What kind of thread did people use to make clothing in Middle Age Europe? Of course, all of these threads were handmade, same as the clothes. But what else do we know about medieval sewing threads? There are very few surviving examples that can tell us something about this era’s threads – it would be really great if museums did more research and publications on this topic, by the way. Still, some info is available, so let’s try to gather and structure it.
This aspect of clothing production is rather well-studied by the historical reenactors. These are people who spend tons of time and effort to find out as much as they can about their beloved historical period so that they could create clothing as accurate as possible. So, if you need even more detailed information about medieval sewing threads, contact the reenactors in your area or online. Here, we’ll share only some general facts and interesting info, without too many terms and too specific knowledge.
So, sewing threads were very different throughout human history – from animal sinew and tendons to delicate silk thread and warm wool thread. What kind of thread to use, depended on the material that needed to be sewn together and the wealth of a person.
In the medieval period, 3 types of sewing threads were mostly used – cotton, silk, and wool. They were hand-spun and a lot of ordinary women could produce cotton and wool threads for themselves. Silk was exported. Also, you could buy threads from artisans who specialized in growing plant fibers and animals (sheep, alpaca, etc) and spinning them into yarn.
The interesting fact about different sewing threads is that they decompose differently. For example, plant fibers disintegrate very quickly, especially in humid conditions, in the soil, etc, while animal fibers (silk, wool) are more resistant. Probably, you already know that a lot of medieval items of clothing (or at least some pieces remaining from them) we get from burials and archaeological sites. So, this factor is important – linen threads simply don’t survive. But silk and wool garments often can be brought from the ground to museums and conservation centers. That’s why we know more about such clothes.
Silk threads were rather popular in the medieval period, festive and costly garments were often sewn together with silk threads. Or decorative elements were attached to the garment with silk threads because they are thin but strong and durable.
By the way, even if the garment wasn’t totally made from silk fabric, it could be sewn with silk threads. Sometimes, woolen garments were sewn with silk threads. Why is that? Maybe because silk threads are very thin and practically invisible, while wool threads are usually thick and look not as good. Also, silk threads are often stronger than wool threads – depending on the quality.
Everyday clothes in medieval Europe were often made from linen and sewn together with linen threads. Flax grows in many European countries, the local climate is good for this plant, so linen was common here in various periods of history. Obviously, when you’re making a garment from linen, it is only natural to use linen threads to sew it. Unfortunately, as we’ve already said, linen fabric decomposes rapidly in the ground, so plenty of linen items of clothing disappeared during the centuries since the Middle Ages. But we know for sure that linen threads were widely used, which is understandable – they were available (while silk had to be imported).
The wool thread was used usually on wool fabric, obviously. Such threads were thicker than linen and silk threads. In some cases, woolen garments were sewn together with other types of thread, not vice versa.
Curious thing is that woolen garments were sometimes sewn with contrasting thread colors. And this happened rather often. We don’t know whether it was fashion or people simply used those threads they had. Décor was often made by contrasting threads, probably on purpose.
There were cases when a garment was sewn together with different threads. For example, the body with linen and décor with silk. More than that, some pieces of clothing were sewn together partially with linen and partially with silk threads (of different colors) – probably, this happened when the owner repaired it during the long years of use.
Why do we know comparatively little about the medieval sewing threads? Because during several centuries, many pieces of clothes simply disintegrated and disappeared. Very few books from that era mention tailoring and such a small and – in their opinion – insignificant aspect of clothing production as threads. And even several decades ago, archaeologists and historians who found old clothing couldn’t conserve it properly, so a lot of items didn’t survive to our day (even when they were found in the mid-20th century). Sadly, we lost so many medieval garments and so much info about them.
Besides, when a garment was studied, scientists often didn’t pay much attention to threads. They studied the fabric, the cut and design, decorations, etc, but not the threads that held the piece together.
Thereby, it would be very useful for clothing museums and archaeological museums to publish more detailed information on the topic of sewing threads used in different periods of history. Reenactors and people who study vintage clothes would appreciate it so much.