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One of the main textiles produced during the medieval times was wool. It was usually used in the form of woven cloth, but it was sometimes used in the form of felt. Wool came from local sheep, some sheep giving fine silky fleece, others very coarse. If a very fine yarn was wanted, then the fleece was ‘carded’ or combed with a large iron comb-like tool. Another textile that was produced in the medieval times was linen. Linen was produced from flax, a blue flowered plant with slender stems that produced fibers when soaked in water an beaten. After yarn was obtained from the wool, or fibers from the flax, cloth was produced. First, yarn would be made from the raw materials. This was done by placing the material on a drop spindle. A drop spindle was made of wood or bone and weighted on the bottom with stone or metal. The yarn was produced when the fiber was pulled out from the spindle while it was being twisted. After yarn the yarn had been produced, it would be dyed using natural dyes. The dyes could have been bought from the local market or collected from the country side. Woad leaves or indigo were used to give a blue, the whole of the weld plant for yellow, madder roots for oranges, reds and brick color, the sap-wood from a brazil tree for reds, alkanet roots for lilac, etc.. Many other roots, berries, barks and lichens were used for dying too. After the yarn had been finalized, it would be woven into cloth on a loom. After the cloth was produced on the loom, it would be ironed. This was done by pressing the cloth with a whale bone plaque, large glass, or stone smoother which had been heated by a fire. After the cloth had been ironed, it could have been decorated by braided cords, tapestry of embroidery.
Glass was used in several different ways by the people of the medieval period. It was used to produce products like drinking vessels, window glass, jewelry, gaming pieces, enameling and beads. Glass was produced in one of two ways. It could have been produced from melting down existing glass and reusing it, or it could have been made from raw materials of quartz, soda, and potash. The quarts generally came from clean, stone-free sand, usually river bed sand. The soda was imported from the eastern Mediterranean in a form called natron. Potash was obtained from evaporating alkali solutions (which were made by passing water through burnt wood or root vegetables) in iron pots. The sand would be mixed with the natron or the potash and heated in an oven for several days. The heated mixture was constantly stirred and raked to let gasses escape. The mixture was then placed into a metal container and melted in a furnace. When the mixture was melted down it produced molten glass. When the molten glass was first formed, it would be a clear color or it would have a slight green tint. Minerals were added to the glass to give it color. Copper was added for red, blue, or green, iron for black, and tin for yellow. Some of the popular colors were pale blue, dark blue, blue-green, emerald green, olive green, amber, yellow-brown, red, and black. After the liquid glass was produced, it could be used in several ways to make different products. Glass bowls, cups, and containers were produced using the blowing method. The blowing method is where some molten glass was placed on the end of a hollow rod. The glass is given shape when air is blown into the rod. Complicated shapes could be produced using various tools and molds. Glass rings were produced by shaping the molten glass around an iron rod or cone. Glass was also molded into the shape of precious stones to place onto rings and other jewelry. Glass game pieces for board games were also very popular. These were also produced by molds. One of the most popular uses for glass was to make beads. Beads were made by forming droplets with the molten glass or by rolling the bead on a block while the glass was still soft. Lead oxide was usually added to the molten glass to give the beads an extra sparkle. Colored glass was also used to make stain glass windows. This was accomplished by pouring molten glass into molds of the desired shapes. The different shapes were then held together by lead frame.
Wood was the most well known commodity in the medieval Times. Almost all of the household items used during that time period were made from wood. All medieval artisans had to know how to work with wood in some way. Wood was an essential part of the Middle Ages. Most woodwork done during the medieval period was done green. This means that the timber was not seasoned before the craftsman began to work on it. This method was used because the unseasoned wood could be split easily so a saw was not required to cut it. Another advantage of working with unseasoned wood is that it is less likely to crack while it dries. Most of the detailed shaping was done with axes and adzes. Canoes were produced using the dug-out method. This is where the inside of a log is burned/scraped out. Barrels, buckets, and tubs were made from planks of wood bound together with iron hoops. Some of the more sophisticated artisans were able to make a lathe to shape cups and bowls with. One of the more creative ways to work with wood was basket weaving. This is where thin strips of wood, or fine branches from hazel or willow trees were woven together. The medieval wood artisan would have used planes, axes, adzes, draw knives, wedges, knives, chisels, hammers, mallets, awls, gouges, twist bits, and spoon augers. Saws were known but not widely used because they did not work well on the unseasoned wood. The wooden items were assembled using iron nails, or wooden pegs. Glues were also used to bond pieces of wood together. These glues usually came from animals. Wood was used to produce everything form buildings to ships to forks and spoons. The largest examples of medieval wood work would be the buildings. The ships that were made during this time period also required large amounts of timber and several skilled artisans to produce. Wood was used to produce about everything. The medieval carpenter would have had to known had to construct coffins, musical instruments, bridges, and roads using wood.
Metalwork was held in high esteem during the medieval period. Most farms had their own forge where the farmer would be able to make simple everyday items. However, more complicated items would be made either by travelling smiths who came to the farm, or be made by the village or town smith. Kings and noblemen often had their own smiths. Smiths made anything from nails to swords. Many cooking utensils, pans and cauldrons were made of iron. Almost every other craftsman relied on the smith for many of their tools. One of the most important tools made by the smith was the knife, which had an enormous number of uses, from eating to carving wood. The smith was also responsible for making locks and padlocks and shoeing horses. The Blacksmiths of the medieval period usually got their raw materials in the form of iron ore. The ore was usually collected from deposits near the surface of bogs giving it the name bog ore . The iron ore was then heated in a clay furnace (a process called smelting) at very high temperatures to remove the impurities, known as slag. Inside the furnace, the ore would be layered with charcoal. The charcoal was then lit and the temperature of the furnace was raised using bellows. The iron then melted out of the ore and the slag collected in the pit at the bottom of the furnace. When the slag had been removed the smith was left a bloom, which was a lump of fairly pure iron. The blacksmith could then take the bloom and use it to make whatever he needed. This type of iron is called wrought iron. The blacksmith would shape this metal by first heating it on a hearth, which sometimes reached 900 to 1000 degrees Celsius. The blacksmith would then remove the glowing metal from the hearth with a pair of tongs and place it on an anvil. Once on the anvil, the blacksmith could hammer the metal into the desired shape. The blacksmith also had punches to make holes in the metal, clippers for cutting sheet metal, and files for smoothing the metal. Later on in the medieval ages, steel was produced by adding carbon from charcoal to iron. The extra hardness and strength of steel was especially useful in making things such as knives and chisels.
Stone masons are responsible for many of the medieval stone buildings that we see today. The stone masons produced stone blocks and many decorative stone items the same way we do today, with a hammer and a chisel. They also used templates and stencils to put intricate designs on the stones that they carved. The largest pieces of stonework from the period are obviously the stone churches. The earliest stone churches were built in the early seventh century and continued to be built throughout the period. However, later on in the medieval period, many large stone buildings such as the Westminister Abbey were being built. Other large pieces of stonework from the period are the stone crosses found in many church-yards. These were always highly decorated, and, like the carvings in churches, were often painted. Traces of black, blue, red, brown, orange, yellow and white paints are known from stonework. The stone masons also produced stone grave stones which were often carved with a cross and inscription. The stone masons were also responsible for making some everyday items as well. They built the stone weights on the bottom of looms as well as stone molds for iron and glass casting. One of the most important things that the stone masons built were the millstones in the water mills. Another important product produced by the stone masons were the whetstones. These stones were needed to sharpen tools used in most of the other trades.
Leather was an important commodity in the medieval period because it was a flexible material and it was long wearing as well. Leather was used for a variety of things including shoes, belts, pouches, saddles and bridles, scabbards, covering shields, book-bindings, cups, bottles and bags. Leather garments such as cloaks, hoods and jerkins could be made, and if these were then oiled (using fish or vegetable oil) they could be made waterproof. Blacksmiths wore leather aprons for protection from heat and sparks. Leather production was a long and difficult process. The hides of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and deer, and perhaps horses, were all used. Once the animal was killed the skin was removed and the first job was to remove any bits of flesh and fat. In order to do this the hide was soaked and pounded and placed over a wooden beam where it was scraped with a special knife. The hair and outer part of the skin were then removed by rubbing urine, quicklime or wood ash into the wet surface. This loosened the hair and allowed it to be scraped off. The hide was then washed to stop the chemicals affecting it further. Oils and minerals were then added to the leather to prevent it from stiffening or rotting. The leather would then be tanned (a chemical called tannin is added to it) to preserve it. Sometimes the freshly skinned cow-hide would be cleaned to prevent it rotting, but otherwise be left untreated so as to make rawhide. This is much stiffer and stronger than ordinary leather and could be used for edging and facing shields, making shoes, or any other job requiring a stiffer, stronger material. The skin of the animals could also be tanned in such a way as to keep the hair on the skin. These furs could then be used as sleeping mats and blankets, or liner for clothes, cloaks, sleeping bags, and blankets.
This page written by William Chang.
Last revised: 12/5/1998