Linen (made from flax) was one of the main materials for clothing in this period. Under-clothing and under-tunics should be made from linen; trousers, hosen, braies, trews and other leg-wear may be made from linen, as well as hoods and wimples.
As a rule, linen garments should be a single colour. Linen is difficult to dye and undyed garments have been found. Under-garments should generally be undyed.
Do bear in mind that really high-quality linen can be very fine… which means it will become translucent when wet. At least one member of the Society discovered this (to her considerable embarrassment) when swimming in a pure linen under-kyrtle!
Hemp, nettle and flax belong to the same plant family, and a number of sources observe that records can be confusing, since without chemical testing, archaeologists were unable to tell apart cloth made from these fibres and when referring to fabrics spun from vegetable fibres, used the term ‘linen’. Further confusion may arise from records made by eastern European archaeologists who often used the term ‘hemp’ when referring to flax-woven fabrics. It may also be, that Anglo-Saxon written sources which refer to linen use the term generically, in the same way we today in Britain ‘hoover’ the carpet, instead of vacuuming it.
We do not know how common the use of hemp and nettle cloth was, but finds archaeologically verified in Scandinavia and Russia do show that it is possible to manufacture cloth from hemp and nettles as fine as any linen, and in the case of nettles, finer.
We know that all three plants grew in Anglo-Saxon lands, and their use for cloth production would have been influenced in part by their local availability and profusion.
‘Linen’ garments were probably used for inner garments because of the smoothness of their texture which made them less irritating to the skin, and for their absorbent qualities. Around 950 a wealthy woman, Wynflaed, bequeathed in her will to Ealhelm’s daughter, Aethelflaed, ‘...her embroidered dress and another of linen...’ and according to Bede, St Aetheldreda of Ely gave up the wearing of linen under her woollen gown as a mark of austerity.
Hemp was commonly grown. Remains have been found in Coppergate, York, and there is evidence of its cultivation at West Stow in Suffolk, along with flax. Crose Mere in Shropshire contained a large amount of hemp pollen dating to 5-8th centuries, leading to conjecture that it might have been used as a retting pond (however, while pollen analysis is a useful tool, it may be that the Crose Mere pollen merely indicates that hemp was growing profusely nearby and its pollen blew into the water).
Hemp was used principally in the manufacture of rope and sailcloth and sacking. In Christian times, the latter may have been worn by penitents.
That cloth from hemp as fine as any linen could be produced is shown by finds in Birka, Sweden. An early 9th century woman’s grave (619) yielded a beaver fur lined with hempcloth, and a mid-10th century woman’s grave (837) yielded the remains of a caftan lined with hempcloth. The texture of these two finds were similar in fineness to high quality linen.
In current times, someone’s Russian grandmother made a pair of towels which looked and felt like linen, were nicely absorbent, and after a few washings became quite soft.
Hemp’s fibres grow up to 12ft long and produce thread stronger than flax.
The nettle grows everywhere on any damp ground that has been disturbed. It has been used as cattle, pig, and poultry fodder. It has been used to make beer, tea, soup and porridge, and its sap used as rennet to curdle milk in cheese making, and even to caulk vessels. It can also be used as a dye.
Yet the root meaning of the word means ‘spin, sew’. The first known textile find (Neolithic) in Europe was in Voldtofte, Denmark. Although possible textile finds in Britain have not been confirmed, remains of both stinging and annual nettles were discovered during excavations in Coppergate, York. Nettlecloth continued to be produced in Scandinavia and in Scotland until the 19th century, and this cloth was known as Scotch cloth in Britain. In WW1 the shortage of cotton forced the Germans to use nettles to make clothing (it took 45kg to make one shirt). In Poland nettle thread was used from ancient times up until the 17th century when it was replaced by silk.
In modern times someone who grew up in Sweden watched a museum demonstration of the making of nettlecloth and recalls its being greyer than ‘raw’ linen, and shinier, but once bleached it had a ‘lustre reminiscent of pearls’.
Nettle fibres are white, silky, and up to 50mm (2”) long, and produce a finer and silkier fabric than flax, in which case it is entirely possible that fine ‘linens’ for the wealthy may have been woven from nettle rather than flax.
Flax, associated with weaving and cloth production in northern lands, has significance as a fertility symbol. Linen headcloths were part of a bride’s costume, and German brides put flax in their shoes to ensure prosperity, and the flax crop was encouraged in English country districts with midsummer fires and dances.
Flax was also widely grown for linseed oil (40% of the plant is oil). Flaxengate in York takes its name from this produce, as does the village of Linton, North Yorkshire, where marshy fields were ideal for this tall leggy plant. Winchester was also a flax-growing area.
Hemp, flax, and nettles would have undergone similar processes to turn them into yarns suitable for weaving into fabrics for clothing. One aspect of the process was the smell associated with it, second in foulness only to tanning, glue-making and woad fermentation (beavering).
When it comes to flax, the seeds were sown in March or April, and the plant ripened after 5-6 months. For textiles the plant was harvested before the seeds were fully ripe, i.e. before the woody core hardened. The stalks were pulled by hand for maximum length and then dried. After drying the seed bolls were removed by combing them through a toothed wooden rippler, then tied up in stooks (beets) and submerged in pits filled with stagnant water for 2-3 weeks to decompose, a process known as water-retting (‘ret’ derives from the same root as ‘rot’). Another method, dew-retting, was to leave the stems exposed to the air, but this process took longer. One method produced a yellowish fibre, the other a greyish one. During retting the stems are broken down by bacterial action which softens the glue between the inner fibres to allow their easier extraction from the tough outer covering.
This extraction was carried out after drying by scutching (word of Scandinavian origin?). The rotted stems were pounded with a hinged batten and then the tough outer layers were stripped off by a heavy paddle-like blade (scutching knife) worked up and down against a vertical wooden board. Two Anglo-Scandinavian wooden flax pounders made from willow and alder were found at Coppergate, York, as was an oak scutching knife.
The fibres were then hackled (Old High German ‘hook’), that is: drawn through a big comb made by nails embedded in a wooden board, to remove any remaining non-fibrous material. The fibres would then be ready for spinning into threads.
Both flax and hemp were also shived (from an old root meaning ‘to split’) to remove less useful short fibres which went to make up tow.
Credits: with thanks to Georgina Riall.