Fiber Arts

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Historical Context

Take a look at Oetzi the Iceman, who is believed to have lived 5700 years ago. He is dressed in skins, but no woven items. There is evidence of twining, sewing and some kind of netting among his equipment, but no explicit demonstration of the skills of spinning and weaving. The fibers in his equipment were bast, grass and sinew. His "baskets" were made of birch bark sewn into shape with bast, rather than being woven as we understand basketry.

Much of the early history of textiles is buried in prehistory. We have the remains of textiles here and there and signs of textiles here and there (imprints of textiles on surviving pottery, metal salts covering what is now non-existant fibers), but the archeological history is sparse and incomplete.

By the Roman period, spinning and weaving were familiar skills, and these skills were not lost during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. However, increasingly sophisticated techniques and methods of production were developed in the time period of the SCA. The spindle wheel was brought into use to supplement the spindle, and later still the flyer wheel began its development, reaching its final form with the addition of the treadle in the very late 16th century or in the 17th century. The warp-weighted loom and other vertical-warp looms were gradually supplanted by the horizontal-warp loom. Fulling mills were developed to mechanically full cloth using water power during the Middle Ages.

Textiles were very valuable in the Middle Ages, because so many hours of handwork went into them. In addition, many fabrics traveled long distances in the trade routes between their producers and their final users. Inventories of estates and wills often list textiles and textile items very precisely because of their value.

For woolen textiles, the sheep would be cared for, the wool sheared from the sheep, cleaned and prepared for spinning (usually combing or carding), spun, then used as warp or weft on a loom. After the textile was created, further cleaning and other processes, like fulling was applied to the cloth before it was cut and sewed into a final object. Somewhere in the process, most wool fiber was dyed, whether it was while still in the form of fiber, yarn or fabric.

For linen textiles, the flax would be grown, harvested, retted or rotted, then go through an intensive, multi-step processing to separate the usable bast fibers from the "woody" bits of plant material. Then it, like wool would be spun and woven and finished. Two common finishing processes done to linen cloth were bleaching and beetling.

Nettles was said to yield a bast fiber like linen.

Silk was produced primarily in Asia and imported into Europe, though Italy did develop a silk industry around the Renaissance era. There are many beautiful patterned silks preserved in church treasuries from the Middle Ages.

Cotton was grown around the Mediterranean basin, and some was certainly made into cloth, but it didn't become a common fiber in the Middle Ages except perhaps in certain areas or for specific uses.

Spinning and weaving are becoming common enough hobbies in our culture that there are more and more manufacturers of spindles, spinning wheels and handlooms out there. SCA hobbyists interested in fibers are finding more and more mundane outlets for their interests. Many (far from all) yarn shops carry spinning and weaving supplies, and if you can't get what you need locally, the Internet brings you in touch with equipment and fiber suppliers from all over the world.


Mailing Lists



Guilds Related to Fiber Arts



Historical Needlework Resources

More Information