I first met 'the other Chris' (as she was fond of calling herself) a few years back, not long after she had crossed the pond to England to start a postgraduate degree at the University of Manchester.
I was intrigued not only by her subject of enquiry – Anglo-Saxon and Viking era warp weighted looms – but also her approach to her research.
And then there was that curious thing: what's a student of textile production doing in an English department? Go figure, as Chris would say. Well, let's allow Chris to do the talking ...
ASM: How should we go about reconstructing the history of Anglo-Saxon textiles? Is there, for example, a conversation to be had between academic historians and historical practitioners, if that’s the right term?
CP: Historical practitioners is as good a term as any. Such individuals also do historical reproductions, and variants on experimental archaeology and museum education.
Reconstructing the history of Anglo-Saxon textiles is kind of like working with a jigsaw puzzle with a sizable number of pieces missing.
Since textiles, and the mostly wooden tools that made them, tend to disintegrate in British soil fairly quickly, the archaeological evidence tends to be small fragments.
We have over 4,000 textile fragments, many of which are oxidized replacements, created when the metal objects next to the textiles rusted. With few very notable exceptions, most of these textiles are less than two inches (5 cm) in size, so reconstructing the original item can be a particular challenge.
With textiles especially, interdisciplinary studies are required to get the whole picture, as you can never be certain where a useful piece of information can be found.
Because textiles are such an everyday sort of item – even now we don’t generally consider all the fabrics that surround us – little in the way of medieval literature about them exists, except in brief mentions, with no details, in documents such as tax records.
I have found hints and ideas in archaeology and art, of course, but it also helps to know a bit about genetics, linguistics, engineering, chemistry, and theology.
A post graduate course I took at the University of Manchester in Britain asked the class to make a list of all the different disciplines our area of study touched on. I had the longest list with thirty seven different academic disciplines that I have referenced in my work.
Textile researchers can be found in art, history, English, and literature departments. Those of us that work in this area have to be open to information from any source.
I think the best conversation we can have about the textiles and the processes that made them is by having academics observe, question, and learn from those people who actually understand the crafts required to create textiles.
While we will never be able to prove how our ancestors actually made cloth, such conversations will help narrow the focus to what is possible and what is highly unlikely.
I know from experience and from talking to many craftsmen of all levels of experience that they rely heavily on academic literature to understand Anglo-Saxon textiles.
They use this data to inform their research and practical application work. I should like to see academics return the favour by using the information that can only be gathered by actually creating a piece of textile and from having years of experience with the craft.
Sometimes what works in a thought experiment does not equate to the experience of the craftsman.
As an example, a colleague, Dr Katrin Kania, who is also a spinner, recently conducted a series of experiments involving spindle whorls for spinning.
She controlled the weight of the whorls, where they were placed on the spindle, the fibre to be spun, and how much time was allowed for spinning with each tool.
Her preliminary results show that it is the spinner and not the tool that determines the size and quality of the yarn spun.
This is counter to many articles on the topic which come to the conclusion that the weight of the spindle whorl controls the size and quality of the yarn. A historical practitioner was needed to rethink the idea.
I find that, in many cases, historical practitioners come up with questions that have not been considered before because of their hands-on experience.
They can also come up with answers that have more to do with the inconsistencies of human experience.
In one case, where a single brooch from the archaeological record had three textiles caught in the pin, many theories were put forward having to do with costume and personal style.
The simple answer, however, brought up at a conference by a person well practiced with spinning and weaving, was that it was likely the person dressing the body for burial accidently pushed the pin of the brooch through more layers of fabric than was traditional.
The dressing ‘error’ was never 'fixed' because the person working the pin was in grief and as the dead don’t tend to move too much, it may not have been noticed.
ASM: What processes were involved (are involved) in Anglo-Saxon textile production?
The actual list of processes involved in making textiles hasn’t changed all that much from the Neolithic period until now. Even the terminology hasn’t changed very much. We have just mechanized it.
To make a piece of cloth from wool you need to:
Shear the sheep. This is generally done in the spring.
Skirt the fleece. This removes all the unusable wool: the wool that was too short, too matted, or too dirty to be spinnable.
Wash the wool. There is some suggestion that the sheep were run through a washing process before shearing, but I’ve never seen it done.
Dyeing can be done at this point, but there are several other places in the process it can happen, depending on the decisions of the craftsmen and the design of the finished cloth.
Card or comb the wool to straighten the fibres to make straighter, more even yarn, and to get any remaining vegetable matter out of the wool.
Spin the wool. Anglo-Saxons used a drop spindle, as the spinning wheel didn’t come to Europe until the early 12th century. This is the most time consuming step.
The yarn has to be taken off the spindle and skeined by using a tool called a niddy noddy, or wound into a ball using a nostepinne if the spinner wants to ply the yarn.
Most Anglo-Saxon textiles are made with singles, or yarn that has only one thread instead of several wound around each other, so plying is not generally considered for historic reproduction textiles.
Set the twist, which is basically allowing the wool to felt within the yarn. This is done by putting the skein in hot water and hanging it to dry. Weights are sometimes added to the skein as it dries to strengthen the yarn.
Dyeing can be done at this point, if it hadn’t been done previously.
Wind the yarn into a ball. This makes it easier to work with for the next step.
Measure the yarn for warp thread. Warp thread is attached to the loom and put under tension to make it easier to weave.
For the warp weighted loom, the primary weaving tool for northern Europe until about 1100 AD, there are two sets of warps that are measured.
The first set of warp threads can be put on some form of card loom, which is used to create both a reinforced border for the main piece of cloth, and at the same time arranges the spacing for the warp threads on the warp weighted loom.
This is much easier to explain in pictures or, preferably, in person because craft work is always easier to understand in three dimensions.
Wind yarn into cigar shaped balls for weft yarn. This happens often while actually weaving, as the weft yarn (the yarn that is woven into the warp threads) needs to be a small enough amount to work with – you can’t put a huge ball in between warp threads – and the weaver will need to make more of these balls to continue weaving..
Weave the cloth. This is the second most time consuming part of making fabrics.
Cut the fabric off the loom.
Finish the edges. The warp thread attaching the cloth to the loom is all just hanging threads at this point, so some form of edging needs to be decided upon, so that the weft doesn’t slide off the warp.
Edging can be tied tassels, different types of knots, or each warp thread can be woven individually back into the fabric with a needle. This process takes more time than you would think.
Dyeing can be done at this point, too.
Full the cloth. At this point, the finished cloth is put into a bath of water, possibly washed or bleached, but certainly agitated so that the individual fibres can felt together making a cohesive piece rather than a collection of strings.
Stretch the cloth. This is to dry the piece and to make it uniform in tension with even edges and to counteract the rumpling that happens during fulling.
Tenter hooks were used in a frame in the later medieval periods, but we have no evidence that Anglo-Saxons used a frame. It isn’t particularly necessary, but it does make a more consistent sized cloth.
Twelve or so hours, depending on the weather, it would be dry, and is now a usable piece of cloth.
ASM: How labour intensive was it then to produce fabric?
CP: I will use my own numbers for the time it takes, because we have no reasonable idea about Anglo-Saxon spinners and weavers.
The only documented evidence comes from the late 1700’s in Sweden, when they used spinning wheels and water mill driven floor looms, which would not be accurate for drop spindles and warp weighted looms.
Keep in mind that while I am good at what I do in comparison to modern craftsmen, I’m just an interested hobbyist in comparison with the (mostly) women who did this as part of their daily chores.
It takes me about 30-45 seconds to spin a yard of yarn with my drop spindle, and about the same amount of time to throw a weft thread and beat it into place on my warp weighted loom.
Using these numbers I calculated out how long it took to make a small piece of plaid fabric (35 inches wide, two and a half yards long) that I spun and wove by hand.
The three miles of thread involved took me more than 1200 hours to spin and weave.
Setting up the warp weighted loom takes about another 16-20 hours.
Finishing the fabric with decorative knotwork took 100 hours.
Gathering and creating three different dyes from native plants takes another hundred or so hours.
So that piece took most of four months’ worth of eight hour days to complete. And this doesn’t include the time to wash or card the wool, and wind the yarns, which can take another several hundred hours to accomplish.
This being said, I don’t think Anglo-Saxon women thought about the work in hours and minutes like that. They would just do what they could on a given day, depending on how soon the cloth was needed, the light and the weather, and if the goat got loose or how the children were behaving.
Find out if Chris ever cheats when she's making her own fabric, and what she thinks of Hollywood's depictions of medieval weavers and spinners.
We have over 4,000 textile fragments, most of which are less than two inches in size, so reconstructing the original item is a particular challenge.
To study medieval production it helps to have a knowledge of genetics, linguistics, engineering, chemistry, and theology!
The best conversation we can have about textile production is to get academics to observe, question and learn from those who actually understand the crafts required to create textiles.
One burial brooch had three different textiles caught in the pin. Many theories were put forward but the simple explanation was that the person working the pin was grieving and the dead don't tend to notice.
The actual processes involved in making textiles haven't changed all that much from the Neolithic period until now.
Anglo-Saxons used a drop spindle: the spinning wheel didn't come to Europe until the early 12th century.
This is much easier to explain in person because craft work is always easier to understand in three dimensions.
One piece of fabric I made took me four months of eight hour days to complete!