Sunday, August 11, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 2: Cloth Type & Color

[This is Part 2 of my documentation of an authentically created Late Medieval cotte. You can read Part 1 here for context if you haven't already.]

For the purposes of medieval recreation in North America in an era when spring temperatures routinely hit the upper 80’s, it is necessary to accept that the more desirable varieties of wool cloth, which we now refer to as broadcloth and flannel, are a large investment that can only be used for 1/3rd of the year. It has become necessary to find fabric that is both suitable to the purpose of authentic recreation, but that is also a practical choice in terms of investment with year-round usefulness.

I located the cloth used for this project at a merchant at an SCA event (96 District Fabrics). It is a woolen tabby using pairs of 1-ply Z-twisted yarn (the pairs are untwisted) for both the warp and weft at 16 threads per inch (evenweave). It appears to be an undyed natural gray to white mixed wool which produces a heather effect that at a distance reads as a medium-tone cool gray. There is no or very little processing or fulling. The cloth is slightly hairy and threads are easily separated from the piece.

Cloth Type

Based on many pieces of evidence left behind across the written and material record, wool was the preferred fiber for cloth in the Middle Ages (1). Over the course of the medieval period, the production of wool staple into a useable cloth for garments developed into an industry that fueled much of the interconnected economic stability of Western Europe, primarily between England (who had the sheep) and Flanders (who had the looms). By the 1410s, the majority of cloth production had turned into something more like a modern manufacturing process than the do-it-yourself home crafter could produce (2). There were two general categories of wool cloth being made, in addition to variations between them. Worsted cloth used long fibers, producing a lighter, smoother cloth. Woolens were created with shorter fibers that produced a more substantial thread with more elasticity and a hairier quality. In addition to being worsted or woolen, the fabric could be woven as tabby (plain), or one of several varieties of twill. 

Of these two basic varieties of wool, worsted cloth was considered the lower-quality and less expensive option. Woolens, by contrast, were created using a several step process that increased the cloth’s thickness, quality, texture, and cost. There was, therefore, a group of wool fabrics that were produced to help bridge the gap between these two types. Bay cloth, for example, used the long worsted yarns in the warp, and the short, fluffier woolen threads in the weft. Other types of cloth were produced that skipped steps in the overall process in an attempt to create a usable cloth at a lower price point. Serge, which is hard to define precisely as there doesn’t seem to be consensus, is listed in the Great Wardrobe records alongside woolens (3). Based on how they were priced and sold, serge may have been a lighter-weight woolen cloth that was produced in a way that heavy finishing was either not used or not heavily executed (4). If this is the case, a wool cloth of the variety I have used for this project would have easily fit into this category, but I am willing to admit the conjectural leap there.

Assuming, however, that fabrics like this did exist in the period for garments, regardless of what they may have been called, it would most certainly fall into one of these middle categories of quality and price. This suggests a locally available cloth purchased not as a luxury or for the purpose of fashion, but rather for basic affordability and practicality.

Gray can be seen in use for both the woman's cotte and the man's chausses in the lower right. | Source

Cloth Color

Clothing in 1410’s came in a range of colors. Dyestuff was found in a variety of natural materials, including plants and lichens, but also in natural chemicals and other materials. For example, a brown dye could be created by scraping the rust off an iron pot and tossing the shavings into a dye bath with some mordants (5).

Examining the colors that appear on clothing in a collection of early 15th Century manuscripts, it becomes quickly apparent that the primary colors of blue, red and green were heavily favored in the art, in addition to shades of pink. While these colors dominate the manuscripts, other colors do appear, including black, lavender, maroon, teal, orange, brown, and gray (6). This is by no means a definitive range of colors achievable in this time, as the dyestuffs available during the medieval period produced a range of colors well beyond these basic shades (7).

While gray cloth like that used in this project could have been created using dye baths with very little coloring remaining, it would be more likely achieved with undyed, natural gray wool. In either of these manners, yarn colored before weaving (either naturally or via dying) would produce a heathered or motley/medley cloth (8). While the manuscript imagery doesn’t support these kinds of variegated cloths in use, they do appear in the written (9) and extant record (10). Though not as desirable as piece-dyed cloth with even, solid coloring, these yarn dyed or naturally-colored fabrics would have been available as a less costly alternative for those in the lower classes of early 15th-century society (11).

1. Crowfoot, E., et al, “Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450,” Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO), 1992, p15.
2. Munro, J.,“Wool and Wool-Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c.800 - 1500: Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation”, 2000.
3. Oldland, E., 2019. The English Woollen Industry, c.1200-c.1560.
4. Ibid
5. From the Innsbruck Manuscript, circa 1330. (Ms. 355, Parchment University Library, Innsbruck)
6. Hurst, Janis, The Early 15th Century French Woman's Style Book, ebook, 2019.
8. Crowfoot, et al, 2001, p15.
10. Crowfoot, et al, 2001. See color plate 4 which shows a textile piece with color variations created with a mixture of natural gray and brown wool.
11. Hodges, L.. "Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue", (Cambridge, 2000. “....the best quality of motley might be fashionable..but it would not speak loudly of great speaks discretely of economic moderation."

1 comment:

  1. I very much enjoy your writings here, especially as I learn from you about fabrics of that era. I recall a Serge fabric from my childhood and it was a Twill Weave.

    I look forward to your next posting.