This piece originally appeared in the 2010 edition of Known World Handbook Being a Compendium of Information, Traditions and Crafts Practiced in these Current Middle Ages in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
It was intended to introduce people new to re-enactment and/or sewing to some of the textile fibres used before 1600 (particularly in Europe), while explaining their properties.

What's so Special about Natural Fabrics?

When sewing clothes in the SCA (which may also be called 'garb'), you may be told about 'natural fibres,' that they are more appropriate fabric to sew with, and that the two major fabrics are wool and linen. But what is so special about them, and why should you spend the extra money to buy them?

What is a Natural Fibre?

When I use the term "natural fibres" in this article, I am referring to the threads that are used to weave fabric and that are not manufactured in a factory or laboratory. Examples of natural fibres are wool from sheep, silk from silkworm cocoons, cotton from cotton plants, and linen from flax plants. Man-made fibres, like viscose and rayon, were invented from the 19th century onwards, so they did not exist during the SCA's time. Instead, the two most common fabrics, from archaeological finds, written sources, and artwork, are wool and linen.

You may hear that some fabrics, like cotton or ramie, were very rarely used in the SCAs period of interest, but this is an oversimplification; it simply depends on what culture you are interested in, which in turn influences your choices in clothing and the materials they are made from.

What's so special about wool?

Wool is the name given to the hairs that sheep grow as part of their bulky, fleecy coats. It is an amazing fibre since it insulates its' wearers against the heat and cold, can slow down getting wet in the rain, and doesn't burn easily.

Wool manages to do all these things via its unique structure. Although a sheepskin rug may feel wonderfully soft and fuzzy, under a microscope the wool hairs are scaly, rough, and wavy. These scales don't sit perfectly flush with the hair, so tiny pockets of air form, providing insulation from heat. The crimped nature of wool traps even more pockets of air, so there are thousands of tiny patches of insulation, that form one significant insulating layer between yourself and the cold, wet world outside.

Wool is especially good when you're out in the rain. Wool fibres are hygroscopic, meaning that they will absorb moisture and swell up instead of letting the water pass through the fibres, so you can feel dry longer. The water molecules that are soaked up by the wool lose some of their energy as they are absorbed, which is released as heat, keeping you warmer.

Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has studied this, and discovered that this process can raise the temperature of wool by 10-12°C (~50-54°F), and that one kilogram (2.2lb) of wool can provide as much energy, in heat, as an electric blanket running for eight hours.

Wool also has another excellent property; It is naturally fire resistant. Along with its structure, it is different from linen and cotton because it is comprised of protein. Wool will smolder for some time, because it will not ignite until it has reached the comparatively higher temperature of 570°C and 600°C (1058-1112°F). Once on fire, the fabric will create a foamy char that self-insulates, tending to prevent the flames spreading.

Not all wool is the thick, cozy blanket weight that you would only wish to wear on the coldest nights. Summer weight (ie. lightweight) wools can use the same insulating properties that keep you warm in the cold to insulate your body from the heat of summer. There is even some evidence, that wearing wool may provide some protection from the sun's UV rays, which is an added bonus when wearing a long-sleeved tunic.

What's so special about Linen?

While wool can be further divided into categories based on the sheep breed it came from, or the type of wool, 'linen' can be trickier. Linen is often used as a generic term that can cover a variety of household goods (such as the towels and sheets you may keep in a linen press) that may be made from cotton, synthetic fabrics or flax. It is also often used as a descriptor of fabrics that are made from plant fibres that are not cotton. These fabrics may be made from flax (Linum usitatisimum), hemp (Cannabis sativa), nettle (Urtica dioica) or ramie (made from the Asian nettle, Boehmeria nivea). These 'linen' fabrics all have a long history that predate the medieval period of interest of the SCA.

It is very difficult to tell these linen fabrics apart by eye, or even under a microscope. This is because they are all made from the inner layers, or bast, of the plant stalks, which are comprised mainly of cellulose. The use of hemp for clothing has a history in Asia extending back at least 1400 years, while ramie wrapping clothes were found with a Roman-era Egyptian mummy at the Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois. Nettlecloth was mentioned by Nestorius in the fifth century CE, there are hemp seeds and textile fragments from the 9th century Oseberg ship grave in Norway, and there is evidence for its use in Central Europe by the 12th century.

These fibres are also excellent at resisting stains because dirt cannot penetrate far into the fibres - they just wash or rub off. On the other hand, this is a drawback for dying linen with natural dyes, as they will often will only take on a very pale colour when compared to the deeper colour of a dyed protein-based fabrics such as wool and silk.

What's so special about Cotton?

It is often assumed that cotton fabric was not often made and used frequently until after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney. However it has a much richer history.

It appears that processing, spinning and weaving of cotton originated in India, around two different plant species: Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum. Its use and cultivation spread to North Africa before the 7th century CE, and the sub-Sahara by the 10-11th centuries. Archaeological finds containing cotton textiles include the Moscevaja Balka, in the Caucasus, and there is a knitted cotton sock from 12th century Egypt, now at the Textile Museum Washington D.C., that is believed to have been imported. Bishop Timotheus of Nubia, who died in the 14th century, was also wearing cotton trousers. William of Rubruck mentions the use of cotton fabric amongst the Mongols.

Cotton is different from the bast-fibre fabrics mentioned above because the downy cotton fibres that are spun to make thread grow on the seeds of the cotton plant, within seed pods. These fibres are picked when the seed pod opens and separated from the seeds.

The properties of cotton that make it an attractive fabric, include its hydrophilic nature, so it is easier to dye than linens. It also has a high tensile strength, which can increase by up to 10% while wet, so it can be scrubbed and boiled during laundering if need be, and during wear can absorb up to 40% of its own weight in moisture before you begin to feel damp. This absorbency is similar to linen. However, cotton is not as fast-drying, so it may leave you feeling clammy in hot weather and uncomfortable in cold weather. It is a poor insulator of heat and will conduct away your body heat if the air temperature is cool. This is compounded by cottons in general being a looser weave than linens, so there are more air pockets between the cotton fibres. These pockets become waterlogged, so overall the fabric will take longer to dry.

Conversely, the fluffy cotton fibres make for a warm batting, used in quilted garments in both Asia and Europe, as its' structure contained numerous air pockets which provide insulation from the cold.

And don't forget Silk!

Silk fibre is a protein-based fibre like wool, made by caterpillars called, funnily enough, silkworms. The cultivated silkworm is known by its Latin name Bombyx mori. It lives on a diet of mulberry leaves, which gives rise to its' common name of 'mulberry silkworm.'

Four to five weeks after hatching, the caterpillar spins a cocoon for itself, by secreting a silk filament that it wraps around itself. The caterpillar is then killed, with heat, before it hatches and damages the cocoon. It is traditionally killed by boiling water or steam. The cocoon can then be unwound to produce 300m to 600m (1000 ft. to 2000 ft.) of raw silk filament. The broken threads left behind are also gathered and spun to create spun silk yarn.

The characteristic luster of silk is due to its triangular profile, which refracts light.

While cotton can gain strength when wet, silk may lose up to 20%, so it should be gently handled when washing. But like wool, silk may give off heat when it becomes damp. This means that it as not as chilling to wear next to the skin as, say, cotton or linen. Also, it will not ignite readily, instead smouldering for some time when it encounters flames.

What about fabric blends?

Blending fabrics are one way of trying to combine the properties of the two fibres. For example, Coptic tapestries often were a blend of linen and wool. The warp is linen for its strength while on the loom, and the weft, which covers the warp entirely and is brightly coloured, is of wool. This fibre mixture was also used for lightweight but warm coverlets and cloaks from approximately the 13th century onwards in western Europe, listed in household accounts and wills as tiretaines (or variations thereof). This name changed again in the 15th century, so it was also called linsey-wolsey. Crowfoot et al. also mention the possibility of the same name being given to cotton and wool blends, also called tiretaine. To confuse the matter further, Sharon Farmer has interpreted the mention of the purchase of etaine sur soie in a 14th century account book of Mahaut of Artois as referring to the purchase of a wool and silk blend fabric.

Blending cotton and linen created a fabric often modernly called fustian. Known from archaeological finds near Jericho from the 9th-13th centuries, and introduced from Moorish Spain in the middle ages, it spread to Italy. Today, it is often cheaper to buy a cotton-linen blend fabric than to buy pure linen in shops, so it is nice to know that it has a historical basis as well. Another mixed-fibre fabric that can be cheaper today than the pure-fibre fabric it is imitating is half-silk velvet. While today, a half-silk velvet is likely to be a silk and polyester mix, the archaeological record shows another mixed-fibre velvet. The weft was linen and silk made up the fuzzy velvet pile on the front of the fabric, hiding the linen threads from view. There is archaeological evidence of this fabric being made and used in century London, from the 14th century. There was also a silk-linen blend cloth found at Vodyanskoye, Ukraine from the time of the Mongol occupation.

Blends of cotton and silk have been found on the island of Jesiret Fara'un in the Red Sea, dated to between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 14th. It is possible that Crusaders were able to purchase and wear clothing made from this fabric. On the edge of Eastern Europe, cotton and silk threads found at Dedoplis Gora palace, Georgia before 80 CE. were blended in order to give the cotton threads a lustrous appearance. The longer filaments of silk are also stronger than the cotton threads, so the fabric may also be able to withstand more stress than cotton alone.

Modern Blends

It is worth keeping in mind that often when you are in a fabric shop, looking at a blended fabric, it is unlikely that the warp is one fibre while the weft another. Usually, the fibres themselves are mixed together and spun as a single thread, because it is more cost-effective to spin all of your fibres on the one machine, than to use different techniques for different materials. (See Chollakup et al. and Czekalski et al. for more information.)

A Final Word

This article does not cover every fibre used to make cloth prior to 1600 CE. Nor does it even touch upon using animal skins. But hopefully it is a jumping-off point for learning about the different properties of common fabrics, and how those traits can be utilised in the construction of your clothing to keep you comfortable.


All web pages accessed 30th January, 2008. (Note: In September 2022 these links were checked and, where needed, updated with Internet Archive copies.)

©2009, Rebecca Lucas