The impact of technological change on medieval fashion

Laurel Ann Wilson, Fordham University, United States

Technology and fashion have always influenced each other, technology generally being the leader in their dance. In writing of the medieval cloth industry in England, John Oldland points out that the cloth industry in general is more dependent on change and flexibility, on the development of new products and markets, than many other industries in which the product changes very little or very slowly (2019, 13), which may help to explain the closeness of the connection between new technologies and new fashions. A broad definition of the technologies which influenced the medieval textile industry would include not just the many new processes involved in actual textile making and dyeing but also developments in sheep breeding, tailoring, even financial techniques. I am going to concentrate here on what I see as the most significant technological change: the arrival and development of the horizontal pedal loom and its main product, the famous medieval broadcloth or drap. At least one significant transformation of dress in the Middle Ages, the change to long clothing for men in the twelfth century, can be tied directly to the advent of the horizontal loom, since the transformation was concurrent with the development of a widespread industry based around the new loom and its ability to produce longer pieces of cloth. New weave structures and finishing techniques also evolved which made the new cloth particularly suitable for showing off rich jeweltoned dyes. I think it possible as well that the social effects of the new technology, or rather of the growth of the industry which developed from it, contributed indirectly to the far more drastic transformation of dress which occurred in the fourteenth century. Textiles became increasingly important to the European economy from Late Antiquity on: according to John Munro, «[n]o form of manufacturing had a greater impact upon the economy and society of medieval Europe than did those industries producing cloths from various kinds of wool» (2003, 1:181). The process by which fine woolen cloth was produced, however, underwent a radical change from the eleventh century on.

New technological innovations, particularly the introduction of the horizontal pedal loom and the complex of tools which accompanied it, not only launched new types of cloth, but dramatically increased output as well: it has been estimated that the advent of the new type of loom tripled production of cloth, and the later adoption of the spinning wheel is thought to have added a similar multiplier (Oldland 2019, 81; Munro 2003, 1:196; Endrei 1968, 38 [pre-thirteenth century], 87–88 [post-thirteenth century]; Graph 3; 173).

The net result, at its highest level, was a true luxury cloth. Each piece of drap was extremely large and contained a substantial amount of tightly packed wool (more than 38 kilograms in Flanders [Munro 2003, 196–7]), but was as drapable as silk, thanks to the elaborate finishing process. Because the cloth was so firmly woven, even before fulling it was unusually receptive to being dyed in deeply saturated colors. In addition, the firmness of the cloth meant that it did not ravel when cut into, which set off an ongoing rage for dagging and other forms of cut ornamentation. The production of drap on a large scale, and its wide distribution, both domestically and via extensive long-distance trade, became known as the grande industrie and was one of the major economic engines of the Commercial Revolution, which began around the turn of the first millennium in Europe (Lopez 1976; Pounds 1994, 407–42).

The new grande industrie affected fashion, which in turn contributed to the growth of commerce. The ability to produce long, deeply colored cloth, for example, was certainly an influence in the adoption of long clothing for men in the twelfth century. A more subtle influence was exerted by the growth of standardization in the cloth industry via guild- or government-issued regulations that prescribed standardized details and tools which enabled the measurement of those details. Standardization developed initially for reasons relating to long distance trade, such as the need for predictability in size and quality, but it is also essential for the the growth of fashion, which requires standardization to produce the sameness against which individual difference can rebel.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–565–3.08

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