Broadcloth - from start to finish



History of broadcloth

Broadcloth was very well known in the Middle Ages in the Netherlands and Belgium. Broadcloth is a woven, woollen fabric that takes on a "felted" appearance after fulling. Fulling was done by putting the fabric in a bath of water, urine (ammonia) and fuller's earth (bentonite clay). Then there were people, the fullers, who stomped on the fabric with their feet in the bath for at least two days. Then it was dried and stretched. With a kind of carding brush, the fabric was brushed to get all the hairs in one direction and then it was shaved. In this way, a waterproof, windproof yet supple fabric of high quality was obtained.

In the Netherlands, Leiden in particular was an important textile city where broadcloth was widely made. The broadcloth industry can be divided into two periods; the Old Drapery (from around 1300 to 1570) and the New Drapery (from 1570 to 1970). Between these two periods, the broadcloth industry went into a serious decline, necessitating a new revision of the entire process. This gave rise to the New Drapery. We were at the top of the list in terms of producing superior quality cloth.

My goal is to make broadcloth as it was made in Europe in the Middle Ages.


Below is a series of images from the Mendel I book, written in 1425-1442 in Nuremberg, Germany.

More images and information about the book can be found at this link.

From left to right: the weaver, the carder, the dyer, the fabric merchant and the tailor.



The wool

After a search on the internet and in my books about which type of wool was most suitable, I decided to go for Scottish Cotswold wool, a long-fibre wool that spins very finely. This wool was also highly touted in medieval times for its superior quality. Broadcloth was almost always woven from long-fibre wool. Via Minke Haan I was able to get hold of a beautiful fleece, what curls it contains! In my search, I also came across a seller in England, Wingham Wool, which sold Cotswold combed tops (I bought a 1.5 kg bag of combed tops for less than 36 pounds). My curiosity was piqued and I thought it would be a challenge to go and test which kind of wool would work best for my process of making a sheet the medieval way. So now 2 types of broadcloth were in the pipeline; from combed tops and from fleece.



In early March 2022, my adventure really began; I had started spinning the combed tops. I started by spinning the warp threads. These were to be spun Z with a high twist (the twist of the fibres, see image on the right), as thin and even as possible. The weft was spun S with a lower twist and slightly thicker than the warp. Historical fabrics used to be often woven this way. It makes for a balanced weave which makes fulling easier. Spinning took quite a long time. But after several months of spinning off and on, two nice full bobbins of wool had been spun. The weft was spun on balls without further treatment. The warp needed more work; because it was going to get a lot of friction on the loom, the yarn had to be strengthened. Formerly, sizing the warp was done with several products: a decoction of linseed, gelatine, starch puddings or other jelly-like substances. Due to a previous and first experience of gluing the warp with gelatine on fustein cloth, I chose to opt for gelatine again with the broadcloth. Should this not give the desired result, I could experiment with other products.

I soaked the balls of warp in a gelatine solution of 3 leaves of gelatine and 300ml of warm water. Once the balls had soaked themselves with gelatine, I then started unwinding them on a niddy-noddy. This allowed the threads to dry in tension. It took several days for the strands to dry, then I twisted them back onto balls and the warp was ready to weave with!

Spinning in the sunshine with a "bag" of combed tops.

Already a long way to go in spinning the weft, a nice thin thread.

Two strands of spun warp thread, before sizinig.

Preparing the loom

The weaving could begin! As it was going to be a fabric made up of single threads (single ply), it was important that the tension of the threads would always be the same throughout. I therefore chose to start weaving on my Glimakra Standard Contramarche loom. With this system, the warp threads are pushed down as well as up while making the shed (the opening through which the weaving shuttle passes). Preparing the loom before you can actually start weaving takes a lot of time. It often takes almost as much time as the weaving itself! There are many steps to go through, and if you make a mistake at any of them, it will start to affect the weaving and the fabric itself. So concentration and precision is key.


The warp

On a warping board, the warp is made. That is, you have to measure every thread that will be stretched on the loom to the right length. The whole warp would not fit on the warp frame at once, so it had to be made in bundles. When making the warp, it is important to make two "crosses" in the threads. In the first cross, the threads should run over and under each other, which is your counting cross (this is needed to thread the heddles in the right order). The second cross (dividing cross) contains bundles of 8 threads that are laid per cm on the raddle. This ensures you have the right amount of threads per cm to eventually weave a piece of fabric. There is a lot of calculation behind the weaving!


After all the bundles of warp threads were laid out on the loom, I went on to lay each small bundle of the dividing cross on the right openings of the raddle. The raddle is a square stick with nails on every cm. On one cm, 8 warp threads had to be laid. With the help of the divider cross, this was easily done. Then I hung a bag containing 500 grams on each bundle of threads. This ensured that I had the same tension on all warp thread bundles. Beaming the warp didn't take much time, as there were only 2.5 metres of threads.

Threading in the heddles

The heddles are strings with an "eye" in the middle (I always use Texsolv heddles for my looms). Each warp thread must be threaded through one eyelet. Among other things, the heddles determine the pattern in the fabric. This fabric had to be a linen weave or called evenweave. That means each thread goes over and under the weft thread. For this, I only needed 2 shafts. On each shaft the heddles are counted. So the heddles had to be threaded in this order: one heddle of shaft 1, one heddle of shaft 2, one heddle of shaft 1 and one heddle of shaft 2 and so on.

Threading the reed

The reed is a metal beam with small metal slots. I used an 80/110 reed, i.e. 8 openings at 10cm, the whole reed was 110cm wide. One warp thread had to be threaded through each slot. This too was a precise job, if I forgot one thread somewhere, or had two threads in one slot, I could start all over again from that point.

Attaching the treadles

Once the warp was ready, I could bind the treadles to the shafts. Only 2 treadles were needed for this binding. One for shaft 1 and one for shaft 2.



After the loom was threaded and the warp threads were tied to the cloth beam, the weaving could finally begin! The weft thread bobbin had to be prepared first. I find a bobbin with wheels the best way to work. After the first few wefts, I could check whether all the threads were in the right place. And fortunately they were! So this is when you start checking your fabric thread by thread. Unfortunately, I also found out that the threads of the warp stuck together too much when changing the shafts. Eventually, this caused fluffy threads to break. The occasional warp thread breaking is manageable, but at one point the fabric looked like a pincushion, that's how many threads had broken! That couldn't go on any longer. So I decided to use a gelatine mixture to glue the threads back together. With a wide, soft paintbrush, I was able to brush the threads. This then had to dry, and then I had to carefully separate the glued threads from each other. This was a hugely time-consuming job! I could only glue about 20cm each time (the part between the woven fabric and the reed. But luckily the threads broke much less due to these extra actions. It did make the fabric quite stiff and rigid, but that was no big deal. When washing, the gelatine would go out anyway and the fabric would regain its suppleness. The weaving itself took several months, partly because the gluing took a lot of time, but also because I found out that I hadn't spun enough weft thread. So in between, I spun two more balls of weft thread to continue weaving.

Finishing the fabric

After weaving, the fabric could be taken off the loom. It had become an enormously stiff piece because of all the gelatine! After a lukewarm bath with water, all the gelatine was gone and the fabric was supple and soft. Now the finishing of the fabric could begin. First I started by getting rid of broken threads, ends of new weft threads and repairing weaving faults. I believe this is also called nubbing and darning in English. If you are sloppy at this step in the process or don't fix weaving errors, you will always see it in your fabric.

When sewing in broken threads, make sure you always follow the binding of the fabric. See photo below; third from the left. So for a linen binding, that means you go one thread over and one thread under. This way you don't see the repaired spot, and your fabric stays strong without any risk of fraying.

I cut the fabric into 2 pieces. One piece would remain untreated, so just a hand-warm bath was sufficient. I hemmed this piece neatly and let it dry outside. The other piece was to be fulled! The pieces of fabric were exactly the same size, so after fulling you would be able to see how the fabric changed in size and texture.

Fulling and the end result

For fulling, I had decided to first try using a mixture of warm water and fulling earth: bentonite. Bentonite is a clay-like type of sand with huge amounts of minerals that have purifying properties. Originally, fulling was done with stale urine, water and bentonite. I found collecting and rotting my own urine just a bit too far for experimental archaeology, so if I wanted to try it anyway I would go for ammonia. The reason urine/ammonia was used is to extract lanolin from wool. Lanolin is the greasy stuff you feel when you grab raw, unwashed wool. But since I usedcombed wool tops, I could skip this step. With combed wool tops, 99% of the lanolin has already been removed from the wool during processing.

When fulling, it is important to create as much friction as possible. Eventually, you want the scales of the wool to hook into each other, the hairs to "fuse" with each other, so to speak, creating a smooth surface. This requires many steps. After throwing the wool, water and bentonite into a tub, I enthusiastically started stamping on it with my bare feet. After about an hour, I had immensely soft feet, but hardly anything had happened to the wool. So that wasn't going to work, and actually I had expected this beforehand. It's not for nothing that in the Middle Ages there were fullers who spent at least two days alternating between treading on wool. Later, of course, fulling mills were brought in and even more friction could be created in less time.

Eventually, I went rigorous with a coarse scrub brush, green soap and quite a bit of aggression. Then something started to emerge! The wool softened, it started to shrink and the texture began to change. See the picture below on the right for the difference after the first foot fulling. The fabric on the left is unworked, the one on the right is worked after the first round of fulling.

The photos below show an even clearer difference of the first round of fulling and the second round of fulling with the scrub brush.



Books on broadcloth

De Hollandse Textielnijverheid 1350-1600 - Herman Kaptein

De geschiedenis van de Leidsche lakenindustrie - N.W. Posthumus

The Fullers Teasel - P.N. Topham

The Medieval Broadcloth - Ancient Textile Series by Oxbow Books

The New Draperies in the Low Countries and England 1300 - 1800 - Negley Harte

The Weverlose fulling mill

In the small village of Merselo (Limburg, The Netherlands), there is a reproduction of a fulling mill; called the Wervelose Volmolen. This mill was modernly built in 2021 and based on examples from Romania, among others. The wooden mashers of the fulling mill are 19th-century originals also from the Balkans. The fulling mill itself is located on the Loobeek stream, a small stream with unfortunately too little water in the summer months to run the fulling mill independently. Therefore, the Loobeek foundation has installed a small motor powered by electricity from solar panels to keep the fulling mill functioning anyway. Fulling wool is unfortunately not possible. They tried this, only the water splashed in all directions in such a way that the whole room would be covered in splatters. Too bad! Because if this fulling mill did function completely, it would have been the only one in the whole of Western Europe! For now, we have to make do with the turning and clapping of the beaters, which is already quite impressive enough.

For more information, please visit: the Weverlose Volmolen website

The village of Merselo on a 1716 map; a fulling mill would have stood in this area.

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