Textile Tools: Medieval Images of the Distaff

The Gospelles of Dystaues (or The Distaff Gospels), 1470

Luttrell Psalter 1320-1340

This woman is shown beating her husband with her distaff!

Family Scene, Wife With Spinning Distaff, Bourdichon, French, 15th c.

Eve spinning, from the Hunterian Psalter , English, ca 1170

Woman unwinding thread from a spindle into a skein MS Fr. 599, f. 48, Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris French, c. 15th Century

Historia Alexandri Magni. Flemish. 1470-1480

Fresco, 1304-06 Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua. Giotto.

Woman feeding a hen and chicks. Luttrell Salter 1325-1335.

Three queens. France, probably Paris, mid 14th cent. Pierpont Morgan Library. Manuscript. M.456.

The Real Thing: 19th Century Farmer’s Work Trousers

Wow. Recently published by NorfolkMuseumsCollections.org.

Rare surviving examples of early 19th century work clothes were found stuffed up a chimney in Toft monks, Norfolk.

It is uncertain whether the clothes were placed up the chimney to stop draughts or as is often the case with objects such as shoes and bottles, as a ritual protection against evil.

The light brown trousers have been heavily patched and repaired.

Although everyone except the very poorest would have had an outfit saved for their ‘Sunday best’ most labourers wouldn’t have had the spare income to buy new work clothes. Clothing was continually repaired and recycled, therefore remaining examples of this type are incredibly rare . Extra money could be earned at busy harvest time and this often supplied the money for any clothing and footwear needed over winter.

Date made:
1800 – 1830

Stone Age Spinning

Just read a fascinating article describing the discovery of ancient, twisted, wild flax fibers, embedded in soil samples taken from the Dzudzuana Cave in the Republic of Georgia.

Carbon dating places the habitation of the cave to the Upper Paleolithic period (32,000 to 11,000 years ago). The evidence, microscopic though it may be, suggests that the invention of twisted fiber cordage or twine dates from this early era. Cord remnants dating from 19,000 to  17,000 years ago were previously discovered  in Lascaux, France, and at the Ohalo site in Israel, but the fibers used to make the twine are still unidentified. The Dzudzuana flax fibers also contain knots and traces of color, suggesting that dyeing might also have been practiced, though it is equally possible that the color was absorbed simply from contact with mineral sources.  Representations of woven cloth appear on figurines of the time.

It’s intriguing to picture Stone Age people wearing turquoise and pink linen! But whatever the truth of that matter, the craft that we now refer to as spinning appears to have developed long before anyone thought.

Photos of the flax fibers
and the full article.


Plants for Dyeing: Wild Aster

Here in Connecticut, asters in several pale colors  grow wild in just about any uncultivated space, blooming in late summer and early fall. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning “star”. Another of its names is starwort. An amazing number varieties have developed, but where I live, the New England Aster, with small light lavender flowers, is probably the most prevalent. Collecting enough for dyeing small amounts of wool is no problem. Its stems, flowers, and leaves will provide a range of yellow based shades, depending upon mordant:

Alum – Yellow-green

Chrome – Gold, brass

Tin – Yellow-gold

Iron – Grayish green, muted

No mordant – yellow-green, pale

The color of the flower is immaterial for dyeing purposes, so don’t hold out hope for lavender! Aster is poisonous in large doses, but was used in the past for bleeding, lung disorders, dysentery, and malaria. Some Native American tribes smoked the dried root, ate the cooked plant and also brewed a tea from the leaves. Take care not to confuse asters with daisy fleabane, which blossoms earlier. Also beware of bees – the pink New England asters in my garden are abuzz with them. They tend to settle for a while in the yellow center.

This is the treacherous month when autumn days

With summer’s voice come bearing summer’s gifts.

Beguiled, the down-trodden aster lifts

Her head and blooms again.

Helen Hunt Jackson, Autumn Sonnet

Textile History: The Oldest Trousers in the World







Yes, pants. The earliest known pair anywhere. Business Insider just posted an article about an archaeological find in Western China, the graves of two nomadic horsemen that are about 3,000 years old. The researchers, from the German Archaeological Institute, say that this discovery supports the theory that trousers were initially designed for riders to provide them with the protection and freedom of movement that tunics, gowns, and loincloths simply cannot. They speculate that the men in the graves were herders and warriors, judging from the goods buried with them, such as a wooden bit and a bow.

“Each pair of trousers was sewn together from three pieces of brown-colored wool cloth, one piece for each leg and an insert for the crotch. The tailoring involved no cutting: Pant sections were shaped on a loom in the final size. Finished pants included side slits, strings for fastening at the waist and woven designs on the legs.” The team calls them “a ground-breaking achievement in the history of cloth making.”
Read more: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/first-pants-worn-horse-riders-3000-years-ago#ixzz33RgheVT5


Textile History: Henry VIII and Cloth of Gold

Cloth of gold – today we are blase about lame, but 500 years ago, it was the stuff of royalty. Extremely fine strips of gold or silver were cut from thin sheets of metal. In most cases, the core yarn is silk wrapped with a band or strip of the silver or gold filé. Though the resulting fabric was rather stiff and heavy, it was worn whenever “glam” was the order of the day.

Henry VIII, of course, is famed for his extravagance and his insistence on luxury. In June of 1520, he travelled to France to negotiate an alliance with King Francois I, against the Holy Roman Empire. The two kings were both regarded as paragons of manliness, kingliness, handsomeness, courtliness, and all the other  positive -nesses any man would want to be. They were also arch-rivals. Henry and Francois decided to meet near Calais, each arriving with huge retinues of courtiers and household necessities. They promptly set about showing each other up, sparing no expense in setting up grand temporary cities, with most of their clothing and huge pavilions covered in cloth of gold. They jousted, banqueted, strutted about, partied……the world had never seen the like, and the extravaganza became known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Apparently they left little time apart from their revelry, because an alliance was never accomplished. The Field of Gold was a political fiasco, virtually bankrupting both governments. But it must have been tons of fun…..