Medieval Myth Pet Peeve

One thing I see a lot on various groups and pages where people ask for fabric recommendations is “don’t use that, it’s tweedy/an uneven grey/slightly inconsistent in color!  They didn’t use that in period!”

And this isn’t entirely wrong.  If you are portraying someone of wealth, then you absolutely want a fabric with a smooth, even color.  Tweedy blotchy fabrics were a sign of two things

1. poor dyeing OR

2. the use of naturally colored wools.

Poor dyeing was unusual, and not what we’re here to talk about today.  We’re talking about wool.

I’ve dealt with a lot of wool in my life. White fleeces are, well, white.  Colored fleeces are sometimes one consistent color throughout, but not very often.  Of the 6-ish colored fleeces I’ve worked with in my life, only two of them were really consistently the same color throughout.  And one of those was the same all over, but if you looked at each individual lock you could see that the fibers were not all the same color.

Now follows a bunch of pictures of wool fleece, in case you didn’t believe me the first time around.

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.04.05 PM

A lovely merino fleece in shades of taupe/caramel/tan/white

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.04.25 PM

Some cormo that is mostly charcoal, but has some paler greys and whites in there too

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.05.06 PM

Some lovely Polwarth that I am processing at the moment.  This has everything from white through to a deep charcoal grey/chocolate.

I am splitting that Polwarth into the “lights” and “darks”, washing it, combing it using wool combs, and spinning it.  This is a very old way of dealing with fleece, and you can really only deal with a small amount at once.  Modern mechanical processing can handle a whole fleece, but hand combs max out at around 2 ounces at a time.  Now if you are spinning for something large–like, say, fabric yardage– you will try and get it as consistent as possible so that you get an even color.  But if you are working from a fleece with 5 different colors in it, chances are each batch you pull off the combs won’t be exactly the same, and you’ll get some variation.

Even if you do do a good job with color blending, this happens.

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.04.55 PM

This is the yarn I am spinning from that Polwarth, and you can see that even though I’ve done a good job and overall the color is the same, each strand of yarn has some light and some dark, and in some places (although it is hard to see here) you get little blobs of lighter or darker fiber, just because there happened to be a bit there that didn’t get blended.

 

Fabric made from naturally colored wool has historically been a poor person’s option.  If you can afford it you get lovely white fabric that is exactly consistent and get it dyed evenly.  If you can’t afford that, well, maybe you buy fabric that was an uneven grey.  It’d look something like this:

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.20.38 PM

That could be overdyed to a brown or an olive drab (both very cheap and common natural dyes) but they’d still be a little inconsistent in color.  You can’t completely cover up that variation in the grey.

Another aspect that is interesting to consider with naturally colored fleeces is, yes, while they are very beautiful and distinctive….. they don’t match.  Two grey fleeces will almost certainly not make the same color fabric once processed and woven.  White is pretty much always just….white, so you can make essentially unlimited amounts of consistent fabric from white wool.  Fleeces on the unimproved breeds that were common pre-17th century tend to be 2-5lb total, and you get something like 25% loss in processing.  Naturally colored fabric was also for poor people because it could not be made in large, consistent qualities.  It was more likely to be woven by cottage industries rather than the larger and more formal guilds who were responsible for the higher-quality fabric.

So yes, you can very easily make slightly tweedy variable fabric using period production methods.  It likely would have been quite common in lower-class garments.  Don’t buy something tweedy if you want to portray a rich person, but that’s kind of boring anyway, and the accessories are expensive.  Be a peasant today!  Wear lovely shades of grey! Save money on period jewelry!

 

Ok, I’ll stop now.

 

 

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