As regards weaving, the Middle Ages were far from being a dark age. On the contrary, this was a period of major changes, involving both the tools and the materials employed by weavers. Indeed, during these centuries Europe saw the beginning of the silk fabric production: a real revolution.
Which looms did medieval people use?
During the Middle Ages, there were mainly two kinds of looms:
- the warp-weighted loom: that is the vertical loom used since the Neolithic period and popular among the Greeks and Romans, too. Medieval weavers, at first, still employed weights to keep warp threads taut, but in the 11th century they adopted pedals, which were far more handy. Tapestries saw the light on this kind of looms;
- the horizontal loom: it appeared during the 11th century and led to further improvements. Indeed, thanks to it weavers could produce longer and wider fabrics, weave faster and create complex patterns. That’s why they spread almost everywhere, little by little.
Thanks to these advances in technology, during the Middle Ages both the patterns and the colours of fabrics became richer. But another innovation was coming: a new kind of thread.
Silk production in Europe: origins and consequences
The threads that dominated textile production in the Middle Ages were wool and linen. At least until the 12th century, when two new materials came into play, cotton and silk, both coming from the East.
As a matter of fact, Romans did already know silk: they had fallen in love with it during the 1st century BC, but both them and Medieval Europeans regarded it as an extremely luxurious fibre. Yes, you’re right, it’s always had a great value, but it was particularly precious for those ancient peoples, because they could only import it from China and the Byzantine Empire.
Things changed during the 12th century, though: it all began with the Second Crusade (1147), when the Norman king Roger II of Sicily decided to attack Corinth and Thebes. Which were 2 major silk production centres in the Byzantine Empire. Here he discovered and took back to his Kingdom of Sicily the techniques and craftspeople to produce silk, that later reached Lucca and other Italian cities.
And what about Venice? Probably sericulture reached the city after the Sack of Constantinople (1204), which marked the end of silk industry in the Byzantine capital.
The rise of sericulture in Europe thus started a real revolution, because:
- since Europe had its own silk production centres, it didn’t need to import this material from the East anymore, so its cost decreased;
- for centuries, only kings, churches, reliquaries of saints and nobility had used silk fabrics, but during the Middle Ages the upper middle class started buying it too, thus leading to a production growth;
- silk has unique features, it’s shiny, soft, light and resistant. So it was the perfect fibre to produce luxury fabrics, destined to become a status symbol for rich families.
Due to these reasons, the number of silk fabric manufacturers increased rapidly in Venice, too. And, little by little, various fabrics spread all around Europe: brocades, damasks, lampasses, satins and, of course, velvets.