Picture

Wool


Why Wool?

Wool was the most common fiber used to make cloth in Medieval Europe due to the widespread availability of sheep. Sheep can live on land that can't be used for any other kind of agriculture, and are very easy to take care of. They also had other uses besides providing wool, and could be milked or slaughtered for meat. In addition, wool could also be turned into many different grades of cloth.


Production

  • First, workers would shear the sheep, usually in the spring, cutting their fleece of near the skin. The fleece itself will usually be matted enough at the surface to hold together in one large piece.
  • The fleece would then be washed, carded and combed, to clean and align the fibers for spinning. Fibers would also be sorted by length to determine what quality and kind of yarn and cloth they would be used for.
  • The fibers would then be spun into yarn of varying quality, either on a spindle or a wheel, and then be woven on some kind of loom.
  • Last, the cloth was fulled, changing texture and finish via both chemical and mechanical processes.

Fulling

  • First the cloth was soaked in urine or fuller's earth to remove dirt and grease, including lanolin (the oil produced by wool-bearing animals which helps them shed water). Soap was also used, but was expensive in most European regions.
  • The cloth was then rinsed, beaten while damp either by hand or machine. Water mills were often used to power the hammers used for beating the cloth.
  • Essentially, fulling puts wool cloth through an incomplete felting process, which shrinks, thickens, and strengthens the cloth.
  • Last, the cloth was then air dried on frames and tenterhooks, so it didn't shrink. After it was completely dry, the surface would be combed with a teasel, which gave cloth a soft finish and raised nap.
  • This last step was often heavily regulated by wool-producing towns, since the way in which cloth was stretched and dried had a very great impact on the final quality of the fabric.

Felting

  • Felting was usually done with raw wool fiber, but can also be done on wool in other forms, such as yarn or knitted items.
  • Felting is a process that uses a detergent in conjunction with heat, moisture and pressure to bind wool fibers tightly together into a thick, dense, warm and hard-wearing cloth.
  • Felting only works with certain animal fibers, and is a function of the way actual hair shafts are formed, with scaling and crimp.
  • In Medieval Europe, felt was mostly used for hats

Sources

  • Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001.