Linen towels

After examples of the 15th century

In the 15th century

If you open Pinterest and start searching on 15th century paintings and manuscripts, you will soon find the recognisable white/blue striped towels. They are often seen near the well-known lavabo. A lavabo is a metal pot filled with water where people would wash their hands before a meal or a ritual hand-washing in church. The 15th century towels were only slightly different, they were often draped over the wooden stand from which the lavabo hung, and therefore the towels were many times longer than the ones I made now. My goal with these towels was different; I wanted to start replacing the cotton, mechanically made modern towels in our encampment on re-enactment with historically accurate towels.


Wasch-Stand, 1478, Saint Matthew the Evangelist, Gabriel Mälesskircher, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Stilleven met boeken en een wasbekken in een nis - Unknown painter in 1470-1480

My inspiration

The historical towels I find fascinating are particularly those made in Italy. These towels are called "Perugia" towels, after the prosperous trading centre Perugia in the Umbria region. From the 13th century to the 16th century, these towels were in great demand. Perugia cloths were particularly characterised by wide woven bands of blue stylised figures. Perugia cloths were used not only as towels, but also as altar cloths, headscarves, aprons, and tablecloths.


Painter unknown

Pietro Lorenzetti - Naissance de la Vierge 1342

Oberrheinischer Meister: Die Geburt Mariens. 1460/65

As you can see in the photo on the right side, the "base fabric" has a goose eye as a binding. Since my weaving skills are nowhere near the level of being able to weave complete stylised shapes, I wanted to focus only on the blue/white stripes and the goose eye twill as the binding.

For the weavers among us, or if you just love numbers, below is a detailed weaving note of the towels made.

Size per towel: after weaving, washing and hemming: 47 cm x 50 cm.

Material: 30/2 bleached linen for the warp, 30/2 bleached linen for the weft and single-thread 8/1 blue linen for the weft of the blue stripes.

Spacing: how many cm white and blue: 6cm white, 2cm blue, 1cm white, 3.5cm blue, 1cm white, 2cm blue, 20cm white, 2cm blue, 1cm white, 3.5cm blue, 1cm white, 2cm blue, 6cm white.

Warp: 700 threads of 9 metres long, 5915m for the warp in total, good for about 12 towels.

How many threads per cm: 14 threads per cm

Reed: 70/10, 2 threads per reed opening

Heddles per shaft: 88

Pattern: A Handweavers Pattern Book - "Triple Draught Bird's Eye" on page 21

Threading pattern: from right to left: 4321, 4321, 4321, 234, 1234, 123

Threadle to shaft connection: from right to left: shaft 3 and 4 on threadle 1. Shaft 2 and 3 on threadle 2. Shaft 1 and 2 on threadle 3. Shaft 1 and 4 on threadle 4.

Threadle sequence: On a countermarsh floor loom: 1234, 1234, 1234, 321, 4321, 432

Post-treatment: hand-wash in lukewarm water, when the towels are still slightly damp work with a mangle board, then iron with an iron without steam at a moderate temperature.


A Handweavers Pattern Book - Marguerite Porter Davidson

May 29, 2023, the start of the project! This was immediately the first time I worked with the warping mill, and what a pleasure it was! To avoid doing too much, I spread the warping of the chain over several days. I did not warp the entire warp in one go, then there would be too much difference in length on the warping mill. So I divided it into 5 bundles.

I attached the bundles of threads to an S hook with a 300-gram bag attached. This allows me to warp the entire chain on my own without help from others, and the weight keeps the chain nicely under tension.

All threads are distributed on the raddle. A raddle is a batten with nails inserted every cm. There should be 14 threads per cm to get a nice and even weave.

Once the warp was completely wound onto the warpbeam, the threading of the heddles could begin. Heddles are strings with an "eye" in the middle. The thread has to be threaded through the eyelet. This is one of my least favourite jobs as it quickly gives me a backache!

The threaded threads through the heddles with the sun shining on them. Surely this is pure enjoyment!

After all the heddles were threaded, the next step could begin. The reed is the metal bar in the picture. The reed has small metal slots, which is where the threads have to go through. With this fabric, 2 threads had to go through one reed slot.

After all the threads were passed through the reed, I tied the bundles to the batten attached to the cloth beam.

As you can see, threading the loom is quite a job. Every step has to be done with concentration and precision, because if there is one mistake in it, you are going to see it immediately in your weave. And prevention is better than repair! These steps of threading took me about 2 weeks. That would be 1 hour one day, 20 minutes the next, and sometimes not for days when my body hurt too much (I have a connective tissue disorder which causes pain and fatigue in my body). So I do what I can! And I look at that on a day-by-day basis.

After checking that the threadles are properly tied to the shafts, all threads are in place and there is a nice shed (the gap created in the fabric when threadles are pushed in), I first incorporated a thicker filler thread to eliminate any differences in tension.

The first piece with the twill pattern! What a beauty. I immediately fell in love, and did a happy dance of joy! This part of weaving is truly magical.

The difference from my very first woven towel! It's a different pattern anyway, but also the yarn is many times thinner than in the first version.

My faithful helper Toby loved to lay with me in the attic when I was weaving.

The two different weft threads. The white thread was the same as the one I used in the warp. The blue thread was a bit thicker and stiffer, but that actually gave a nice effect!

An extra thread on the sides of the fabric ensures that the selvedges (the sides) are woven neatly and straight.

The wooden batten stretched on the fabric is called a temple, it ensures that the fabric is woven the same width everywhere.

These are the attachments of the shafts to the pedals. Each cord is connected in the right places so that the shafts function properly to create the desired fabric.

30 December 2023, the end of the warp was finally in sight! After months of weaving off and on, the 9 metres of warp was finally nearing completion. What a job!

Quite a few times I really didn't feel like it at all. My body didn't always cooperate and, as usual with long-term projects, I really didn't feel like it halfway through. But fortunately, with the necessary coffee and good podcasts, I persevered and now the end was in sight. That was amazing!

But... with the weaving almost finished, I was still a long way from having usable towels!

Finishing the towels

After months of weaving, it was finally over. The fabric had been cut from the loom. During the dark winter months, I kept myself busy cutting loose weft threads, mending weaving errors or broken threads and hemming the towels.

The towels were washed in a lukewarm bath, just soaking them in water for about 30 minutes was enough for the threads to "relax".

After washing, of course, there was some shrinkage, but it was no big deal.

While the towels were still slightly damp, I worked them with a mangle board. This is a great tool to ensure that the linen takes on a sheen. After mangling, I ironed the towels with an iron without steam and on moderate heat.

And voila! 11 finished towels, ready to get filthy! Five of these towels have been donated to the re-enactment group that Ruud and I are a member of. The other towels might get another home, but one at least I want to keep for myself as a reminder of this great project.

In the end, it took me from May 2023 to February 2024 to make these towels from start to finish. A lot happened in these months, with my grandfather almost dying twice, but miraculously survived and is almost fully recovered! In January, he was in hospital with double pneumonia, and when he regained consciousness, I promised him I would bring him a towel. That was the extra motivation for me to start working really hard to complete these hand towels. And a few weeks on, in February, I took the stack of towels to the hospital and showed them to grandpa. I will never forget the proud look from him, which makes these hand towels even more special to me.