Working with fibre is like learning music; you can be taught the mechanics of what you are doing, but no one can teach you the soul. I am a maker. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. It means I am constantly learning and growing. Since being a part of the SCA, I have gone down many rabbit holes and expanded on the activities I have loved for years. I have a garden that feeds my body and spirit, I have a great interest in the scribal arts and I have my fibre.
For this presentation, I am going to focus on the fibre end of my interests.
Recreating Historically Accurate Garb: Not so easy peasy
Although this painting in the Uffizi Gallery, is an allegory and almost 80 years past Aspasia’s life, it does show the equipment and process of weaving cloth.
I began this project wanting to create as close to a historically accurate complete outfit for a Firenze wife of a wool merchant in 1490. Seemed easy enough, I thought; nothing too fancy. I searched portraits, paintings and illuminations from the time and place and came up with Ghirlandaio being a prolific painter of portraits. At the same time I was also searching for articles, books, and blogs and found a comprehensive guide to researching and recreating a 1480’s Florentine gown, as well as Jeanne Clifton’s blog entry for the Fifth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge.
Creating a complete outfit from scratch is not what a wife of a merchant would do, even if she was an artisan weaver of linen. Linen undergarments for the household were sewn, often by the matron, no matter their station. The outfit for this project is a gamurra (or camurra or comora in Florence) worn throughout the 15th century. It was a basic, functional dress worn by all classes of women, consisting of a fitted bodice and a full skirt, worn over a camicia (chemise).
In Firenze, fabric production meant a person had a very specific job to do. A wool carder would not be a spinner or dyer. There were very few all in one industries. Wool was usually imported from England, although, around the end of the 15th century, Spanish merino became a higher quality choice.
I have not been able to find any extant garb, as a primary source, available, other than rich silks and velvets. This is not surprising as Florence had a thriving silk and velvet weaving industry. I did, however, find a dress from mid 16th century Pisa of a Lindsey woolsey fabric in a lovely 2/2 broken twill. The design of the dress is similar enough to adjust it to my time and place.
In the beginning….
Lower quality local wool was used for weaving, though the majority of wool for fine cloth was imported from England. The finest came from the Welsh border counties. In 1454 the finest came from Leominster in Herefordshire.
It starts with a shorn sheep fleece. This one is about 8 pounds.
A lovely lady from Duncan gifts me her Clun Forest fleece after shearing each year for the last 5 years.
The fleece is ‘skirted’, removing the worst parts; down to 6 pounds.
Washing can take days when working with smaller amounts.
Even though this fleece is quite clean, I always do at least a second rinse. I used to add soap to the first bath and then use the second for the rinse.
Sheep in England would have been ‘dipped’ before shearing to clean their wool before exporting to other lands.
This is some of the cleanest fleece I work with. This is after the first rinse. I will often use this gray water to water my flower beds.
Drying usually takes a couple of days. Look how white and fluffy it’s looking now.
I have to be careful of the wind and during nesting season. I’ve had birds come in to use some for lining their nests.
In 1490, this fleece would have been processed for spinning by a wool carder and comber.
I carded my fleece into batts using a hand cranked carder. I also have portable hand carders to take to events.
In my potting shed half the space is dedicated to carding and dyeing. I’m so glad for electricity to heat up my dyepot and to power the dehydrator, used for drying the plants and mushrooms I collect for dyeing (if I don’t use it right away).
Spinning it all up
Before spinning, during this period, a bit of oil and water is added to the batt. This helps with keeping the fibre bits under control. At this time I have not found information on what happens between spinning and weaving. Threads that are dyed before weaving retain more colour and will last longer than dyed cloth. If dyed prior to weaving, the oily yarn would have been scoured.
The batt of fleece is wrapped around the top of the distaff and loosely attached with the ribbon. The fibre is drawn from the batt and spun in a clockwise rotation (Z spin; S spin is counterclockwise).
This distaff belonged to my Greek Grandmother’s maid, Sevasti. She worked for my grandmother throughout her adulthood, and this distaff was made for her by her nephew. In the paintings I’ve seen, the distaff is represented as a long pole.
There were about 30 000 spinners employed to keep the weavers busy prior to the plague in the mid 1300’s. The population in 1488 was about 42 000.
This is my gray Romney yearling. I washed it with soap and may have agitated too much because I found that it has been more challenging to open up the fibres for spinning. I have also found the darkest gray is more fragile than the rest.
It is soft, though, and pretty.
This is a full bobbin of merino and a ball of a second bobbin. I use an electric spinner when I have a large quantity of fibre to spin. It works at the same speed as 10 women spindle spinning.
Spanish Merino is still available today; I sent an email to a small company in Spain but have not heard back.
This merino wool was purchased from a local store. It is from New Zealand and comes as roving. Roving looks like a very long, fluffy rope. It makes it much easier to spin from.
My thinking is that, because the white wool arrived in bales, there would have been fleece from many different animals. As can be seen in the photo, each fleece has different colour and mixing the fleeces would have given the spinner a more consistent fleece to spin.
This is what I’ve spun so far for this project. There are at least 8 different sources of fleece. Some of the yarn was dyed as unspun fibre.
(This table is 4′ long and 2′ wide)
Although I have several period style spindles, I mostly use modern ones. I have two that I particularly like using. They have good balance, spin for a long time and can hold a lot of fibre.
On to weaving
In which I try starting with a linen warp and go to town
This sample is made with the plied super fine linen. Each fibre is one shuttle bobbin’s worth of weaving.
Starting on the left is: Clun Forest, Merino, line linen dyed, natural linen, dyed Merino, silk and cotton. I went to town trying tabby (2,4/1,3 heddle rise), 2/2 twill (1,2/2,3/3,4/1,4), basket (1,2/3,4) and a broken twill (1,2/2,3/1,4/3,4) weave structures.
This worked quite well and will be able to use the linen section for the partlet part of the weaving. I will need to work more with whatever wool I decide to use for the gamurra.
The Merino felt the softest but I will need to try a higher thread count for the warp; 28-30epi (ends per inch).
Oops! Just saw that the written description is for a different sample.
Using linen for the warp entails making a choice between three sources; I would likely have bought spun linen.
Good linen warp is very expensive at $35 a cone. I will likely need 10 cones. I was gifted 2 x 4 pound cones of linen thread. As singles, they are too fine to use as warp, so I would have to ply it to make it the thickness I need. I have not yet found examples of linen being plied. I am awaiting 4kg of flax from Austria (lovely, long story) that is from a bridal chest from the 1940’s. There has been a delay sending it because of the pandemic. I’ve not had much experience spinning flax and it will take a long time to spin. I have a cone of some linen the same size as the plied, and will weave a sample using the three wool breeds I’ve been spinning. When that is where I want it to be, I will ply the large cones and use that. It will save time, money and I am using something I already have. The mixed cones of linen I have will be woven into cloth for some underclothes and a partlet. Berta’s flax from Austria will be spun and used for my future weaving of linen towels and cloth for sale at events.
As an aside, if you are interested in learning more or participating in Berta’s Flax, you can find the group on Facebook.
A closer look at what the weaving looks like. This is straight off the loom so I need to wash half of it to see how well the fibres work.
I am particularly liking the weave pattern just to the left of the yellow. It’s luxurious looking. It is 1,2/2,3/1,2/3,4/1,4/,3/4.
My weaving structure will completely depend on what I can produce on a 4 shaft loom. I don’t have a jacquard loom or little boys to pull the correct heddles to make a damask.
The other end. This shows off the silk and the cotton.
The dyed (goldenrod) Merino is a really promising weave. I will wash half the sample to check it out!
This sample was woven with a store bought line linen (single) set at 24 end per inch. The weaving was done in tabby and twill with Merino, gray Romney, Clun Forest and thicker spun, dyed, Clun Forest.
There is a fair bit of curl and the warp needs to be at least 28epi with any of these wools, especially with twill.
The sample on the right is washed and there is less curl.
Speaking of linen; let us go down a rabbit hole
This is a short side trip and included because it will be a part of my whole project and I was experimenting already anyway.
I want to weave my linen partlet as well. With this practice piece, I looked at my gallery and some sites with pattern ideas.
As a first attempt, I’m actually quite pleased. The whole piece needs to be wider as does the neck gap.
It will make a lovely piece of cloth for embellishment.
With the neck, I stopped weaving in the middle and, as I wove each side, I would take less of the centre warp threads.
After the piece came off, I wove the ends back into the neck with a blunt needle for strength.
I should have made the neck opening wider.
I wove each edge with the yellow. That would have become the hem for the cord to go through.
I have hemstitched the edge so I could cut the threads off without losing any of the weaving. I’m not sure it is period but it saves from fraying badly.
Did I mention I love weaving with linen?
Trying it on. Not wide enough and lots of gap because the neck is not wide enough. Cause and effect in action.
End of rabbit hole.
Except for the last sample I wove, this is all the sampling I have created so far.
I have learned that it is important to label or document as you go along because, no, you will not remember every detail of what you did 6 months ago.
I did, however, improve with this project, writing basic information down on scraps of paper and not losing them.
Let us try that in wool now
Just to get started, I used some wool I already had. I wanted to have a sense of the ends per inch I would need.
I wanted to see what the difference would be using a full bobbin with tabby and one with twill.
Although the twill has a much nicer drape, it only weaves half the amount of tabby.
I wrap the thread around a ruler to measure how many threads in 1 cm. The textile fragment finds from early period show an average of 11 threads/cm.
This fibre is from a New Zealand Romney fleece I was gifted by my mother in law. It was stored in newspaper in a box, since June of 1992! It still has some life in it and is lovely to spin; perhaps a little dry, so sticky.
Both of these skeins are the same size and length. The major difference is that one skein was washed and set with a weight and the other was not.
I took the twisted one off. More on that later.
The steel bar on the left holds one end of the warp to the loom. The two ‘lease’ sticks which separates the threads, keep them in order.
I’m threading the wool through the heddles. You can see how the cross helps with keeping the threads neat.
Many medieval looms in a home would have had two shafts instead of the four that I have.
Although this is not the loom I warped with the sample, this floor loom shows how the warp is wound onto the back roller.
In Firenze, warps would have been many yards long. More than 50% of producing a piece of cloth is in the preparation of the loom.
Guild weavers were men, an artisan, in the middle class. Paintings show that women did weave.
Here is an example of using a ski shuttle to wind the weft thread on in order to weave. In paintings, the shuttle used is called a boat shuttle. A bobbin of thread is inserted in the middle of the shuttle, which has an elongated hole. (The Uffizi Gallery painting at the beginning shows one)
This piece is practicing one of the period patterns I’m thinking of doing. All the wool is hand spun and naturally dyed. It is also 2 ply. Some of the wool I have can be used to weave blankets, but I digress.
This is the same pattern but a different thickness. When weaving, it is important to take into account shrinkage with washing. Everything shrinks at different rates, but I usually allow for 10%.
Sampling at 28 epi or 11/1cm; just like the extant pieces
Well that didn’t go very well. All the extant photographs and charts indicated that the thread count was 11 threads per 1 cm. When I started to weave, the threads were sticking together and I found it almost impossible to use the beater or change the heddles, even when I was raising one at a time. Then they started to fray and break. I made three attempts at weaving with this before giving up.
Some discussion with others and looking at it, a thought that the warp was too old and therefore behaving like it has split ends. That didn’t quite sit right with me. Asking the correct questions can sometimes lead to an aha moment. After asking the Sable Lion Weavers group what their thoughts were on measuring extant pieces, I came to the conclusion that the thread count was done with a finished piece of cloth. It had been washed and worn for a long time. Remember the shrinkage part? I didn’t. If I allowed for 20% shrinkage (because I planned on vigorously washing to start to full), I would need to warp at 8 threads per centimetre or 20epi.
On the loom it is evident it’s not working.
In hindsight, I should have seen those threads were way too close to have worked.
The three attempts of weaving the broken twill pattern and tabby.
Tabby, broken twill and chevron. Many broken threads and much cursing.
Even though I went past all the broken threads and tried again, it became evident this was not working and I needed to do more research.
Twenty ends per inch; Yay or Nay?
In order to see what difference between 28 and 20epi would be, I wanted to use the same type of warp and weft. I had the twisted mess already sitting there.
Remember the twisted mess of warp of What not to do?
This would not have been thrown out. It is too precious and has taken someone at least 3 hours of spinning and warping. Thank goodness the one end and cross had been tied. It was matter of finding the other loop ends.
At least I know it is spun tightly for strength for warp.
After much discussion and more reading, I decided to try sizing the warp in case it was the age of the fleece that was an issue. Sizing was done using different ingredients: boiled bones, rice or potato starch or spray starch. Potato and spray starch was not available at the time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to boil bones and wool together and rice was available, so rice water it was.
Yay for 20epi!
Off the Loom; looks promising
Both the warp and weft are z (clockwise) spun. There seems to be very little curl in the fabric sample.
Setting the ends per inch at 20 instead of 28 allows for 20% shrinkage.
I used the rice starched white romney to make the next sample. The first thing I noticed was how much easier it was to weave. I used the gray Romney singles to weave 4 inches in tabby and in twill, following with a repeat using the brown. I had hoped to do a section of white but the warp disintegrated rapidly with the brown. I did manage a small bit using some merino. The gray went well, but the warp threads were starting to fray when I got to the brown. I checked the loom and sure enough, noticed that the threads were tangled up near the back bar. I feel that I could have more success now with warping with my white wool.
Using specific colours of wool was important in understanding what status a person is in 1490. White was considered the best. Fleece not white would have been used for those of the lowest classes and the clergy of the churches professing poverty. As a good Christian, I would make sure that I was donating bolts of cloth to my church. When you get to the dyeing of the cloth, that takes you down another rabbit hole. Not today.
I cut the sample in two and vigorously washed one piece of it, then ’tented’ it, stretching to get the biggest piece of fabric I could, to dry. Comparing the washed with the unwashed, the length did not shrink at all, but I assume that is because it was already washed. The original sample was warped at 8.5”. When woven, width was reduced to 8”. Each of the different weft shrunk at different rates, with the dark brown Romney having the least shrinkage, then the gray Romney and the white Merino having the most (with the beginnings of felting in one section). The brown is the most rough and the oldest sheep of the three.
The gray is my favourite. It is from a first shearing. I also spent more time combing it. The Merino is the most expensive and highest quality roving.
Definite shrinkage. The thread count with the gray twill is historically accurate!
I lost a bit of edge because I was too excited to stitch the edge before washing.
For my first woven cloth, I will dye the gray with a period dye and use a white wool warp. It might be interesting to dye the whole cloth after weaving. In several paintings, I have seen older women wearing more of a large rectangular wrap.
With dyes, I have been harvesting locally found flowers and growing my own madder, alkanet, and indigo, all period ingredients. I have a dahlia that I have been growing specifically for dye as it gives a brilliant yellow I love. I will do more research on my particular available dyestuff before deciding. Another rabbit hole! I love dyepot days, and with summer coming on, that will be happening a lot more.
For my gamurra, my plan is to use a linen warp and weave the bodice with merino and the skirt with period dyed white wool. I would love to do the whole piece in merino, but that is not in the budget. I also think that using a sturdier wool will improve its longevity for use. UPDATE: I found a whole bunch of merino roving tucked under some other fibre! I guess I will have a better chance now of make more cloth with merino.
I will continue to weave with the linen to make a partlet and then an apron. When the flax comes from Austria, I will spin and weave it into towels that will be for sale at events.
This weaving draft has been around for many hundreds of years.
At the time of publication, I found 2 blogs on other weaver’s journeys; this will help immensely with weaving my cloth.
Image Inspiration Gallery
Some of my work
Domenico Ghirlandaio Visitation (detail), (1448-1494)
Fresco. Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Domenico Ghirlandaio Birth of St. John the Baptist (detail) (1448-1494)
Fresco. Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Domenico Ghirlandaio Giovanna Tornabuoni and Her Accompaniment (detail), (c.1488), public domain 5/19/2021
Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Ring Ceremony, 1486-1490, https://samanthahughesjohnsonarthistorian.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/domenico-ghirlandaio-the-ring-ceremony-oratorio-dei-buonomini-di-san-martino-florence.png?w=696 5/19/2021
References and Resources
The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook, Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius, ISBN 978-1-60342-711-1
the Handweaver’s Pattern Directory, Anne Dixon, ISBN 978-1-59668-040-1
The Golden Thread How fabric changed history, Kassia St Clair, ISBN 978-1-473-65905-6
Daily Life in Renaissance Italy, Elizabeth S. and Thomas V. Cohen, ISBN 978-0-313-36114-2
Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500, Jacqueline Herald, ISBN 0-7135-1294-6
Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450, Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland, ISBN 978-1-84383-239-3
The Rise, Expansion, and Decline of the Italian wool-based cloth industries, 100-1730: A Study in International Competition, Transaction Costs, and Comparative advantage, John H. Monro, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 34d series, Vol. 9 (2012),economics.utoronto.ca.
Ch. 2 Economics of Sheep farming, tudortimes, co.uk.
The Florentine Wool Trades in the Middle Ages; A bibliographical note, communicated by Miss E. Dixon, jstor.org.
Being Florentine: A Question of Identity in the Arte Della Lana, Florence, Jill Harrison, Open University
Extant Dresses in Pisa: Updates on sewing and construction techniques from the Costume Colloquium 2008, Florence, La Signora Onorata (THL) Katerina da Brescia
IRCC5, April 1 to July 31, 2015, Jeanne Clifton
A Guide to Researching and Recreating 1480’s Florentine Women’s Fashion, Mistress Elena Hylton
The Guilds of Florence, Edgcumbe Staley, pages 159-167, The Guilds of Wool
By thread and by sign. The Art of Wool in Florence in the sixteenth century, Ch. 2: Lights and Shadows of the sixteenth century (English translation)
Florentine Cloth Industry, Copenhagen2012B.pdf
Tracking down tintori in the Florentine state archives, Victoria Bartels, refashioningrenaissance.eu.
https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fyoutu.be%2FPl7siWwzibs%3Ffbclid%3DIwAR05oDc1xG82Y1HterITmVR2No4VDmAaZC_bnDEd60qulkEwbWeOBh61dGc&h=AT27vqHQ497ZSuu25FoHkFwwcQcXk2uyvHztrcYvIyFBuGbqEmZKpWy4Rrl-uqArguGxlr8eJGsNG-tFpy0yobt9sPHpgjpdWlsuLHjMxKe8wV69dPbcdHgFVSFaJ8GVwuZvRjyHZqO- This video is about recreating a pair of early pants.
Two sites I want to check out:
worldcat.org: L’abito della granduchessa’ vesti di corte e di madonne nel Palazzo Reale di Pisa: Museo Nazionale di Piazzo Reale, Pisa, dal 28 giugno 2000 (Book, 2000)