Medieval Clothing and Fabrics in the Middle Ages (by Melissa Snell)
In medieval times, as today, both fashion and necessity dictated what people wore. And both fashion and necessity, in addition to cultural tradition and available materials, varied across the centuries of the Middle Ages and across the countries of Europe. After all, no one would expect the clothes of an eighth-century Viking to bear any resemblance to those of a 15th-century Venetian.
So when you ask the question “What did a man (or woman) wear in the Middle Ages?” be prepared to answer some questions yourself. Where did he live? When did he live? What was his station in life (noble, peasant, merchant, cleric)? And for what purpose might he be wearing a particular set of clothes?
Types of Materials Used in Medieval Clothing
The many types of synthetic and blended fabrics people wear today were simply not available in medieval times. But this didn’t mean that everyone wore heavy wool, burlap, and animal skins. Different textiles were manufactured in a range of weights and could vary greatly in quality. The more finely woven the textile was, the softer and more costly it would be.
Various fabrics, such as taffeta, velvet, and damask were made from textiles like silk, cotton, and linen using specific weaving techniques. These were not generally available in the earlier Middle Ages, and were among the more expensive fabrics for the extra time and care it took to make them. Materials available for use in medieval clothing included:
By far the most common fabric of the Middle Ages (and the core of the flourishing textile industry), wool was knitted or crocheted into garments, but it was more likely woven. Depending on how it was made, it could be very warm and thick, or light and airy. Wool was also felted for hats and other accessories.
Almost as common as wool, linen was made from the flax plant and theoretically available to all classes. Growing flax was labor-intensive and making linen was time-consuming, however. Since the fabric wrinkled easily, it wasn’t often found in garments worn by poorer folk. Fine linen was used for the veils and wimples of ladies, undergarments, and a wide variety of apparel and household furnishings.
Luxurious and costly, silk was used only by the wealthiest of classes and the Church.
Less costly than flax, hemp and nettles were used to create workaday fabrics in the Middle Ages. Though more common for such uses as sails and rope, hemp may also have been used for aprons and undergarments.
Cotton doesn’t grow well in cooler climes, so its use in medieval garments was less common in northern Europe than wool or linen. Still, a cotton industry existed in southern Europe in the 12th century, and cotton became an occasional alternative to linen.
The production of leather goes back to prehistoric times. In the Middle Ages, leather was used for shoes, belts, armor, horse tackle, furniture, and a wide assortment of everyday products. Leather could be dyed, painted, or tooled in a variety of fashions for ornamentation.
In early medieval Europe, fur was common, but thanks in part to the use of animal skins by Barbarian cultures, it was considered too crass to wear in public. It was, however, used to line gloves and outer garments. By the tenth century, fur came back into fashion, and everything from beaver, fox, and sable to vair (squirrel), ermine, and marten was used for warmth and status.
Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.