It Takes A Village …

da Costa Book of Hours illustrated in 1515 by Bening

The oft quoted “It takes a village to raise a child”  came to mind when exploring the wool trade and the manufacture of wool and cloth for both personal use (home spun), and commercial trade, lead to an exercise in mapping the artisans needed to produce a finished piece of cloth.  I quickly realised that it could also take a village to produce a piece of cloth and benefit from the income this could generate.

Power (1941) notes that it was advantageous for peasants with sufficient land to raise sheep, as they were cheap to keep and profitable for both subsistence and income. Ewes produce: milk, used for cheese making; lambs to sell on or raise; wool, which can be sold as fleece, yarn or cloth and at the end of her useful life meat, tallow for candles and skin for parchment. All of this could be sold or bartered as “cash crops” were essential for paying the rent, and purchasing those tools and goods that  he couldn’t manufacture at home.

Pierpont Morgan Library. Manuscript. M.140: Fol. 005r, Adam and Eve: at Labor.

Wool was woven into the daily life of the medieval person,  either as a raw material, finished cloth or clothing. This is especially true for peasants living near the great cloth producing centres, wool markets and staple towns as sheep farming, preparing, spinning, weaving and dyeing cloth, was a significant aspect of daily life. Income could be generated through the sale of cleaned fleece, yarn and woven cloth, some fully finished and dyed and some finer cloths, unfinished and undyed.  Gilbert states that all villages required wool cloth, so the majority of peasant women would prepare fleece, spin and produce homespun cloth for personal use and as tithes ( (Gilbert). On monastic estates,  part of the rent would be a coarse wool cloth for the habits of the monks or nuns or to be used for clothing for the lay members (Power 1922).

To identify the various people involved in wool production, it is first necessary to give an overview of the  processes required in producing finished cloth, these will be explored in more depth in subsequent posts

  1. Shearing or Wool Gathering
  2. Grading the wool – assessment of the quality
  3. Washing, beating and cleaning the fleece
  4. Combing or Carding
  5. Dyeing with woad if required – colour fast blue dye
  6. Spinning  – drop spindle or great wheel
  7. Weaving, naalbinding or possibly knitting cloth or garments
  8. Dyeing with non colour fast dyes and mordants if required
  9. Fulling – also known as tucking or felting
  10. Washing and tenting – stretching back to the required size
  11. Napping or shearing
  12. Selling the fleece, unfinished or finished cloths
Pierpont Morgan Library. Manuscript. M.819: Fol. 188v, Figure, Male :

From there it is possible to start thinking about the equipment needed for each stage, such as metal shears, carding pads or wool combs, dye pots, drop spindles and spindle whorls, distaff, niddy noddy, spinning wheel, wooden, metal or bone needles, knitting wires, weaving looms, fulling baths, tenting frames, teasels, napping shears. This then allows a map to be developed as to the members of the community needed to make these tools and also produce the cloth. Its worth noting that  for less remote villages, some of the equipment could have been bought at markets, in nearby towns or from visiting chapmen but the more remote villages would demand a greater self sufficiency.

The chart below outlines summarises the list above and identifies the artisans who would be able to make and maintain equipment. Each step will be explored in more depth in later posts.Village wool cloth


References and Bibliography

Dyer C (1997) The Economy and Society IN Saul R. (1997) The Oxford Illustrated Medieval History of England p158, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Gilbert R (undated) Medieval Peasant Woman at Home IN Rosalie’s Medieval Woman [online] accessed 2/3/16

Pomeroy AJ (undated) Devon Wool Trade in the 14th & 15th Centuries, IN Dyed in Wool [online] accessed 2/3/2016

Power E (1922) Medieval English Nunneries c1275 to 1535 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [online] accessed 2/3/2016

Power E (1941) The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, Being the Ford Lectures [online] accessed 2/3/2016







It Takes A Village …