Wool fabrics through the ages

20 October, 2020 | Rudolf Kocar, Ada, Marcela

Planning a historical costume but you’re not sure which fabric to choose? No need to wade through piles of history books – we’ve done the research for you. This short guide to historical wools covers everything from traditional wool processing techniques to pointers for choosing an authentic weave.

wool broadcloth in plain weave and twill variations

Gorgeous wool broadcloth in autumn colors – both plain weave and twill are pictured

The history of wool

If you sew historical costumes you know that choosing the right fabric can be a headache. For authentic results, you have to know how wool was processed and what fabrics were made in the period you’re targeting. Should you go for a plain weave or a twill? What did people wear in central Europe? In the north? How did they dye their fabrics? This article will cover the fundamentals… starting with sheep.

Domestication of sheep

Sheep farming has an exceedingly long tradition. Sheep, after all, were one of the first domesticated animals ever, right up there with dogs and goats. Paleolithic cave paintings in Spain that date from around thirteen thousand years before the common era depict early attempts at domestication. At that time people probably kept wild sheep and goats as a source of meat and milk. The first archaeological finds showing the presence of domesticated sheep and goats – the two animals are so similar, that it can be hard to tell their remains apart – date from the ninth millennium BCE. Sheep had much shorter wool in those days, similar to that of the mouflon, and it wasn’t much use for making yarn.

The first sheep that had wool long enough for spinning made their appearance around 6000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest reliable discovery of wool textiles dates from the fourth millennium BCE, about the time that wool processing technology made its way from the Near East to Europe.

Altamira cave paintings

Cave painting (source: The Moravian Museum)

Wool in the Bronze Age

The use of wool spread rapidly across Europe in the Bronze Age (2300–800 BCE). The oldest wool cloth fragments discovered on the continent were found in a Danish swamp – they date to around 1500 BCE. In the Bronze Age, wool production began to prevail over the processing of plant-based fibers. The diameter of a single yarn at this time ranged from 1 to 2 mm. Plain and twill weaves and their derivatives were used. There is also evidence that fulling and felting of wool were known by this time. Weavers produced interesting effects by combining weft yarns with an S-twist and a Z-twist. Various natural shades of wool were in circulation and the use of dyes began to emerge.

Wool in the Iron Age

The relatively coarse, unsophisticated fabrics of the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (the Hallstatt period, 750–450 BCE) gradually gave way to stunning textiles made with fine yarn (0.15–15 mm in diameter) in plain, twill, and even satin weaves and decorated with intricate woven motifs. Dyers had an array of red, yellow, and blue dyes at their disposal. Wool was sometimes combined with linen; pure wools predominated in northeastern Europe and pure linen in the Middle East with wool-linen blends typical in most of continental Europe.

By the Late Iron Age (the La Tène period, ca. 450–1 BCE) fabrics became a bit heavier and patterns simpler (stripes replaced complex checkered weaves). The bindings typical of this period are plain weave, twill 2/2, and twill 2/1. Findings indicate that plant-based materials began to make a comeback at this time.

Hand-woven woolens

Hand-woven reproductions of traditional Bohemian woolens (source: Rudolf Kocar, Textil postaru)

Wool in the Early Middle Ages

Most textile finds from the early medieval period come to us from northern Europe, where conditions are best for preserving cloth in simple graves. Not much is known about what common folk in other parts of Europe wore at this time. Aristocratic burials are more telling – there are imported silks and silk-linen blends with patterns in gold or silver thread woven in plain weave, double cloth (with two wefts), lancé, and brocade. The general populace probably wore wool, linen, hemp fabric, and nettle fabric and there are mentions of felted items and fulled wool.

In Viking Scandinavia, fabric remnants differ according to where they were found. Overall, plain weaves predominate (78% of all textile fragments found in Denmark, roughly 50% of those found in Norway and Sweden), followed by simple four-ply twill (10% in Denmark and about 30% in Norway and Sweden). On rare occasions the three-ply twill, broken twill, and diamond weave were also used. So when reconstructing common clothing, it is best to stick to plain weaves and simple twills.

Wool in the High Middle Ages

At the height of the Middle Ages, textile production underwent a significant transformation. Yarn and fabric production became a guild craft, new techniques developed to speed production, and technology improved. The 11th century saw the introduction of the first horizontal looms, which were far more efficient than the old vertical looms. By the 13th to 15th centuries, weaving on the horizontal looms became widespread and in the same period we see the invention of the spinning wheel, which replaced the hand spindle and significantly accelerated and improved yarn production (the pedal spinning wheel was not widespread until the 16th century). The cloth-making process was broken down into specializations, accelerating production and spurring progress – specialists could devote themselves fully to their craft and improve it. This division of labor eventually led to the cottage industry system.

Textile specialists of this period:

  • Linen weavers wove simple, linen canvas
  • Fustian weavers wove cloth from a blend of linen and cotton
  • Wool weavers wove wool cloth
  • Carders and combers processed raw wool
  • Spinners spun wool into yarn
  • Fullers (or tuckers, walkers) wet down and beat wool cloth to thicken it
  • Dyers dyed fabrics
  • Calenderers starched and pressed fabric to make it smooth and shiny

medieval dyer of wool

Dyeing wool in the Middle Ages

As its production become more streamlined, wool broadcloth, with its many benefits, came to dominate the wool fabric market

Wool in later periods

As trade and travel expanded, exotic materials like silk and cotton gained popularity on the continent. Cotton gradually became cheaper and more plentiful until it had made its way into the wardrobes of practically all social classes. It unseated linen as the primary plant-based material in Europe and was sometimes used instead of wool as well. Wool, however, proved irreplaceable for many types of clothing (cold-weather clothes and accessories, military uniforms, men’s suits).

Many European countries continue a strong tradition of wool farming and quality wool fabric production.

How is wool cloth made?

The raw material for making wool fabric is sheep’s wool, though the fleece of any suitable animal may be used (yak, llama, goat, camel). There are many breeds of sheep and not all have fleece suitable for textile production. The quality of the fleece can also vary according to what part of the body it comes from and depending on the age and sex of the animal.

Shearing, cleaning, and spinning

People used spring shears to cut the wool from sheep ever since the Iron Age. Before that, wool had to be removed by combing. Today, electric shears make the shearing process much easier. The raw fleece, known at this point as “greasy wool,” is processed immediately after being shorn. The poorest quality, heavily soiled wool (from the tail and abdomen) is discarded and the remaining greasy wool is cleaned to remove excess lanolin and bits of vegetation that have gotten caught in it, a process called skirting. Traditionally, sheep were herded into a river or stream before shearing. The skirted fleece was then scoured in a cascade of permeable locks set up in a stream, starting in the lowest pool and moving up through the system of locks until the wool eventually came out clean at the top. In later times the fleece was washed in a basin in a mixture of soap or potash and water before rinsing in running water. Today, vegetable matter is removed by carbonization – the fleece is soaked in a strong, inorganic acid that breaks the plant debris down into carbon but leaves the wool fiber undamaged.

After drying in the sun, the tangled wool was loosened by hand, carded, and combed. The combed wool was tied in bunches and passed along to spinners to be twisted into yarn. Wool yarn was spun in varying weights and with one of two alternate twists – an S twist or a Z twist. Sometimes single yarns were spun and two or more single yarns were twisted together to make a thicker, stronger thread. Twisting and spinning are based on basically the same principle.

Spinning wool

Spinning wool (source: 100+1)

Dyeing wool

If the yarn was to be used for the production of a colored fabric, it was dyed at this stage. Dyeing was an art unto itself and dyers tended to specialize either in bright colors or dark. A wide range of natural dyes was pressed into service, many of them plant-based, such as saffron (bright yellow, very expensive), blueberries (blue), safflower (orange), woad (blue), oak apples (violet), onion (brown). The wool was treated with a mordant so that the color would take better and after dyeing was completed it was set so that it would last as long as possible.

Natural dyeing still has many advocates today and there’s a wealth of literature available, both online and off, offering detailed instructions and tips for the home dyer.

dyeing wool

Naturally dyed yarn, source: livinghistory

Weaving wool cloth

The dyed yarn was now ready to use for weaving into cloth. From the early days of weaving all the way through the Early Middle Ages, fabric was made on simple, vertical looms. As the High Middle Ages got underway, the transition to horizontal looms began. The choice of weave was important here. The simplest plain-woven fabrics could be made in even the poorest households. Twills and broken twills required a more complex loom and a bit more skill.

hand woven fabric on a home loom

Hand weaving on a home loom (source: Marcela Marín)

Historically authentic wool fabrics

Whether you plan to buy your fabric or weave it yourself, always keep in mind the historical period, geographical region, and social status of the character for whom you are sewing.

Broadcloth

Wool broadcloth is probably the most widespread and frequently utilized material for historical costuming. Broadcloth is a fulled wool fabric. Such fabrics were common throughout all periods and they continue to be top sellers to this day. A real broadcloth is not as attractive as a modern brushed wool fleece. Its surface is considerably duller and rougher.

The production of broadcloth is fairly time consuming, with multiple steps. The fabric shrinks significantly during its manufacture, but the result is a strong, dense, good-quality material that keeps out the wind and is even partially waterproof. With these qualities broadcloth almost entirely pushed the simpler weaves from the market in the Middle Ages and went on to become a must for military uniforms, which were sewn from it until quite recently.

wool broadcloth jacket

Wool broadcloth jacket (source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

From a technical standpoint, the process of weaving broadcloth did not differ from other fabrics except that a larger, broader loom was used in order to accommodate a heavier, wider warp (this is why we call it broadcloth). The cloth was generally woven as a plain weave or a twill. After weaving, the fabric was washed, rinsed, dried, and then fulled. It was simplest to soak the cloth in a wooden tub and then walk on it (fullers were also called walkers). To make this step easier large water-powered fulling mills were introduced (roughly in the pre-Hussite period). A fulling mill was usually shared by several cloth-makers and sometimes they were built by guilds. During the fulling process the surface of the wool cloth is felted. Broadcloth essentially combines the good points of woven cloth and felt.

After fulling, the matted surface was teased to raise the nap using a special brush made of dried thistles – generally the species that’s still known today as fuller’s teasel (Dipsacus sativus). The result was a uniform surface under which the weave could no longer be seen. The final step in manufacturing broadcloth was trimming. Special shears were used to trim the nap very short so that the surface would not be too plush, resulting in a neat, felted appearance.

Plain woven wool

Most historical wool fabrics were made in a plain weave. The simplest of all weaves, it requires only two shafts on the loom and is easy to learn. A classic plain weave is what you get when you alternate lifting even and odd warp threads each time you throw the shuttle. The threads are lifted by a shaft, which is why you need two – one is always up and the other down. The plain weave can be quite strong because it’s the most densely woven of all the weaves.

100% wool broadcloth plain weave

Sartor’s lightweight 100% wool broadcloth (plain weave) for period clothing from our core collection

Wool twills

Wool twills were also widespread in all historical periods. One of the basic weaves, twill has a characteristic diagonal rib. It is dense and strong, but where a plain weave requires a loom with two shafts, twill requires three or more. This simple fact made twill more difficult to produce and therefore more expensive. Twill is woven on a three-shaft or four-shaft loom, which is the difference between a three-ply and four-ply twill. By changing the direction of the pattern or combining multiple directions other, related weaves can be created. These are known collectively as broken twills.

100% wool broadcloth twill

Sartor’s lightweight 100% wool broadcloth twill for period clothing from our core collection

Broken twills – herringbone and diamond weave

Broken twills are specialty weaves. A woven pattern is created by systematically changing the direction of the diagonal rib of the classic twill weave. The most common broken twills are traditionally known by their own names.

Herringbone (USA) / chevron twill (UK) and pointed twill both have a zigzag pattern. The only difference between them is in how the zig breaks at the point where it zags. Historical finds usually turn up the herringbone (chevron) pattern with its characteristic skip at the tip of the arrow (staggered point). The pointed twill has a pretty, pointed tip (single point), but was less common historically.

We see a similar, single point in the weave known as goose eye, where the twill changes direction twice, yielding a lozenge pattern. A similar pattern, found in historical textiles, is the diamond weave, which has the little skip at the point of the zigzag (staggered point) like the one in herringbone. The diamond weave is more historically authentic than the admittedly prettier goose eye.

Herringbones and diamond weaves demanded a skilled weaver with a more complex loom, so they were naturally less widespread, although they were popular. These weaves tend to appear in more exclusive fabrics worn by the upper classes. They should be reserved for more ostentatious costumes.

diamond weave and goose eye weave

Diamond weave (left) and goose eye (right)

Wool satins

Rounding up our look at historical wool weaves is the satin weave. The third of the basic weaves, it is also the most demanding in terms of hardware. Making a satin weave takes a loom with at least five shafts, but usually eight. Fabrics with a satin weave are smooth and shiny. This trait was historically put to use mostly in brocades and lampas, fabrics that were generally made of silk.

In addition to a better equipped loom, the production of wool satin requires top-quality, worsted (long-staple) wool, making it a fabric available primarily to the nobility. Wool woven in a satin weave made its historical appearance in the 14th century.