By Mairghread in Eyverksa (Becky Day)
When I joined the SCA, I was told certain “facts” about period cloth by well meaning people. Medieval cloth was roughly woven, almost like burlap. It was dyed in dull colors, because you couldn’t get bright shades with natural dyes. And most importantly, it was always narrowly woven – as narrow as 20”. Time and research has proven the first two to be completely wrong, but what about the third? This article is a preliminary look at some of the evidence for cloth width in the middle ages.
The English textile trade is one of the best documented industries of the Middle Ages, and archaeological finds relating to textiles (loom weights, cloth scraps, etc.) are common enough for scholars to be able to draw some conclusions about textile production from the fall of Rome to 1600. These conclusions do not support the concept that period cloth was only available in narrow widths.
Clothmaking in the earliest part of the SCA’s period would have been dominated by the warp weighted loom. This type of loom is vertical, with the warp hung from a beam supported by two uprights. Weights would be tied to groups of warp ends to create tension. My own practical experience with the warp weighted loom has proven to my satisfaction that wide cloth could be produced, and the archaeological, ethnographic and literary evidence support this conclusion.
A row of loom weights was excavated at Grimstone End, Suffolk, England, dated to the Anglo-Saxon period (7th century). The weights were found were they fell from the warp, and they measure 244 cm (96 in.) across. The warp weighted loom continued in use in Greenland until the settlement died out in the early 15th century, and in the excavations at the Farm Under the Sand, entire and partial loom cloth beams have been preserved in the arctic conditions. These beams along with others found in Iceland have a weaving space (usually indicated by drilled holes used to bind the warp to the beam) that measuresfrom 127 cm (50 in.) to 164 cm (64 in.)
Most of what we know about the warp weighted loom comes from the research of Marta Hoffman, who not only studied archaeological evidence, but also examined the living tradition of the loom, which was still in use in remote areas of Scandinavia in the 20th century. Hoffman analyzed all the known examples of warp weighted looms in Scandinavian museum collections. Of those in western Norway, for example, the cloth beams ranged from 135 cm (53 in.) to 229 cm (90 in.) with an average width of 185 cm (73 in.).
There is also documentary evidence concerning the width of cloth woven on the warp weighted loom in the regulation of wadmal, cloth produced in Iceland that was, for a time, used as a unit of trade. The Icelandic Tithe Law of 1196 required wadmal to be two ells wide. (The ell was originally the measure from a man’s shoulders to wrist – approximately 22 – 23 inches. Medieval acts of the English Parliament standardized the ell to 45 inches, but the inch itself was non-standard, being the width of the thumb of the aulnager – the official responsible for measuring cloth.) Later regulations increased the width of wadmal to 2 ½ ells and later to 3 ½ ells wide.
The horizontal treadle loom began to replace the warp weighted loom from the 11th century onward, contributing to a change in weaving from primarily a domestic activity to being a commercial enterprise dominated by ted guilds. Documents regulating the production of woven cloth in England spell out mandatory cloth dimensions. The Assize of Cloth of 1196, issued by Richard I, specifies that all cloth “that is made” must be two yards wide. (Again, remember that period measurements were not necessarily equivalent to contemporary usage). In 1271, cloth from Brabant was required to be 6 quarters wide, but cheaper English cloth had to be 7 quarters. A 1328 assize required woolen cloth to be 6 ½ quarters wide before fulling, but cloth of ray (cloth with stripes) had to be 6 quarters. (A quarter was ¼ yard.)
The basic product of English commercial weaving was broadcloth, a highly fulled woolen cloth which could be produced on a double loom requiring two weavers. This type of loom is shown in at least one contemporary manuscript illustrations and are discussed in guild records. Worsted cloth was produced for use as coverlets and hangings by a separate guild, the Tapiters (also called Chaloners). The looms of the Tapiters were wider than those of the broadcloth weavers – possibly up to 4 yards wide for bed looms.
There were also smaller looms designed for narrow widths, probably producing ‘strait’ cloth, which was ½ the width of broadcloth. These looms frequently appear in manuscript illuminations. Domestic or rural weaving which was not regulated by the Assizes would have likely been of narrow width. Narrow cloth did exist, therefore, but so did wider cloth.
The evidence is clear that we as reenactors can use the widths available to us in the modern fabric store with confidence that we are not “out of period” to do so. Regardless of the period of your SCA persona, cloth from 1 ½ yards up to and beyond the 60” available in fabric stores would have been attainable with the technology available.
Bridbury, A.R., 1982. Medieval English Clothmaking. London: Heinemann
Hoffman, Marta. ,1964. The Warp Weighted Loom. Oslo: Norwegian Research
Council for Science & the Humanities.
Gudjonsson, Elsa E. (1993) “Warp Weighted Looms in Iceland and Greenland”
(in Textilsymposium Neumunster Jaacks & Tidow, eds.) Neumunster.
Swanson, Heather. 1989. Medieval Artisans: an Urban Class in Late
Medieval England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.