This is a reprint of my newsletter from April 2001, and is devoted to a great interest in my life; fabric and the Fabric Trade in the Renaissance. The following article contains brief overviews of basic fabric types and colors worn by the Middle Classes, and some trade and political history surrounding fabric production. There has been some editing for clarity.
Fabric Trade in the Renaissance
Fabric production and trade in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was one of the main drivers of the economic growth in Europe. While it is true that most every farm and hamlet in Europe wove their own homespun, that is not the focus of this article. This is about trade, and the rise of the business class.
The earliest manufacturing centers of fabric production and tailoring expertise were the Near East, Italy and Spain. However by the Middle Ages, Flanders was the undisputed leader in the manufacture and finishing of cloth, and enjoyed many advantages of their near-monopoly.
The Flemish instituted the some of the first mass production methods, and practically the entire population was employed in the fabric trade in some way. Thanks in part to the ‘Great Treaty’ of 1496, business between countries flourished, and England began to import fabrics from other sources. Then, with the discovery of the New World and the Cape route to the Indies in 1489, shipping and commerce was given another great boost.
Even so, Flanders remained the principle country for fabric manufacture and finishing for many, many years. To regulate this industry in terms of quality, many people in the craft belonged to guilds. An example of this is the Hanseatic League, and the City Livery Companie. In England, the guilds were in power until 1545, when they were disbanded by the king in an effort, it is said, to enrich his coffers.
I will continue with more information on industrial changes in the industry in the next issue…
Many citizens of the Middle Classes wore black robes to indicate their professional station in life. Indeed, most of the shoes worn by these classes were black, whether of leather or cloth. Town Burghers and politicians sought to impress the populace with their dignity of manner by wearing this somber color. Not so their wives, apparently. It is said that the wives of the Middle Classes were often more frivolous in dress than the women of the nobility.
Isabella-color is a based on a legend about Queen Isabella of Spain. According to the story; the Queen and her attendants were besieged by the Moors in one of the Queens castles. To bolster the sagging courage of her garrison, she vowed not to change her shift until the siege was lifted. All her ladies in waiting followed suit. Well, it took nine months. When she was finally able to change her underclothes, the soiled garments were hung in the chapel as offerings, not unlike old regimental flags are sometimes hung. The color of the garments, after nine consistent months of use, is the basis for this unusually named color.
There is a notable color of red that was available to the Middle and Lower classes. It was made of an inexpensive material and therefore easily obtained by those whose means were not ‘unlimited’. Only the Tudor or Scarlet Red was reserved for nobility. Can anybody guess what that material was? Comments are welcome…
Thanks for reading one of my very old newsletters. I remember back then there was so much uncertainty in the faire and reenactment community about fabrics, colors and so many details about costume.
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