In the Middle Ages, wool was by far the most common textile used in making clothing. Today it is relatively expensive because synthetic materials with similar qualities are easy to produce, but in medieval times, wool -- depending on its quality -- was a fabric virtually everyone could afford.
Wool could be exceedingly warm and heavy, but through selective breeding of wool-bearing animals as well as sorting and separating coarse from fine fibers, some very soft, lightweight fabrics were to be had. Though not as strong as some vegetable fibers, wool is fairly resilient, making it more likely to retain its shape, resist wrinkling, and drape well. Wool is also exceedingly good at taking dyes, and as a natural hair fiber it is perfect for felting.
The Versatile Sheep
Wool comes from animals such as camels, goats, and sheep. Of these, sheep were the most common source for wool in medieval Europe. Raising sheep made sound financial sense because the animals were easy to care for and versatile.
Sheep could thrive on lands that were too rocky for larger animals to graze and difficult to clear for farming crops. In addition to providing wool, sheep also gave milk that could be used to make cheese. And when the animal was no longer needed for its wool and milk, it could be slaughtered for mutton, and its skin could be used to make parchment.
Types of Wool
Different breeds of sheep bore different types of wool, and even a single sheep would have more than one grade of softness in its fleece. The outer layer was generally coarser and composed of longer, thicker fibers; it was the sheep's defense against the elements, repelling water and blocking wind. The inner layers were shorter, softer, curlier, and exceedingly warm; this was the sheep's insulation.
The most common color of wool was (and is) white. Sheep also bore brown, gray, and black wool. White was more sought-after, not only because it could be dyed virtually any color but because it was generally finer than colored wools, so over the centuries selective breeding was done to produce more white sheep. Still, colored wool was utilized and could also be overdyed to produce darker material.
Types of Wool Cloth
All grades of fiber were used in weaving cloth, and thanks to the diversity of sheep, the variations in wool quality, different weaving techniques and the wide range of production standards in different locations, a great variety of wool fabrics were available in the Middle Ages. However, it's worth noting here that there were, generally, two main types of wool cloth: worsted and woolen.
Longer, thicker fibers of more or less equal lengths were spun into worsted yarn, which would be used to weave worsted cloth that was fairly lightweight and sturdy. The term has its source in the Norfolk village of Worstead, which in the early Middle Ages was a thriving center of cloth production. Worsted cloth did not require much processing, and its weave was clearly visible in the finished product.
Shorter, curlier, finer fibers would be spun into woolen yarn. Woolen yarn was softer, hairier and not as strong as worsted, and cloth woven from it would require additional processing; this resulted in a smooth finish in which the weave of the fabric was unnoticeable. Once woolen cloth had been thoroughly processed, it could be very strong, very fine, and much sought-after, the best of it exceeded in luxury only by silk.
The Wool Trade
In the medieval era, cloth was produced locally in virtually every region, but by the dawn of the High Middle Ages a robust trade in raw materials and finished cloth had been established. England, the Iberian peninsula and Burgundy were the largest producers of wool in medieval Europe, and the product they obtained from their sheep was especially fine. Towns in the low countries, chiefly in Flanders, and towns in Tuscany, including Florence, acquired the best wool and other materials to make particularly fine cloth that was traded throughout Europe.
In the later Middle Ages, there was increased cloth manufacturing in both England and Spain. The wet climate in England provided a longer season during which the sheep could graze on the lush grass of the English countryside, and therefore their wool grew longer and fuller than sheep elsewhere. England was very successful in turning out fine cloths from its home-grown wool supply, which gave it a strong advantage in the international economy. The merino sheep, which bore especially soft wool, was indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula and helped Spain build and maintain a reputation for excellent wool cloth.
The Uses of Wool
Wool was a textile with numerous uses. It could be knitted into heavy blankets, capes, leggings, tunics, dresses, scarves and hats. More often, it could be woven into large pieces of cloth of varying grades from which all these things and more could be sewn. Carpets were woven from coarser wool; furnishings were covered with woolen and worsted fabrics; draperies were made from woven wool. Even underwear was occasionally made from wool by people in colder climes.
Wool could also be felted without being woven or knitted first; this was done by beating the fibers while soaking them, preferably in warm liquid. Early felting was done by stomping on the fibers in a tub of water. The nomads of the steppes, such as the Mongols, produced felt cloth by placing woolen fibers under their saddles and riding on them all day. The Mongols used felt for garments, blankets, and even to make tents and yurts. In medieval Europe, less-exotically-produced felt was usually used to make hats and could be found in belts, scabbards, shoes and other accessories.
The wool manufacturing industry thrived in the Middle Ages. For more about how fabric was produced, see Manufacturing Cloth from Wool.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Boydell Press, 2007, 221 pp. Compare prices
Jenkins, D.T., editor, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles , vols. I and II. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 1191 pp. Compare prices
Piponnier, Francoise, and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1997, 167 pp. Compare Prices