Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part IVa: Dyed in the Wool

Collections, HDTMI April 2, 2021 20 Minutes

Third is the fourth part of our four part (I, II, III) look at the production of textiles, particularly wool and linen, in the pre-modern world. Last time, we spun our wool and flax fibers into thread and then wove that thread into fabric. And in doing so, we mostly discussed household production. This week, we are going to be talking about the key tasks in finishing woven fabric (linen or wool), particularly fulling and dyeing cloth.

Now the popular image of most ancient and medieval clothing is typically a rather drab affair, with the poor peasantry wearing mostly dirty, drab brown clothes (often ill-fitting ones) and so it might be imagined that regular folks had little need for involved textile finishing processes or dyeing; this is quite wrong. We have in essence already dispatched with the ill-fitting notion; the clothes of poor farmers, being often homespun and home-sewn could be made quite exactly for their wearers (indeed, loose fitting clothing, with lots of extra fabric, was often how one showed off wealth; lots of pleating, for instance, displayed that one could afford to waste expensive fabric on ornamentation). So it will not be a surprise that people in the past also liked to dress in pleasing colors and that this preference extended even to relatively humble peasants. Moreover, the simplest dyes and bleaching methods were often well within reach even for relatively humble people.

What we see in ancient and medieval artwork is that even the lower classes of society wore clothes that were bleached or dyed, often in bright, bold colors (in as much as dyes were available). At Rome, this extended even to enslaved persons; Seneca’s comment that legislation mandating a ‘uniform’ for enslaved persons at Rome was abandoned for fear that they might realize their numbers, the clear implication being that it was often impossible to tell an enslaved person apart from a free person on the street in normal conditions (Sen. Clem. 1.24.1). Consequently, fulling and dyeing was not merely a process for the extremely wealthy, but an important step in the textiles that would have been worn even by every-day people.

That said, fulling and dyeing (though not bleaching) were fundamentally different from the tasks that we’ve discussed so far because they generally could not be done in the home. Instead they often required space, special tools and equipment and particular (often quite bad smelling) chemicals and specialized skills in order to practice. Consequently, these tasks tended to be done by specialist workers for whom textile production was a trade, rather than merely a household task. So this week we are going to look at those finishing processes as well as the social status of the people who did them.

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Via Wikipedia, English ploughmen (c. 1000). Note particularly the colors these rather humble men wear. The blue is likely a product of inexpensive woad dye, the yellow made with weld and the red (of the hose) with madder. The brown (of the right-most man’s shirt) may be a walnut stain (see below for a discussion on common dyes).
People wore color!

Full of Fullers

Our woolen fabric now has another step before it is fully finished, a mechanical and chemical processing known as fulling , which might both be done as a finishing process for newly woven fabric or as a cleaning process for clothing that had become soiled (though it should be noted that worsted wool is not generally fulled, so not all woolen products would be put through this process). Fulling accomplished two things, it scoured, which removed any remaining oils in the fabric (remember that, even if the wool had been scoured raw, it is likely to have been reoiled to aid spinning and protect the fibers) which cleansed the wool, while the mechanical action of fulling matted the fibers together, increasing the strength of the wool and allowing it to more effectively repel water. The process, as done in the ancient and medieval world, was generally fairly simple: fabrics were immersed in a solution with a cleaning agent in a large basin and then trampled underfoot by a fuller. The actual act of mechanically treading the cloth underfoot was called ‘tucking’ or ‘walking.’ This mechanical trampling enabled the cleaning agents to penetrate fully into the fabric and dissolve away whatever grease, oils, dirt or other impurities might be there.

The cleaning agents for fulling wool varied by time and place. Roman fulleries generally used urine allowed to sit for a time (becoming ‘stale’ – such urine is known as ‘wash’) because that concentrated the ammonium in the urine which acted as the cleansing agent. By the Middle Ages, we see the use of ‘fuller’s earth‘ (ammonia-rich clay), although urine continued to be used as well, presumably for its greater availability. As J.S. Lee notes (op. cit., 53), from the late twelfth century, we begin to see the use of water-power to replace the fullery worker as the treading agent, with the use of heavy wooden hammers driven by a water wheel to pummel the fabric.

Once this process was done the clothes or fabric were removed from the basin, scrubbed and wrung out fully, before being rinsed. In the Roman context – Roman fulleries (fullonicae) are fairly well archaeologically preserved and so give clues to the process at that time – the rinsing basins are set up to allow workers to walk in and out of them (some have working benches) which suggests that rinsing may have included additional scrubbing and wringing to make sure to remove both all of the impurities as well as all of the cleaning agents (Flohr, The World of the Fullo, 179-81). Fabrics would then have to be hung to be dried. In the Roman context, artwork tends to show clothes hung over high beams in the fullonica to dry; in the medieval context they were often hung to dry outdoors on long wooden frames called ‘tenters.’

Via Wikipedia, mural painting from a fullonica in Pompeii (now in the National Museum of Naples), showing napping (left). The cage being moved on the right is probably that described by ancient sources for use in sulphuring. The worker carries the cloth to be sulphured over his shoulder and the lump-sulphur in the pot he is holding. The cage would be set on the ground, the cloth stretched over it and the sulphur burned underneath so that the sulphur dioxide would float up through the cloth, whitening it.

Finally, the cloth would be ‘napped’ (also called ‘raising the nap,’ ‘rowing,’ ‘teasing,’ or polishing), which may have actually been the most labor intensive part of the process. Cloth would be brushed first, to raise the nap (the fuzzy, rough raised surface on woolen cloth), which would then be sheared to leave the cloth smooth. This stage also provided an opportunity for burling (and now you know why the coat factory is in Burlington), the inspection of the cloth and the manual removal of burrs, knots and other defects. Flohr (op. cit.) argues that this stage in the process consumed the bulk of the time and labor of fulling (a point on which J.S. Lee concurs for the Middle Ages). It is to a significant degree unfortunate that the sensational ‘they washed clothes in urine!’ element of fulling has tended to eclipse the rest of the process in not only the popular imagination but occasionally in the scholarly discourse (the already cited Flohr, The World of the Fullo is a good antidote to this).

The position of fulling in the production chain of textiles seems to have varied a bit over time. In the medieval and early modern periods, fulling was generally done only once, as a final finishing stage in cloth production. By contrast, as Miko Flohr argues (op. cit., 57ff), the primary job of the Roman fuller was effectively as a laundry (though they may have treated freshly woven wool as well). Part of this probably has to do with differences in Roman clothing; Roman clothes were generally fairly simple in shape which must have made them easier to put through a fullery as a completed garment. Myself, I wonder if the changing role of fulling has to do with the introduction of soap during the later Roman Empire, which would have made it more possible for clothes to be laundered domestically (the Romans cleaned their bodies with oil, scraping it off with a strigil, which while perfectly good for cleaning skin would obviously not do for clothes, but soap and scubbing will work for both).

Fulling was generally a commercial (that is, not household) operation, done by professional fullers and we’ll talk about them (along with dyers and cloth merchants) in just a moment in terms of their place in society.

Via Wikipedia, 18th century tenterframes in Otterburn Mill, Northumberland, where fabric would have been left to dry during fulling.


The next concern is color treatment. First it is worth noting the base colors that undyed and unbleached linen and wool are likely to offer. Contrary to Hollywood, undyed fabrics are not, in fact, generally mud-brown. Rather, undyed linen is generally a light grey color, sometimes verging on white, sometimes with a hint of brown, while undyed wool follows the color range of sheep, in white, greys, black and light browns. That said, entirely undyed and unbleached clothing is actually a rarity in ancient and medieval artwork, even for relatively poor people. Some very practical garments might be kept undyed and unbleached, and some undergarments (especially those in linen) might be left in their natural color, but for the most part, clothing was dyed, bleached or both.

That said, bleaching was particularly important for linen because it is notoriously difficult to dye (though it can be colored and stained, just not nearly so well or so frequently), as the fibers are generally more impermeable than wool and so make it difficult for the dye to stick in places where it would not wear off or be washed off. It could, however, be bleached to produce a crisp, bright white fabric, just as wool (but wool could also be more readily dyed other colors).

Via Wikipedia, a painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger (c. 1650), Bleekveld in een dorp (‘Bleachfield in a Village’)

The standard method of bleaching any kind of fabric was through sun exposure, laying the fabrics out exposed to the sun in an open field known in English as a bleachfield and letting the sun do its work, generally over a series of months (sometimes as many as six months). The fabrics being bleached were generally kept moist, which protected the fibers from damage; often this was aided by selecting a grassy field where the morning dew would soak into the fabric each day, though the fabrics might also have to be moistened regularly. Various chemicals might be added to aid in the bleaching process. By the early modern period in Europe, we know that alkaline substances, typically lye, were used to aid in the bleaching process and there is some indication that the Romans may have used a sulphur treatment where cloth were stretched over a frame beneath which was burned lump-sulphur, with the sulphur dioxide (SO2) bleaching the fabric (though on this process and its misunderstanding, see Flohr, op. cit. 117-120; this sulphur process seems to have been done in Rome by fullones and sulphuring, like chalking, may have often been an extra treatment to bring out the luster of already bleached garments).

Because this process was so long and because bleached clothes were hard to keep so shining white, bright white clothes tended to be luxury items. In Egypt, some types of bleached linen had sacred connotations (indicating purity, e.g. Plut. Mor. 352D). In Rome, the bright white toga (the toga candida) was the equivalent of the politician’s suit (contrary to Hollywood depictions, most Romans didn’t wear lots of white outside of formal occasions, but preferred dyed wool; this is something HBO’s Rome gets correct); the formal but more general toga pura (aka the toga virilis) was the off-white of undyed naturally white wool. Part of the reason you see so much white in portraits of early modern European royalty is that bleached, brilliantly white fabric was expensive to make and keep white.

To Dye For

Cloth fibers could be dyed at several points during production (though again, note above that dyeing was far more common for wool than for linen). Assuming wool was scoured after shearing, it could be dyed at that point (thus the phrase ‘dyed in the wool’) though unscoured wool will not generally take a dye because the natural oils of the wool will prevent the dye from setting into the cloth. Alternately, wool might be spun and then dyed either as thread or as finished woven cloth. In the early modern period, undyed woven fabrics fit for dying were called ‘whites’ and might either be dyed locally or in some cases shipped significant distances to be dyed elsewhere (in no small part because, as we’ll see, the availability of dye colors was regionally dependent).

Via Wikipedia, Rubia tinctorum or Dyer’s Madder, the roots of which provide the pigment for a red dye. Madder is one of the oldest dyes, in use since at least the third millennium BC.

Today, we are used to the effectively infinite range of colors offered by synthetic dyes, but for pre-modern dye-workers, they were largely restricted to colors that could be produced from locally available or imported dyestuffs. If you wanted a given color of fabric, you needed to be able to find something in the natural world which, when broken down could give you a chemical pigment that you could transfer to your fabric in a durable way. That put real limits on the colors which could be dyed and the availability of those colors.. Some colors simply couldn’t be produced this way – a good example were golden or metallic colors. If something in a dress was to be truly golden (and not merely yellow), the only way to do that prior to synthetic dyes and paints was to use actual gold, weaving small strands of ultra-thin gold wire into the cloth or embroidering designs with it. Needless to say, that was something only done by the very wealthy. Alternately, if the dye for a given hue or color came from something rare or foreign or difficult to process (for instance, in all three cases, Tyrian or royal purple, which came from the murex sea snails – if you have ever wondered why no country has purple as a national color this is why, before synthetic dyes, coloring your flags and uniforms purple would have been bonkers expensive), then it was going to be expensive and rare and there just wasn’t much you could do about that.

Via Wikipedia, yarn dyed red with madder. A skilled dyer can control the hue by controlling how much of the pigment is absorbed by the fibers, from deep, dark reds to much lighter, almost orange shades.

What dyes were available thus varied based on where you were and how much you could afford to import. Determining ancient dye availability is often tricky, since fabric so rarely survives, but we know that the Romans prized a wide range of colors; Pliny gives us some clues as to some of the more expensive dyes in his Natural History (such as saffron for a rich yellow), along with more common colors like blue (from woad), red (from madder), brown (from walnuts), and a cheaper yellow from weld. Similar sets of dyes were available in the Middle Ages, J.S. Lee notes the principal dyestuffs in use in England were woad (blue), madder (red), weld (yellow), ‘grain’ red (scarlet, this is kermes dye), cinnabar (vermillion), saffron (yellow) and various other vegetable and fruit dies (op. cit. 62). Many of these were imported; madder and weld from Germany, France and the Baltic, kermes and woad from the Mediterranean, Cinnabar from the Red Sea area. Madder, weld and woad in particular were the cheapest and most common dyes and served as the foundation for clothing color in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean (which is, consequently, while colors that can be produced by those dyes, or by mixing them, are so common in medieval artwork depicting clothing).

Eventually (‘true’) indigo blue dye came all the way from India (it was known to the Greeks and the Romans) but because of its imported nature it was an expensive luxury product in Europe prior to European colonial expansion. Indigo is a particularly good example, however, of how a dye (and its associated color, the deep blue) could be relatively inexpensive and available in one place and a rare luxury good used as a status symbol in others. While the dyes available were somewhat restricted, dyers could of course combine pigments to get composite colors, giving a fairly wide range of colors, assuming one had the money for the pigments; this website has a good set of examples of what can be done with various dyes and lists ingredients.

Via Wikipedia, Medieval workmen from the Maciejowski Bible (c. 1250). The white fabric is bleached linen, while the reds and blues are of course wool dyed with madder and woad. Overdyeing yellow (weld) with blue (woad) could produce green, as with the man on the left. Even these very humble workers wore bright colors.

(By the by, there is a similar process of discovery and dissemination for paint pigments. You can see a nifty chart of available colors by period here, some of which overlap with dye colors).

The actual dying process varied based on the pigment being used and there were likely local craft differences as well. Still the process could be complex, with dyestuffs often needing to be ground down or broken up and then often heated (sometimes boiled) in order to get the pigments ready before the cloth would be immersed in the dye. J.S. Lee (op. cit., 63) gives as an example the process for using woad:

Woad was generally imported in casks in dry balls, which were then broken up, moistened with water and fermented for several weeks with the temperature carefully regulated to ensure that all the woad underwent the same degree of fermentation. Potash was then added as the alkali and a temperature of about 50 degrees celsius needed to be maintained for two to three days…woad did not require a mordant but needed an alkali such as potash…

Other dyes might require a mordant, a fixing agent which enabled the pigment to set on the fibers of the fabric. Alum was often used; in the Middle Ages it was sourced from Asia Minor and so needed to reach Europe via Mediterranean trade (although Italian sources of alum were found in 1462; it was only produced domestically in England in the 17th century and after). In other cases, as with the use of dyes produced from wood, tannic acid might be used as the mordant. Each dye had its own unique preparation process to produce the dye; some involved boiling, others fermenting, some grinding down the products and so on. Dyers needed access to quite a lot of water, both for the processes of making dye, but also to discharge the various effluent from the process – spent dye mixtures and waste water. Once the dye was made, the fibers, which might be unspun wool, spun wool thread or woven wool cloth, were immersed in the dye and then agitated; the agitation was done with a ‘dyer’s posser’ and introducing or removing the cloth was done with tongs.

Via Wikipedia, the woad plant, which provided the most common blue dye in the greater Mediterranean world. Woad actually produces the same chemical (indigo) as true indugo (Indigofera tinctoria) but just in much lower concentration.

Because these processes involved a lot of capital investment in terms of boilers, casks, basins, water-access and other facilities, dyehouses were often quite expensive. J.S. Lee (op. cit., 63-4) notes a dyehouse belonging to John Winchombe II valued at £40 in 1558, a considerable sum of money (going by Lee’s own figures (op. cit. 73), it would have been around five years wages for a skilled professional weaver at that time).

Commercial Cloth-Workers

So now we have our cloth, finished and either dyed or bleached and now ready for final use in a garment or for commercial sale. We’ll talk about commercial sale in a moment, but first we ought to talk about all of the workers we’ve stacked up in the previous section: fullers and dyers mainly, but it is also time to talk in more depth generally about the production of cloth for the market rather than for the household.

Now it is necessary to caveat this upfront: in terms of raw amounts of cloth produced, household textile production is likely to have outstripped commercial textile production until the start of the industrial revolution, so while commercial textile production is more visible to us (in part because rich businesses tend to leave records and their owners tend to be the sort of people to be literate and write things like wills which we can read) they weren’t the majority of production. So while clothiers and cloth merchants and professional weavers often get more attention in the sources (and consequently may get more attention in some modern treatments) they were likely a minority of cloth workers and cloth production prior to the early modern period.

At the same time, it is clearly wrong to think of the household production chain as being completely divorced from the commercial production chain; the two were clearly intermingled. Fullers and dyers seem to have represented a point where the two production systems converged; fulling and dying were difficult to do at household scale and required special skills and so it seems that even a household producing its own textiles would have a use for the fuller and the dyer to finish those clothes (because, again, people liked to look nice). Moreover, as we’ve discussed already, commercial clothiers often sourced the spinning and weaving they needed through the putting out system, paying domestic spinners and weavers (mainly women) on a wage or piece-work basis (that is, per-unit of thread or fabric). Probably there was also a degree of specialization within producers inside of domestic production, mediated either by personal or market relationships (on this in a nineteenth century context, see K.A. Bowie, "Unraveling the Myth of the Subsistence Economy: Textile Production in Nineteenth-Century Northern Thailand" Journal of Asian Studies51:4 (1992): 797-823, where Bowie observes that in any given village, some women specialized in spinning, others in weaving, with small scale market interactions to exchange production; as noted before in some pre-Roman Italian burials, age seems to have been a factor driving specialization, S. Lipkin, op. cit.)

But of course there were also purely commercial workers making cloth, including elements of production that couldn’t be brought into the household (like fulling and dyeing) but also producers who worked primarily for the market. The emergence of large-scale textile production for markets – what we might term commercial production – seems closely connected to the rise of large cities, presumably because those cities contained both elites who might want to buy more (or finer) fabrics than their household could produce as well as poorer workers whose households (which might just be themselves) lacked the ability to produce textiles at all. Long distance trade was also clearly a factor that drove the emergence of large-scale cloth production; wool products were major exports as early as third millennium BC Summer (on this, note several of the chapters in C. Breniquet and C. Michel, op. cit.).

Via Wikipedia, workers in a fullonica hanging up clothes to dry, from Pompeii, first century AD. Also note how these (probably fairly ‘blue-collar’) workers are wearing clothing with bright colors (now somewhat faded by the passage of time)! Lots of blues and yellows (see below for the dyes likely used).

So how do these folks fit in to the broader society, if they aren’t producing directly for their household but are instead producing for the market? Unsurprisingly, it varies quite a lot based on the work they do. Wage data from the ancient world is very rare, but J.S. Lee’s look at the medieval English clothing industry provides some insight on the relative earning power of various parts of the trade. He presents (op. cit., 40), for instance, a table of poll tax returns between 1377 and 1381 organized by occupation, giving a decent sense of the relative earning power of different kinds of workers at that point (which is before the spinning wheel collapses spinner’s wages):

OccupationAverage tax paid (in pence (d))Range of Tax paid (in pence (d))

Another table lists estimated daily wages (and I want to be clear, these are estimates, not attested wages!) for different tasks in the wool production process in an effort to estimate the total cost and time requirements of production, though this list is set in the 1540s, at a point where the spinning wheel was beginning to have an impact on the wages of spinners (J.S. Lee, op. cit., 73):

ProcessDaily Wage (in pence (d))
Wool Sorting1.5
Yarn Preparation (read: spinning)2
Packing and transport4

In both cases, we can see that dyers tend to be rather more highly paid than other textile workers, while second place goes to fullers (in the second chart, note that fulling, cleansing and finishing were all done in a fullery; it is the last task, I think, that would be done by the fuller himself (or herself) rather than paid workers or – in the Roman context – enslaved workers), with skilled professional weavers in the third place. The range of tax paid though gives a real sense of how there might be a considerable separation between the earning power of small-scale producers (or apprentices and other hired workers in a larger operation) and producers working at a larger scale (or making elite products).

Dyeworks (and fulleries in the medieval period) tended to be located just outside of urban centers, in part because of the smell (both kinds of work tend to smell quite bad). Because both dyeing and fulling made use of bad smelling mixtures, older scholars often assumed that the workers in these occupations were low status individuals and looked down upon. And while it is true that there does seem to have been some sense that these places were not terribly sanitary, more recent scholarship tends to show little evidence that the people who worked there – particularly the skilled, professional dyers and fullers – were low-status themselves.

In terms of the social position of cloth-makers, one indicator we can look to is professional associations and guilds. In the Roman world, professional associations (collegia) of fullers seem to have been quite common and Miko Flohr (op. cit.) argues persuasively that Roman fullers were respectable professionals, similar to other artisans – well below the political and social elite (whose wealth was in large landholdings), but not disreputable. Fuller’s collegia could be significant politically though; Flohr notes that Roman fullers seem to have been politically active, for instance, in Pompeii’s local politics (most famously dedicating a statue of Eumachia, a local aristocratic woman, outside of the ‘building of Eumachia’ the purpose of which is still under some dispute (but perhaps a market-place for fabric?)). Flohr notes that the collegia of fullones (fullers) seem about as prominent as collegia of fabri (smiths, carpenters, joiners), and that is probably where we should place fullers in Roman society (with skilled dyers marginally higher).

In medieval Florence, the various guilds of the city were ranked; the wool-workers guild (the Arta della Lana) ranked third or fourth, out of 21 total guilds and always among the ‘greater guilds’ (the Arti Maggiori), a clear indication of the significant prominence and wealth that wool-working professionals had collectively (though we should note that the guild included wool merchants as well, who were likely its most prominent members). The Arta della Lana was sufficiently wealthy to take up the patronage for the construction of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence Duomo (and officially the second best duomo in Tuscany), attesting to the relative power of the guild collectively. Linen production was far less important in Florence, yet the Arte dei Linaioli e Rigattieri, which covered linen merchants and manufacturers, along with tailors and retail cloth and rag dealers, was one of the ‘middle’ guilds, ranking between the 12th and 16th position; still solidly respectable (peers, in this case, of the stonemasons and the vintners).

Via Wikipedia, the crest of the Arte Della Lana of Florence, prominently displaying the sheep that was the basis of all of their production.

So while the landed elite will have looked down their nose as textile workers (they looked down their nose at everyone), skilled professional textile workers represented fixtures in what we might see as a lower-middle-class of sorts in pre-modern cities. Because there were so many of them (and because they were attached to cloth merchants who might be truly wealthy) they often exerted a significant political and cultural pull. Thus there is an enormous range in the status of cloth-workers, from the well-to-do dyer who might be a respected professional artisan to the poorly paid spinner working in the ‘putting out’ system in her spare time when she wasn’t making clothing for her relatively poor farming family.

Next week, we’re going to cap off this look at commercial textile production by looking at last at our clothiers and cloth merchants themselves – both the individuals who coordinated domestic production as well as merchants involved in trading textiles (including imported textiles) over long distances.

Published by Bret Devereaux

Published April 2, 2021