Woolen hooded cloaks were worn by rich and poor alike in early Medieval times, as that is what was available to protect people from the winter cold. People didn’t have many fabrics or stylish garments to pick from as clothing was made locally, often in individual households.
By the 1200’s, fashion became a thing and the wealthy had a myriad of fabrics, colors, garments and accessories to pick from. How did this come about? From 500 AD to 1100’s AD, Europe was mired in political instability and war among cities and states. When they reach the 1200’s, trade commenced and flourished because of political stability and peace among European countries.
Types of Fabrics used in Medieval Clothing
The word ‘novelty’ is believed to have been coined for the first time in the 1200’s and the word ‘fashion’ a few centuries later during the Renaissance. The wealthy and royals became interested in buying novel outfits and wardrobes! Bring me new colors, new fabrics, new fashions, etc! They used expensive, extravagant fashion and increasing novelty to show off their status and wealth.
In the early middle ages the wealthy were wearing simple woolen hooded cloaks and capes, woolen outer garments and linen undergarments, to the best of our knowledge. Once more luxurious fabrics became available the wealthy, royals and the church made hooded cloaks, short capes, vestments, doublets, tunics and much more from different textiles in a range of colors and weights. Bright, bold colors, were a thing. The more finely woven, soft, and novel in texture a textile was, the more expensive. There were even fabrics and trim made with gold and / or silver threads.
Fabrics were introduced or re-introduced from the East and novel new textiles were invented. The Italians who were skilled at making silk fabric, started making taffeta, velvet, and damask, among others and exporting them through out the European Continent.
Fabrics available included:
Wool was woven, but it could also be knitted or crocheted. It could be thick and warm, or delicate and light. Felted wool was also used for hats and other items. In the Middle Ages, wool was the most available and popular fabric as it had been in prior centuries.
Growing flax and making it into linen is a labor and time-consuming process. It’s sought after for its strength, but it also wrinkles easily. It’s primary uses were veils and ladies’ wimples (a kind of hat), undergarments, as well as household items like table clothes and napkins. Though it wasn’t affordable to poor, it was the second most popular fiber for textiles.
Silk is made from a long process involving a fiber made by silk worms. You remember that from school, no doubt. It was reintroduced into Europe from the East in the 1200’s. The Italians were particularly skilled a weaving silk. Not only did they make the smooth silk textiles we are familiar with, they also used it to make fine velvet, damask and more. Silk is associated with the wealthy, royals, and the Church as it was out of reach to the lower classes. (check this history)
Velvet sailed in from the East and caused a sensation in Europe. The Italians who were textile masters started making velvet and exporting it throughout Europe to be made into luxurious garments including velvet medieval hooded cloaks and capes and religious vestments. Velvet is made on separate looms using a special technique that loops raised tufts together and then cuts them apart after weaving. This intensive process makes it expensive. It’s exceptionally high price contributed to velvets long association with royalty, as initially only royalty could afford it and later only royalty were allowed to wear it.
Damask refers to style of weaving that creates a rich pattern on both sides. The fabric itself can be made from several fibers, such as silk, wool, linen or cotton. The name damask comes from the city of Damascus when the city was an active trader on the silk road and damask weavers. The Italians in the 1300’s also started producing damask for the European market.
Scarlet was a high-priced luxurious woolen broadcloth. Kings, princes and the wealthy, gravitated to scarlet partly for its bold, bright color and partly because it connoted wealth and high status. Though other fabrics might be dyed scarlet (more about this dye later), this particular woolen broadcloth, was called scarlet. It was woven of the finest English wools, and always dyed with kermes (more about this later as well). This scarlet cloth was extremely fashionable in the fourteen and fifteen century but faded from popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Hemp is a strong fiber used to make sails, rope and other work-related items. It may also have been used to make some household items, such as aprons and undergarments.
Cotton was used as an alternative to linen from time to time. While cotton is so popular today, it’s use was minor in Medieval times because the cotton plant doesn’t grow well in cold climates. Nevertheless, in Spain and Italy a cotton industry existed and thus cotton was somewhat available.
Russet was a very humble, coarse cloth that poor people were made to wear in England. Its made of wool and dyed with woad and madder that gave it a dull grey or brown color. Some squires and priests wore russet as well as a sign of humility, but even they selected a somewhat better quality of russet.
Humans have used leather since the stone age to make many everyday things. We know that in the Middle Ages, leather shoes, belts, armor, horse tackle, and furniture were all available. In addition to its strength and flexibility, leather could also be dyed, painted, or tooled for ornamentation.
In early medieval Europe, fur was common, but considered too barbarian looking to wear in public or in court. In the Late Middle Ages, fur came back into fashion, particularly as a trim or lining to hooded cloaks and other outer garments. Think of the ermine robes of Kings, we see so commonly in picture books. European furs such as beaver, fox, and squirrel were used. The wealthy purchased fur they considered more elegant from the East such as sable, ermine, and marten.
Colors Found in Medieval Clothing, including Hooded Cloaks
Medieval Clothing was colorful! Both the wealthy and the poor could dye their clothing. A full spectrum of colored dyes could be found in nature such as plants, roots, lichen, bark, nuts, insects, mollusks and iron oxide. Poor people used these natural dyes or they wore undyed fabric in shades of beige and off-white.
Bolder colors were attainable with more expensive dyes and a longer dyeing process. The wealthy and royals displayed their wealth by wearing these bright, bold, and expensive colors. Another interesting detail is that dyed fabric would fade quickly without a fixative. Thus the dyes were mixed with a substance called mordant to maintain the bright colors.
There was a dark blue dye called woad, that comes from a flowering plant and didn’t require a mordant. Woad or “Dyer’s Woad” became extremely popular at every level of society because of the attractive blue and its convenience.
Speaking of expensive dyes, Scarlet played a major role in fashion of the Middle Ages and refers to both a color as well as a fabric. When the Roman Empire crumbled in 5 Century AC, the early Christian church adopted many of its symbols including the color scarlet for important people and events.
The Flag of the Crusaders had a white background and large scarlet cross — symbolizing sacrifice and blood. Before 1295, Cardinals wore red robes with a purple tone that was the same red worn by Byzantine Emperors. That purplish red came from murex, a mollusk. The red (with a purple tone) because unavailable after 1453 when the Turks took over Constantinople. Cardinals then selected scarlet made with a dye called Kermes (from an insect that lives on Kermes oak trees.) To the best of my knowledge, it was one of or the most expensive dye available at the time.
Almost no garments still exist from the Middle Ages. Those that do come to us from some unique circumstances, like they were buried under a knight’s armor or found on a ‘bog body’ that was preserved in a peat bog.
What we do know comes from art of Medieval times such as illuminated manuscripts, statues, paintings, tapastries, and tomb effigies. However, even if we know when the art work was created, it can be difficult to know what time period is being depicted. The artist might be inspired by a subject or moment in history a century or two earlier.
Historians have also found that terminology varies from source to source. There is no source that lists all the available garments. Instead, historians have compared data from a wide range of sources such as wills, household account books, and letters. Truthfully, what we know about medieval hooded cloaks, capes, vestments, textiles, garments, and fashions is based on limited data and deduction.
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Author’s Note: Other medieval fabrics to add to this article include: Lawn, Fastian (cheaper velvet), Serge, and Flannel.