How was thread and cloth made in the days of yore?

I am not really clear on how we do it now, but how was thread and cloth made in the days of yore? I immagine that if I was sent back in time that I would end up covered in a bearskin, yet every time I see some movie that is set in the 1500’s, most folks have managed to cloth themselves in some manner of cloth. I dont really buy this as it seems to me that cloth would be, untill relativly recently, very labor intensive to make. Also, damned if I know haw the managed to turn tufts of cotton into a continuos string.
So how was it done?

While you’re waiting for more knowledgeably people then I to answer, you may wish to read up on spinning wheels, which turn fibers into thread, and looms, which turn thread into cloth. Both have manually operated forms that are still used to this day. They certainly were labor intensive–I imagine this is why the industrial revolution and the textile industry are so closely linked. :slight_smile:

Just like we do it now only by hand instead of machine.

Take cotton. The cotton is ginned to remove the seeds and then cleaned. Then small bits of it are combined by spinning (twisting) into a thread. The cotton is fed into the spinning machine in such a way that the individual strands overlap along the length of the thread and stick together by friction.

Then the thread is dyed, if desired, and made into cloth on a loom. You can find pretty detailed information about the whole process in and Encyclopedia at any library.

For example the CD Britannica has this about early spinning of thread:

“early machine for turning fibre into thread or yarn, which was then woven intocloth on a loom. The spinning wheel was probably invented in India, though its origins are obscure. It reached Europe via the Middle East in the European Middle Ages. It replaced the earlier method of hand spinning, in which the individual fibres were drawn out of a mass of wool held on a stick, or distaff, twisted together to form a continuous strand, and wound on a second stick, or spindle. The first stage in mechanizing the process was to mount the spindle horizontally in bearings so that it could be rotated by a cord encircling a large, hand-driven wheel. The distaff, carrying the mass of fibre, was held in the left hand, and the wheel slowly turned with the right. Holding the fibre at an angle to the spindle produced the necessary twist.”

Making cloth involves a loom. Envisage two frames with verticle sides and cross members that mesh like the teeth on two combs. You tie a length of thread to each tooth on the combs of both frames and run it down to the bottom of the frames. The frames are pivoted on a common axle at the bottome. Start with the frames separated at the top with A at the left and B at the right forming a V as you look at them endwise. You also have thread wound on an elongated bobbin called a shuttle. You pass the shuttle down the vertex of the V thus drawing a horizontal thread down between the sets of verticle threads. Then reverse the “combs” so that B is on the left and A the right. You have now trapped the horizontal thread in the verticle ones. You then pass the shuttle back through the V and repeat the process putting A on the left and B on the right. There are some more parts that are used to keep the weave tight but that’s the gist of it.

Essentially, most women (and many children) spent virtually all their time–when they weren’t actively busy doing something else requiring two hands–spinning thread. For a long time (in England, anyway), men were weavers, but women did it a lot too and eventually took it over, especially in colonial America. Producing cloth was an enormous task, sometimes consuming more time and labor than food production.

You should know that spinning different threads–linen and wool, and later cotton–are completely different processes, requiring different tools and techniques. And of course, you first had to grow the wool or linen and process it so that it was ready for spinning!

So naturally, cloth was very expensive. Although people wore a lot more clothing then, they were doing well to own two complete outfits.

Even the well-to-do spun thread and produced cloth. Queens just spun fancier thread or made fine tapestries, that’s all. Until the advent of machine sewing, most women spent all their free time knitting or sewing–it’s not mentioned in novels (Jane Austen, for example) because it was so universal that authors might as well have said that they were breathing.

For a really interesting look at the development of cloth and weaving and so on, go to the library and check out Women’s work: the first 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

Just to note that relying on movies for historical accuracy is not a wise move. :slight_smile:
P.S. Study the feudal economy for an example of ‘labour intensive’!

Not that I want to diss the Britannica but this:

Is almost certainly incorrect. Indian and European spinning wheels are structurally quite different even if the result is the same. Most authorities I’m familar with (and, btw, my degree is in the fiber arts) feel that spinning wheels were developed twice. There might have been some verbal transmission of the idea of a machine that spins along trade routes, but the actual machines did not make the trip.

A whole lot proceeds the thread-making process. In all cases, you have to process the fibers from raw materials first. For cotton, as an example, you have to pick the cotton out of the bolls, then the seeds out of the cotton, then you have to align the fibers (usually with a comb-like device), then you get around the twisting part. For linen, which comes from the flax plant, you first have to rot the stalks to loosen the fibers in their matrix of sap and other plant bits (the stench is horrific if you’re doing this in any quantity), then you beat the heck out of the result mess to free the fibers, then you pull them out of the mess and dry them out, then you align the fibers (another comb-like device, but different than what you’d use for cotton), *then * you get to the twisting part.

For animal fibers… well, you have to get them from the animals. This could involve plucking (either the animal or plucking loose hair clumps from where they are penned), combing/brushing (which is how they get hair for dog-hair sweaters), or shearing (like in sheep). Then you have to clean it (I mean, an animal has been living in this stuff and for the most part they don’t use toilet paper or shower often, if you get my drift). Then you have to align the fibers (more combing). *Then * you get to the twisting part. For silk, you have to gather up a whole bunch of silkworm cocoons (look on mulberry bushes), then you boil them to kill the caterpillars, then you find the end of the cocoon thread, then you attach it to a spool of somesort, and just unwind. Which sounds easier, but it isn’t - it is wet and tedious work. Silk you don’t have to spin… but you can. And there are varieties of “spun silk” that don’t involve the continuous unwinding of the coccon but involve a process much cruder which leaves you with much shorter lengths that are spun like more typical fibers - this method is actually less labor intensive and such silk historically has been less expensive.

You can spin short lengths with your bare hands and join them together. Most civilizations, however, quickly developed a variation of the distaff and spindle, which could be used with all fibers. A skilled user of a drop spindle can be surprisingly fast but you need huge yardages of thread or yarn to make anything , so it took a long time and lots of spinning. Women tended to spin wherever they went. Women walking to a well, for instance, might spin on the walk there and the walk back (which might be yet another reason to carry the water on their heads). Once you get the knack it doesn’t take much, if any, concious thought to do a decent job. Anyhow - the usual desirable ratio was about 5-7 spinners to one weaver under this system.

The advent of the spinning wheel greatly sped up production, allowing a 1:1 ratio of spinners to weavers in many situations. However, there is not just one “spinning wheel” - there are several specialized varieties (at least with the European variants - I’m not very familar with the Indian ones which, as I noted, are different). There is the “walking wheel”, a large wheel 4-5 feet in diameter typically used for wool - the wheel is set in motion and spun by hand. There is the smaller wheel, usually treadle powered, used typically for cotton or linen. Although really you could spin cotton on a walking wheel and wool is nowadays frequently spun on the small wheel.

After all that - you finally get to weaving. And while the given description of a loom is accurate enough for a harness jack loom, it is by no means the only loom out there and quite different from either the tapestry loom (independently refined on several continents) or the backstrap loom (often, but not always, found among nomads) just to name a few others.

One fabric that was slightly less labor intensive to make was felt - felt does not require spinning at all. However, really only wool is suitable for felting, cotton, linen, silk, and other plant fibers don’t felt. But while felt can give you a dense, windproof fabric it’s nowhere near as soft and flexible as a woven fabric of equal weight.

This, by the way, completely side-steps the whole issue of dyes and coloring, which could be just as labor intensive as any other part of the process. You had to gather the dyestuffs, prepare them by stripping bark and unnecessary bits off plants or extracting parts of animals (for Phoenician purple, which came from a type of sea life, or cochineal, which is derieved from an insect), then boil stuff in huge vats with the additon of chemicals called mordants (a process not well understood for most of history) in order to stablized the colors, then drying. This could be done either before or after spinning or weaving fibers.

Then we have situations were sheep used for producing wool were sometimes outfitted with little jackets to help keep the wool clean and nice - which gives you some idea of just how icky the job of cleaning a normal fleece can be if folks are going through all this labor to put clothes not only on themselves but also sheep, in order to reduce the labor involved in just one step of this process.

Suffice to say, it was a very labor-intensive process.

Wow, thanks for the great responses. I can’t believe how much work people had to do. Lord, but I am glad to be living in this era.

Even when the labor required for survival is intensive, people have a way of mustering what it takes.

Broomstick = Glad to meet ya - I’m a textile conservator, spinner, dyer, weaver. Just want to make one little comment = silk DOES need to be twisted because you’re having to ply about 10 silk strands together in order to get a useable thread - it just doesn’t have to be attenuated as in the normal spinning process.

Medieval Europe’s economy was virtually built upon the textile trades. England made it’s fortunes and place in the world through the wool trade - selling its raw wool abroad to be made into the final product. The low countries (Netherlands - Belgium) became rich due to their production and brokering of luxury textiles.

Textile workers organized themselves into guilds to protect their particular specialty (fullers (finishers) dyers, weavers, etc.) to train new workers, and to take care of their members & their families in times of need. These were similar to modern labor unions. The textile trades were very specialized, and many textiles were of fabulous complexity and beauty - much more beautiful and finely made than even our most expensive textiles because the materials were of better quality and because those who could afford the finest had exacting standards. Gold & silver threads were often used as were brilliantly colored silks. Spinning the threads was a cottage industry - women worked at home and sold the threads to be made into the final product to the equivilant of textile factories. Though the poor had few garments, they didn’t have to make their own necessarily. “Rag fairs” were rather like used clothing flea markets where clothes could be bought cheaply.

If they lived on an estate, it was an obligation of the lady of the estate (lord’s wife, mother or daughter, assisted by all the women in the manor (or other “big house”) who didn’t have precluding duties) to provide all those on or attached to the estate with clothing annually. The usual obligation seems to have been “two suits” (meaining complete outfits). Making all that clothing kept them busy all year, pretty much. It was a lady with many, many “waiting-women” who had time to do purely decorative needlework.

My knowledge is acquired from reading about the middle ages. I suspect I could provide references if required, but it might take a while. It’s not the topic I’m currently reading.

Ah, thank you for the clarification… can’t be expert in everything, ya know? :smiley: