The main stay fabrics of this age, were wool and linen.
Wool was taken from the sheep, washed, combed, and then spun, via a drop spindle, into strands of yarn. This yarn was then put onto a warp-weighted loom to produce cloth. It took a lot of yarn to produce cloth. To make a cloak 60" X 60" at a period sett will take 7,650 yards for the warp (the lengthwise direction), and about 4,200 yards for the weft. (the sideways direction). Spinning at a yard a minute (which may be slow), this amount of yarn would take you about 25 days if you were spinning non-stop for 8 hours a day, every day.
Linen was the other common fiber, made from the flax plant. It was slightly more expensive, since it requires much more processing. The flax must be grown and then harvested. The outer stalk of the plant had to be rotted (retted) off. This was a smelly process. The rotted plant was then dried and hit with a hard blade like object to break the stalk off, called scutching. Once scutched, the fibers were combed, called heckling, to make it easier to spin, by making them all lie parallel. (Rogers, 1721-27) Once the fibers had been extracted, the spinner used a drop spindle, and sometimes a distaff, to create linen yarn. And, again, a warp-weighted loom was used to produce linen cloth.
Silk was available, but only in very small quantities. One ounce of silk would cost 2 ounces of pure silver. (That’s about $15 per ounce in modern terms) So since silk was so expensive, it was only used for small items such as hats, trim, and veils. Likely no one short of the King could afford an entire silk tunic. (And to date no entire silk tunics have been found to my knowledge)
The most common weaves were tabby and various twills. Tabby is the weave of the majority of fabric today, such as oxford shirts. Denim jeans are woven in a twill design.
Contrary to popular belief, the average Conquest Era person, was not wearing rough, coarse, sackcloth. Most of the tabbies found have had very fine weaves, in the neighbourhood of 25 to 50 ends per inch, with one as fine as 60 ends per inch X 153 picks per inch. Twills are also fine being in the range of 20 to 50 ends per inch, and 18 to 45 picks per inch. (Jorgensen 29-33)
Knowing how much work it is to set up a loom, I doubt that only one piece of clothing was done at a time. I also think that the probably specialized; i.e. a few people would spin for the whole community, others wove, and still others cut and sewed the garments.
Dyes were generally derived from plants, the root, seed, or leaves, with the exception of bugs and shellfish. While it is true that most of the floral in England at the time produced a yellow colour, there are certainly a wide variety of colours available if one could afford it. It should be mentioned that wool can be easily dyed, linen can not. Linen is almost always either ‘off white’ or ‘oatmeal’ in period. Retting the linen differently forms these two colours. If flax is left in the field, and the natural cycle of sun drying it out and the dew wetting it, produces an off white colour. If the flax is placed in a bucket or stream, the linen is oatmeal in colour.
One of the nicest yellows that can be obtained is via weld, and it was available to everyone. The addition of an iron nail to the weld dye bath gives a green colour. Other additions of different modifiers and mordants give different shades of yellow to weld. Another plants readily available, and yielding a nice yellow is strangely called dyers greenwood (or greenweed depending on the source.)
If you had more money, then there are quite a few dyes available. One of the most important was madder, which was imported. This gives a red colour, but it has a pinkish/ orange ting to it, depending on the modifier and mordant. Bedstraw was the indigenous equivalent to madder. Its colour is, however, closer to an exhausted madder (i.e. weaker) than a normal madder. Also available was local woad, which produces a blue with a gray tint to it. Those with some money could also afford to purchase lichen dyes, which produce a variety of colours including light green, pink, yellow, and a dark dusty rose.
Those with a great deal of money, such as Earls and clergy, could afford to import many bright dyestuffs. These included:
Indigo, which gives a deep blue
Imported woad, also a deep blue
Shellfish, which produces a pinkish purple
Kermes, which gives a cardinal red
The rich could also afford to over dye their cloth. This process involves taking an already dyed cloth, and putting through another dyeing process, in effect doubling the work. These overdyes can produce a deep burgundy, a golden brown, and a deep and light green. (Uzzell)
Evidence of some of the dyestuff, madder, woad, dyer’s greenweed, and weld; can be found at Coppergate. Additionally, imported clubmoss was found, which was used as a mordant because of its high alum content. (Rogers 1767)
Almost all of the archaeological evidence suggests that clothes in this time were created using geometric shapes, cut from narrow cloth. Take a look at Cut my Cote, the Thorsbjerg tunic and trousers, the finds at Hedeby and Birka, and the Bocksten bog man tunic as good examples of garments cut thusly. There are some people that suggest that they did not have the technology to produce wide cloth. I doubt this, since there are ship’s sails at Gokstad that are 120" in width. I think that the reason has to do with the wish to waste as little as possible, both in time and materials.
Setting up the loom, called dressing the loom, is a long process. On a warp-weighted loom, each thread in the warp must be individually tied to a stick, to create the weave pattern. It is, therefore, much easier to only tie up 900 warp threads, 4 yards long for 30 inch fabric than 1800 ends for 60 inch fabric at 2 yards long. Both produce the same square footage of cloth, but the first is by far simpler to do. Also, every end in the warp produces some loom waste, called thrums. On a horizontal loom it’s about 27 inches per thread, which leaves a lot of short threads. Since it took such an effort to spin, I think that they would have tried to cut down, as much as possible the width of the fabric.
a garment, using these shapes, such as seen below, there is little cloth
wasted, and much narrower fabric can be used.
As you can see from this second diagram, which is a possible cutting layout, only the shaded areas are waste.
If you cut the fabric as shown it can be only be as wide as your shoulders, but will yield a bottom hem of almost 6 times as wide as the fabric.
Styles of clothes were basically the same clothes regardless of social status. Wealth was shown through fineness of weave, colours of cloth, embroidered embellishments, and narrow tablet woven bands of trim.
Archeological evidence around this time period is weak,
mostly due to Christian burial practices. However, by looking at finds
in other place and in surrounding times, as well as pictorial and literary
references, it is possible to put together a likely picture of what people
The most outer garment would have been a cloak. Likely, square or rectangular in nature, it would have been of wool, heavily fulled to be warm; they can be started and finished with a tablet woven band. It would have been closed with a clasp of some kind, mostly commonly a disk brooch. (Levick Lesson 4, page 2 and 5)
After a cloak came an overtunic. For the Saxon lord, this tunic was loose, reached the knee. It was long sleeved and tight at the wrist. (See the diagram above.) The new Norman fashion was a ‘split style’ tunic. This tunic contained no gores, but was split in the front and back to allow for the riding of a horse. Around the split may have been faced in a contrasting colour of fabric and could have also been embroidered. This same contrasting colour could also have faced the sleeves, which also tapered to a tight wrist. To finish off the tunic, the contrasting colour also formed a ‘keyhole’ neckline, since it looks like an old fashioned keyhole.
Next came an undertunic. This was made of linen for the well off, wool otherwise. It is identical to the Saxon overtunic.
On top of the overtunic a belt would have been worn. Belts could be either of leather or textile. Those buckles and strap ends have been found, suggests that belts were narrow, only as wide as an inch and a quarter. Metal fittings appear to be used on both kinds of belts. (Levick, Lesson 4, page 6) The overtunic should reach the knee when belted and bloused.
There is little evidence of men wearing hats. The phyrigian cap, sometimes worn my re-enactors or re-creationists, is starting to show evidence of not being a hat at all, but rather a conical helmet. (Levick Lesson 4, page 7)
Men in this period wore either trousers or hose and braies. Both trousers and hose were close fitting around the leg and both trousers and braies were loose in the crotch. Structurally, braies and trousers are very similar, the main difference being length, braies reaching to just below the knee. One possible style of pant is seen below, along with its cutting layout. Though there is no evidence for this specific pattern, it does fit into the general concept of using geometric pieces to create garments. Braies would have been made of linen for comfort, while trousers could have additionally been made of wool.
Men’s hose are one of the few garments within period, cut on the bias, thus wasting fabric. By cutting on the bias, we can achieve a tighter fitting garment, since the material has ‘stretch’. There are many different styles of hose, some being one piece, and others having a separate foot. I tend to make them in one piece. The seam runs along the toes and side of the foot and then shift to run directly up the back of the leg, I’ve made a diagram showing how to make them. They are attached to the hose in one of a couple of ways:
By tying directly to the braies waistband
By using a separate tie that is attached to the waistband of the braise
Hose would have been made of wool and linen if you wanted them to be less warm and could afford it.
In general, shoes would be round toed, flat soled and reach to the ankle or just below. They were stitched or laced. Shoes would have been made from rawhide, or deer or cow leather. Most were of ‘turn shoe’ construction and made of two pieces, one sole and one upper. Some did not have any fasteners, whatsoever, being more like our modern slippers. Others were fastened with laces or thongs or had a flap and toggle. . (Levick Lesson 5, page 9)
Women also would have worn a cloak as the outermost layer.
A married woman would always keep her hair covered with a veil. This was normally made of two parts. Part one was the cap, which was essentially a rectangle of plain white linen with a seam on one side. Part two was the veil. Also made of linen it is about 20 inches by 80 inches in size. The veil could be arranged in a number of ways including:
Placing it evenly on either side of the head, falling down the back
Starting offset on the top of the head and wrapping under the chin.
The veil was kept from slipping by means of veil pins. These were passed through the veil and anchored in the cap. (Levick Lesson 3, page 6)
Then would come an overtunic. Also wool, or rarely of linen, this garment was loose fitting and reached the ankle, since much longer than that and it drags on the ground and would have required a lot of cleaning. If you were a Saxon lady, your sleeves were wrist length, and tight. However, the Norman fashion was for sleeves that were fuller at the wrist. If one wished to add embellishments, common places included cuffs of sleeves and hems of the tunic. (Levick Lesson 3, page 2)
Under the overtunic, a woman would have worn an undertunic. It would have been linen, if you could afford it, wool otherwise. It was basically an identical copy of the overtunic, except both Norman and Saxon’s wore them tight at the wrist.
Women also belted their tunics. They tended to suspend things from their belts to help show status or things they used everyday. Common items included keys, knives, shears, and spindles. The most common type of belt was a tablet woven one. (Levick Lesson 3, page 4)
On her legs was a pair of hose. Shorter than men’s hose, they could be cut on the weft, rather than the biase. This type of hose is found at Herjolfsness, artifact number 90 and 91 (Carlson) They were held up with a pair of garters, probably textile in nature.
On the very inside a women would wear a pair of braies similar to the men’s. They would have been made of linen and helped to wick away sweat in the summer, and hold in warmth in the winter. They also helped to stop chafing. The braies can be gathered loosely at the bottom, near the knee. There is some evidence of the hose being pinned to the braies, I have tried this and find that the braies tend to split if the hose and braies are too firmly attached to one another.
I have found little evidence for women wearing anything on their breasts as underwear. I’m sure that something would have been needed when they were breast-feeding, but so far I haven’t found what it is.
Shoes were essentially the same for men and women.
Once the fabric had been woven, and you have decided what you’re going to make, and how you’re going to fit all the pieces onto the fabric, it is time to assemble the final garment.
The freshly woven fabric was cut, using a pair of iron shear, similar to a modern pair of weaver’s snips, only larger. There are a few good examples in the Rogers book on page 1780. Page 1781 describes the 17 pairs of shears found, and states the average blade size as being 50-60 X 12 mm. Smaller pairs of shear were probably used for snipping thread in sewing or on the loom.
There are three kinds of needles found at Coppergate, bone, iron, and copper. (Rogers 1781-83) There is great debate as to the availability of each kind of needle. There are more iron needles found at Coppergate, but they would not break down at the same rate that bone needles would.
Generally, sewing thread was made from the same fiber as the textile it held together. Wool threads ranged from 0.8 to 1.5 mm in diameter, while linen thread was finer, at 0.4 to 1.0 mm in diameter. Wools were worked at about 1-3 stitches/centimeter, linen at about 3-5 stitches/centimeter. (Walton 409)
There are four basic stitches to learn:
Hems and seams were finished in almost every combination of these four stitches.
The seams of most garments have raw edges that may fray and don’t look very nice. Depending upon the fabric, a variety of methods were used. I tend to finish wool with either by blanket-stitching or oversewing the two edges. They could also press the seam flat and place a running stitch on each of the edges. If the fabric was less bulky, the edges were usually turned in on themselves, so that no raw edge shows, and then similar techniques were used.
We normally turned under once for woolen fabric, and twice
for finer fabric such as linen or silk. I use running stitch, blanket stitch,
and herringbone stitches to attach to the hem to the body of the garment.
Burnham, Dorothy K. Cut my Cote Royal Ontario Museum, 1973, 1997
Carlson, Marc I. Some Clothing of the Middle Ages, 1997.
Uzzell, Hazel, Dye Equivalents, Chronicle, Regia Anglorium quartly magazine
Volume 11, Issue 4 (No 60) Winter 2000 – 01
(This is the dye chart research, period dyes to DMC floss colours)
Jorgenson, Lise Bender, North European Textiles Until AD 1000, Aarhus University Press, 1992
ISBN 87 7288 416 9
Levick, Ben Middle Saxon Clothing, Costume Classroom, 1997-2002
Rogers, Penelope Walton, Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate, York Archaeological Trust for
Excavation and Research, 1997 ISBN 1 872414 76 1
Walton, Penelope Textiles, Cordage and Fibers from
16-22 Coppergate The Archaeology of York, Vol. 17; The Small Finds,
Fascicule 5. Dorchester: The Council for British Archaeology and the Dorset
Press, 1989 ISBN 0906780799
Other Works of interest
Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo Saxon England Manchester University Press, 1986
Levick ET all, Regia Anglorum Member’s Handbook
Websites to visit.
Angelcynn – Anglo Saxon Living History group (400 – 900 AD)
Conquest - Anglo-Norman Living History Society
Milites deBec - Norman re-enactors based at the University of Canterbury
Regia Anglorum - Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman and British Living History group