the lines by theme. As an elite statement on ideals, character and educational characteristics feature heavily, as does social approbation; but among economic and household activities, textile work dominates by far.

      Cloth production: 6 (one referring specifically to production for market, three referring specifically to home use)
      Buying and selling on the market: 1
      Agricultural land purchase/administration (elite works, remember!) and labor: 2
      Food preparation: 0.5 (shares a line with the next topic, interestingly)
      Moral exemplar/educator, either of children or the public: 2, 2×0.5
      Distribution of charity: 1
      Good relationship to her husband, mostly described as a working relationship (trust, mutual dependence, easy forgiveness): 3
      Gaining public recognition for her husband: 1
      Respected by her family (husband and children alike): 2
      Resilience in the face of hardship: 1
      General prosperity: 1 (i.e. isn’t eating public-welfare bread)

      And then the famous closing two lines, which sort of summarize the whole rest of the chapter (including the non-Eshet Chayil opening):

      “Grace is a lie and beauty is vanity, a God-fearing woman will be praised. Give her from the fruit of her [own] hands, her deeds will be praised in the city gates.”

  7. Wool was the industry and export of medieval and early modern England. It’s profitability led to landowners shifting from agriculture to pastoralism leading to economic and political unrest among the tenantry classes who lost land and opportunity. The great fairs of the middle ages were the backbone of the cloth trade, it being one of the biggest items changing hands at the famous Champagne Fairs.
    The fictional Fuller I mentioned under the last topic made a point of how the union of his business with that of the weaver he was courting would take the wool from the sheep’s back to the finished product all under one roof giving them an advantage over the other producers in Shrewsbury.

  8. In the top picture “Cloth Market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch” is the 4th person from the left in the foreground a saint or an angel, or just someone with a weird hat?

    1. It’s Saint Francis, who, despite being famous for his poverty is the patron of cloth merchants.

  9. Thank you very much for these series, showing another group forgotten in popular history, partly because in modern society, machine-produced cloth is so cheap, partly because even in textile work, guilds were mostly male (up to sock makers), and how much household production either was subsistence or additional income is … invisible in common records.

  10. You mention in passing that sea transport was ~4x as efficient as river transport. Why is that? Is it because the boats are larger, or is there another reason?

    1. Larger ships and the ability to use the wind to sail in different directions without potentially having to fight a river-current. Sure, going down river is easy, but then the boat has to go back UP river again. That problem can be alleviated at sea with either circular routes that take advantage of local winds or by using routes that take advantage of areas of coastline that experience different prevailing winds in the daytime and the nighttime.

      1. Or not. Men who floated their cargoes down the Mississippi would walk back — despite the meanders.

        1. One feature of the Nile is that the current goes north but the wind generally south. Other places were not so fortunate. In Mesopotamia, hide boats were used: paddle downstream, fold boat up and return via donkey.

          1. You float the crops and other bulk goods down, and carry back more compact goods. That’s why the city is at the mouth of the river, and the farmland farther up — among other reasons.

          2. Ancient and medieval cities are often not at the mouths of major rivers, but at least somewhat inland along the river where it is still navigable.. Such points are very vulnerable to sudden attack from the sea.

  11. Being able to export a lot of yarn or cloth suggests some slack in the local spinning economy, intensive though it be; if you had to spin full time just to clothe your family you wouldn’t be able to spin for export.

    Leather and fur would seem to be somewhat clothing adjacent trade goods, though I guess if you live in a climate where you *need* furs then they’re probably not far to hand.

    Total tangent on construction: traditional houses are very small by modern standards, and I’ve seen that they were expensive. Yet the construction material seems to often be some combination of mud, branches, and straw, which seem pretty cheap, so was the expense labor? And initial construction or repair (“I *could* build a bigger house but that would just mean more work on the walls and roof later”)? Or is the “tiny home” more an aspect of urban life than rural?

      1. It would. From mid-high medieval times fuel was expensive. This is why many villages had a communal oven, with everyone baking once a week, or took their dough or pies to the baker’s. It didn’t help that England never adopted the closed stoves of central and eastern Europe.

    1. Large houses required long wood beams which were expensive. The land would be very expensive if it was inside a fortified settlement. The house was also treated as secondary în priority compared to the farm, the shop or family business. So most people will jeep their houses to a minimum size.

    2. Being able to export a lot of yarn or cloth suggests some slack in the local spinning economy, intensive though it be; if you had to spin full time just to clothe your family you wouldn’t be able to spin for export.

      The same is true of food, except that the “export” is much shorter-distance (ie, to local urban centers and the odd rural family who doesn’t farm). It seems like the same broad production patterns applied to both; most of the lower classes worked to produce enough to feed/clothe their family, then worked extra to either fulfill obligations or sell so they could get other things they needed to live. The surplus goods were usually a small fraction of the total, but there were enough rural poor people to support the rest of society.

    3. Taxes might be a factor in some cases. I took a tour of older French Quarter homes in New Orleans 50 years ago. The tour guide commented that when the houses were built in the 1800’s they were taxed on the number of rooms rather than actual size. Consequently, no closets.

  12. Home spinning certainly, to get money. Home-spun clothes ? usually the wheels of history are spinning toward mode specialization, not less; if in Mesopotamia they were already exporting clothes, it’s not likely that people were usually doing their clothes themselves later. I wonder if you’all are not influenced by memories of great- grand mothers who were producing their clothes, and think that it was a tradition. It was rather the result of the invention of a marvelous thing, the sewing machine. Before the sewing machine, people were sewing to mend their clothes, not to produce them. It’s not so easy to start from raw cloth, even died, and to get functional, confortable, robust, and even elegant clothing. It’s *long* and bloody arduous, not something you can really do with small children running everywhere and cooking and everything. So for a short time, a few decades, quite a few people (well, women) were producing their own clothes, with sewing machines, and models (they knew how to read ! they had books ! newspapers ! efficient post system! radio !). It has passed now of course. So I think that in the more remote past, even in small towns with access to raw material and easy dying, there were people specialized in doing clothing.

    It’s like Master Devereaux: he is spreading his thoughts to many people without the help of an industry like he would have to use 50 years ago: printers, book sellers. But for that, quanta theory had to be invented. Internet is not removing specialization and work division. It’s just an illusion to think so.

    1. I really think it was Not just mending that was done at home. Especially if your family was short of cash.
      And it can also be a Social event. (Quilting bees anyone? )
      “Stich and Bitch”, sewing with friends, And minding small kids, is, I would guess, an old tradition

      I have done a lot of hand sewing, Making my own clothes, (even with a sewing machine in the house.)
      Hand work is Portable, and can be done piecemeal, and set aside, like knitting, or spinning with a drop spindle.
      (You just need a bag to stuff it into.) It is, or can be, compatible with doing other things. It Does take time. But time can also be found
      I made a whole necktie/ patchwork skirt, Many seams, waiting on things to load on my first computer.
      Sewing machines are much more confining. Even my hand crank is not really portable
      Admittedly, a sock and darning egg is much more portable than a half finished ball gown, but not impossible.
      Not saying folks with cash did Not farm the tricky ,(fashionable) stuff out, particularly if they were in a hurry.
      I just do not think it is as hard as you make out

    2. Like eldriwolf, I think you are underestimating the advantages of hand sewing. I have made my own LARP clothes by hand sewing while watching lectures at home during covid. And in the train on the way to my girlfriend. And while visiting my grandparents.
      I would also like to note that specialization doesn’t mean that sewing isn’t done in the home. You can have small-scale trade within a community, with for example a grandma specifically making a lot of clothes for both the family she lives in and the families nextdoor, with her daughter and some other women supplying her with thread.

      You also claim that it is only since the sewing machine that people do clothing in the home. As a counterexample I have a book from 1919 (date found on amazon) available on Gutenberg, which says that in your grandmothers day (the grandmother of young women in 1919, so the 1860s or so), they made blankets from bags filled with scraps of dressmaking, mending or darning. The writer does mention they use a sewing machine to make the bags but in the 1860s the sewing machine would still be a pretty new invention so I think at that point the writer is expecting a lot of people to do enough sewing that they get scraps which can fill a blanket while some or many do not have a sewing machine.

  13. No mention of the staple, l’etaples? Wool trade to Britain was glue binding it to the channel ports both sides. Wool grease in, higher value or lower value?

    The archaism inherent in the future state of fabric and factories and unions and piece rate vs salary.. lots more to tell!

  14. As has become my routine, this list has not been curated to remove repetitions from posts of others.

    true of iron; Iron wasn’t -> <iron; iron OR iron: Iron OR iron. Iron
    or every-day use -> everyday
    some choices the very nature -> choices, the (i.e., insert comma)
    more economical to shift -> to ship
    some importance differences -> important
    moving lower value goods -> lower-value (insert hyphen)
    Very high value fabrics -> high-value
    particularly high valued textiles -> high-valued
    also made overland as far as Persia -> made it overland (?)
    rare or high value fabrics -> high-value
    produced in towns mostly in towns -> produced mostly in towns
    indicating that social respectability -> (delete that)
    high value purple cloth -> high-value
    labor effects their visibility -> affects
    could be a made to assert -> a means to
    Fortunately, the last several decades, -> during the last

  15. What I’ve learned from these series:

    1. the City Building Series lied to me! Textiles and food crops aren’t grown on farms, delivered to on stop weavers or granaries by people on carts….o.k., actual things I’ve learned (After playing those games, it is fun to see how actual economies work, though the actual game abstracts/computer gamizes so much of what happens there isn’t much actual connection)

    Actual learning:

    1. The farmer social structure describes quite a lot I wasn’t aware of/never knew about. Is very, very revealing, and even some modern politics makes sense after reading about it (I had heard of sharecropping, for example, with U.S. after slavery, but the Rome/Medieval description fills in some history and details.) I’m heard that big landowners dominating an area in vaguely similar ways is still an issue today. I’m not sure what I’d do with this information unfortunately.

    2. Similar deal for trade an money and merchants, fills in a lot of details i had never known about. And has some connection to today, how transport costs effect various things.

    3. With textiles, as some comments say above, I had no idea how much work went into doing them. Puts a different spin on things like childcare today, which similarly take up lots and lots of time but disappears a bit when I think of producing things better.

    4. Industrial revolution history makes a bit more sense and is filled in knowing what industry was replacing. Plus some of the social structure at the time makes a bit more sense. (Though it does seem early modern times were already more advanced/productive in some ways than the periods described on the blog.)

    5. On the one hand, it’s been made clear how much changed socially going from agricultural to industrial societies, with markets, administration, craftsmanship and equivalents getting vastly more important. However, the way stuff like transport costs work, how labor gets divided, etc. translates quite well, different time periods but the principles are familiar.

    So another congrats on a mind opening series. Now to use this information….

    1. I can recommend the Industrial Revolution Podcast. Very informative about that period. Before listening to that I had no idea how important the cloth industry actually was and how much time it took spinning, weaving etc before industrialization.

  16. “20:4:1, with sea transport thus being four times cheaper than river transport and twenty times cheaper than road transport for bulk goods (like fabric)”
    I think you mean to say that sea transport is five times cheaper than vier, or possible that river transport is 4 times cheaper than road. 20/4 = 5

    1. Transporting one ton of goods over a distance of 100 miles costs:
      – one thaler if done by sea
      – four thalers if done by river
      – twenty thalers if done by road.

      1. I thought what CometKing also thought, that it was meant the other way around: With a fixed budget you could move something 1 distance by road, 4 distances by river or 20 distances by sea…

  17. I was a Tiny bit disappointed that no one mentioned ,” Sea silk” , the fabric made from the byssus of Pinna nobilias, and paired in my head with Tyrian purple. ( Weath from
    It was never that common, I suppose, but I enjoyed thinking of the golden threads adorning a purple cloth…

  18. One thing I’m still not clear on is how rural farmers (i.e. most of the population) wind up with anything but dull beige/brown clothing. The household spins and weaves and sews, but bleaching and dyeing are specialized trades. And, from the discussion of agriculture, rural farmers don’t seem to have participated much in the monetary economy, paying taxes in kind and using surplus wealth to build social credit rather than a fat purse. So at some point the housewife has to take plain yarn and/or cloth to a dyer, and come home with colored yarn or cloth.

    Is she coming home with literally the same yarn/cloth she brought to town, dyed for her as a service? If so, what does the dyer get for his trouble? Lots of dinner invitations from satisfied customers, because social credit? Some extra yarn or cloth or maybe a chicken offered in barter? Or silver coin, because rural farmers had more of that than I had understood from the agricultural discussion here?

    Alternately, is the housewife coming home with different cloth or yarn than she brought to market, presumably from the stock on hand when she showed up with her homespun textiles? In which case, is she bartering directly with the dyer, X units of undyed yarn/cloth for Y<X units of colored? Or does she sell her homespun cloth/yarn to a merchant for coin, and buy colored goods with that?

    I expect the answer is "this probably differs widely across time and space, and we don't know much about it because the writers-down-of-stuff didn't care about peasant-housewife stuff", but maybe something is known and I find myself interested. So I can ask Professor Devereaux if he knows, or I can get to work building a time machine…

    1. At London, cookpots stained with madder are common in domestic deposits of the 10th-12th century, but not later, suggesting that around the year 1200 it ceased to be common for London households to dye cloth (Crowfoot et al., Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450, p. 20) But in the late middle ages undyed white and russet are the stereotypical colours of rural clothing!

    2. She’s enmeshed in village economy which has some room for specialisation – there’s a tanner, a smith, a wright, several ‘ale-wives’ (brewers), a potter and a few other trades. Many are pursued part-time, working on land the other part. It’s also connected via pedlars, packmen, drovers and higher-status households to the wider world. Tallies suffice for intra-village trade, and some goods are made to sell – either to itinerant traders or through the manor (wool, hides, surplus grains). So pennies circulate. Simple dying can be done at home, or through a slightly more skilled local dyer – that gets blue and russet and dull green and shades of brown.

      Even at the nadir of the post-Roman decline in trade there were still some fairs and markets – sadly, slaves seem to have been one considerable export from Francia at the time.

    3. “One thing I’m still not clear on is how rural farmers (i.e. most of the population) wind up with anything but dull beige/brown clothing. The household spins and weaves and sews, but bleaching and dyeing are specialized trades. ”

      Yay for my love of pre-industrial textiles! This tumblr post has a wonderful example of “how people think peasant clothes looked” versus “how their clothes would ACTUALLY look,” and it has a whole range of medieval dye colors! ( )

      Dye-sources are all over the place, usually from trees and plants. Pre-modern fixatives range from fancy metal salts to table-salt and white vinegar; bleaching things white/pale is also surprisingly simple, since it ranges from soaking the fabric in stale urine (ick) or fuller’s earth (which people switched over to from the urine whenever they could, for obvious reasons).

      The main issue with “peasant dyes” versus “fancy dyes” isn’t that peasants never wore colored fabric: It’s that you’d inevitably need to REDYE them when they start fading. That would happen a lot faster with a peasant’s one or two outfits that they wore and washed constantly, compared to a noble who might have a chest full of clothes that they only wore for special occasions.

      Varied colors weren’t the issue for peasants; being able to KEEP them that way was. Even in modern times, we can’t avoid having clothes fade from the sun or too-frequent washing. As mentioned by the post, fixatives in general were easy to get, but the GOOD fixatives inevitably cost too much for most farmers.

      Among the textile crowd for me, table salt and white vinegar are very easy and cheap to use, but you have to accept that while they retain or refresh the color somewhat, it’s never going to be QUITE as good as when you first dyed the garment.

  19. Beyond being a foundation of the ancient and medieval economies, it’s clear textile production is the basis of prehistoric technology. Clothes obviously have survival value that allowed humans to expand to colder climates, but beyond that, nets, ropes, and string all are absolutely vital. Paper as well, which seems trivial but has a lot of uses beyond books. Ancient Japan was basically built with fiber. The hemp plant is sacred in Shinto and I believe the utility of it, from cloth to rope is the main reason (hemp cloth being much more common in Japan). I suspect they knew the psychoactive properties of cannabis well too, but that’s a completely different issue and a major history black hole – the history of drugs being very much stigmatized.

    Cordage and clothing can also be made of leather, which probably deserves it’s own series. In Japan leatherwork was an outcaste profession, and to this day there is discrimination against people from “burakumin” areas. Major corporations have been caught doing it.

    1. One interesting thing is that it seems clear that while europeans used hemp in huge quantities, its usage as a drug wasnt really well-known until fairly late, might have been due to different cultivars, but it just doesent seem to have been widely known.

  20. My hunch is that dyers and fullers were compensated much like millers, by a share of the finished product.

  21. Hi Brent,

    I have enjoyed all your fascinating series on pre-industrial life. Here’s a little link contribution, that I came across on Language Log, exploring the “Wool Road” and diffusion of textiles and technology from the Near East across the steppes to China:


    The Bronze Age of northern Eurasia is characterised by major socio-economic changes. A secondary products revolution defined an overall trajectory in these global economic transformations. Innovative changes in fibre technologies led to the appearance of woven wool textiles and the production and consumption of new types of garment. Analysis of the first direct AMS 14C dates from woven wool fibres from Bronze Age sites across northern Eurasia allow us to define key stages in the directional spread of woven wool textiles and to determine the cultural context of this process of technological transmission.

Leave a Reply