Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-1 (May 2010)Chrystel R. Brandenburgh: Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production
3 Textile production

3.4 Weaving

3.4.1 Looms and their characteristics

next section

The process of weaving large pieces of cloth was generally conducted on a warp-weighted loom (fig. 6, left). This type of loom would have stood slightly at an angle against the wall of a building. The vertical threads of the fabric, the warp, were hung onto the upper crossbeam of the loom and put under tension by attaching loom weights. These loom weights can be found in abundance at Dutch sites.

Another type of loom, known from the countries surrounding the Netherlands, is the two-beam vertical loom (fig. 6, right). This loom type was in use during Roman times and must have remained in use in parts of France during the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, re-emerging in more widespread use around the end of the ninth century (Henry 1998, 2005). The change of loom is associated with a predominance of a weave-type which hitherto had not been very popular, the 2/1 twill (fig. 6b). Moreover the shift from one loom type to the other may be related to a change in the organisation of textile production from a domestic basis to a more organized and centrally controlled production (Henry 2005). If and when this loom type was actually in use in the Netherlands is not certain.


Fig. 6 Warp-weighted loom (left) and upright two-beam loom (right) (after Walton Rogers 1997).


Fig. 7 Fabrics are made of a minimum two sets of threads that cross each other perpendicular. The way in which the horizontal threads (the weft) are woven through the vertical threads (the warp) defines the bind of the fabric. There are several types of binds present in the Dutch dataset.a. Plain weave or tabby is found in a two varieties:Tabby is a balanced fabric where warp alternates with weft every thread.Repp-effect is used for tabbies where the thread count of one system is considerably higher than that of the second system. A weave is normally defined as such if it has a ratio of 1:2, or in fine fabrics, a difference of at least ten threads per cm.b-g. Twills are found in a number of varieties.2/1 twill (b) in which the warp passes over two and under one weft-thread.2/2 plain twill or diagonal twill (c) in which the warp goes over two and under two weft-threads. 2/2 Herringbone or chevron twill (d) in which the weave is reversed in one system at regular intervals.2/2 Lozenge twill (e) is a twill in which the weave is reversed in both systems creating a diamond-shape with a point repeat in the middle.2/2 Broken diamond twill (f) is (similar to the lozenge twill) reversed in both systems with a displacement.2/2 Cross twill or Kreuzköper (g) is a 2/2 twill in which the weave is reversed after every two threads.

From the tenth century onwards, historical texts mention a third loom type, the horizontal treadle loom (Cardon 1999, 412). The oldest finds in northwest Europe associated with this loom type are dated to the tenth century. In the beginning the width of the cloths produced on this loom was not very large. When weaving cloths of more than 1 metre width, one needed two weavers to operate this loom and it was only later that this became custom.

While the warp-weighted loom was very suitable for weaving broad cloths up to a length of 10 m, the horizontal loom was most effective when weaving narrow fabrics longer than 10 m (Cardon 1999, 415). The warp-weighted loom has no reed or batten, which may have affected the regularity of the thread systems. This irregularity is visible in the woven fabric in variable spacing of the threads and curving lines (Hammarlund et al. 2008).

No research has been conducted so far into the specific weaving tools that are associated with the various loom types, therefore the distribution of weaves presented below cannot yet be related to a type of loom.

3.4.2 The fabrics from Dutch settlements

Before discussing signs of specialization in weaving, a brief overview is required of the characteristics of the textiles from the Dutch settlements. This discussion will focus on the different techniques observed and their distribution across time and space.

Among the well-dated sites, nearly 50% of the textiles were woven in a diamond twill (table 7a & b). 2/2 plain twills are also present as a large group, followed by tabby, 2/1 twill, cross twill, herringbone or chevron twill and repp-effect tabby in small quantities. There are considerable differences between the major textile sites of Dokkum, Leens, Westeremden and Middelburg. Dokkum shows the largest variation of weaves, which is not remarkable since this site has yielded nearly twice as many textiles as Leens and three times as many as Westeremden. Dokkum has an equal number of diamond twills and 2/2 plain twills. Westeremden gives a very different picture with a large majority of diamond twills and very few 2/2 plain twills. In contrast, Leens shows considerably more 2/2 plain twills than diamond twills. Among the textiles from Middelburg (12 in total) we only see diamond twill and cross twill.[9] These different ratios among the sites may point to preferences for specific fabrics that were not necessary or required to the same extent at every site. There are considerably more 2/2 plain twills in many sites than previously documented in the diagram by Bender Jørgensen (1992 48, fig. 58).

Diamond twills show many patterns (table 8a). Some sites, like Dokkum, show a considerable variation of pattern repeats. In Westeremden on the other hand, a large majority of diamond twills are woven in pattern repeat 20/18, which points to a certain preference for this pattern there. This preference is also present in settlements across the border, such as Elisenhof and Hessens (Stadt Wilhelmshaven) (Tidow 1995, 359).

Several fabrics are woven in a spin-pattern. These patterns are created using both z- and s-twisted threads in warp or weft. The different direction of the twist of the yarns gives a very subtle but clear pattern. This pattern is present in 10 textiles.[10] All these textiles are rather coarse, the finest being spun in 10 x 8 threads per cm, but most are below 7 threads/cm. The pattern is present in diamond twills, 2/2 and 2/1 twill and tabby.


Table 8a. Distribution of the weaves per site and per group of sites.


Table 8a&b. Graphic representation of distribution of the weaves per site and per group of sites.

Borders or selvedges are observed in 25 textiles (table 9). Many of these borders are not reinforced at all, but are created by weaving the weft-thread immediately back into the fabric. This technique is, not surprisingly, mostly observed in rather coarse fabrics, but it is also present in a few of the finer textiles. Reinforced borders are present in 15 cases. These borders are made in tablet weave creating either a tablet woven band of three to six tablets or a tubular border (fig. 8). An example of a starting border in tablet weave was found at Hoogebeintum.[11]


Table 9a. The types of borders present (table) and the distribution in relation to the thread count of the main weave (graph). X and Y represent numbers of threads per centimeter.


Table 9b.

3.4.3 Signs of specialization in weaving

There are several ways to identify possible specialization in the weaving process. One is the estimation of the time and effort spent. A common way of estimating this is by comparing the thread counts of the weaves. Weaving a fine fabric with a large number of threads per centimetre takes more time than weaving a coarse fabric with only a few threads per centimetre. It is therefore useful to divide the dataset into groups ranging from coarse to fine. However, a focus on thread count alone would not do justice to many of the textiles. A cloth does not necessarily have to be of a high thread count to be valued. A coarse but regularly spun and woven fabric may be very pretty and equally valued for its craftsmanship. So besides this quantitative approach one can consider the regularity of the weaving. Relevant variables might be whether or not faults are visible and whether the appearance of the fabric is regular or not. This is a subjective way of classifying the textiles, but nevertheless gives an impression of the skill of the weaving. Lastly, there are fabrics that needed special skills or specific tools to produce. These most likely are the products of specialized workers and must have been valuable goods.


Fig. 8 Selvedges made in tablet weave: a tablet woven band and a tubular selvedge (after Schlabow 1976).


Fig. 9 Distribution of the different groups or qualities of weaving by site.

The fabrics may be divided by thread counts into five groups, ranging from very coarse to fine (fig. 9). The majority of the textiles have thread counts below 12 threads/cm. Only a small group may be considered as fine quality, but there are no fabrics finer than 28 threads/cm. There are slight differences between the sites (fig. 10). Leens has yielded more coarse fabrics, which may point to an overrepresentation of household textiles. In Westeremden and Middelburg this coarse group is missing altogether and both sites yielded considerable quantities of finer fabrics.


Fig. 10 Comparison of the quality of weaving between the sites of Dokkum, Leens, Westeremden and Middelburg. X and Y represent numbers of threads per centimeter.

There are two examples of very fine spinning and weaving in the dataset. First, the so-called Schleiergewebe or veil weave found in Leens (fig. 11).[12] This is a very fragile and open tabby, woven with z-spun threads of 0.2 mm and approximately 10 threads/cm. The fabric was woven out of naturally white wool[13] and was possibly used as headdress. The other, finer textile is another tabby (repp-effect) found in Dokkum. This fabric is a very dense cloth woven with 28 x 15 threads/cm.[14] Two colours of wool were used, white for the warp and dark brown for the weft. It is not clear whether the fabric was also dyed, since no dyes have been detected on the textile. Both these fabrics must have taken considerable time to produce.


Fig. 11 Veil-like fabric or Schleiergewebe found in Leens (object nr. 1939-IV.13A/7 & 1939-IV.13/1). Photo: M. Schouten (collection Groninger Museum). Scale in cms.

Comparing thread count and the regularity of the weave gives further information about the quality of the fabrics. The finer fabrics are often of a high and regular quality, as may have been expected, but this is also the case for most of the textiles in the middle group. This group, woven with approximately 10 threads per cm, was perhaps not necessarily of high value, but it may reflect the quality of work an accomplished weaver could achieve in normal circumstances. Using Olausson’s model for production it may also be possible to classify these textiles as the products of an independent specialist as they are characterised as efficient and standardised, requiring a minimum of production time and with little evidence of errors.


Fig. 12 Comparison of the quality of weaving between 2/2 plain twills and diamond twills. The diamond twills generally are woven with more threads/cm. X and Y represent numbers of threads per centimeter.

Another pattern emerges when the different weaves and their thread count are compared (fig. 12). 2/2 twills are generally coarser than their counterparts, 2/2 diamond twills. Technically, 2/2 twills are easier to weave than diamond twills and the fact that this bind is most often produced in low thread counts affirms its function as bulk product, which generally must have been used for general household needs. Diamond twills, on the other hand, were not made in coarse fabrics. The decorative pattern of this twill, combined with the higher thread counts and the technical difficulty, may point to a different value and use of this cloth type.


Fig. 13 Piled weaves found in Leens (left, object nr. 1939-IV.18/1) (collection Groninger Museum) and Dokkum (right, object nr. a1913/12.5 z.n.2/1) (collection National Museum of Antiquities Leiden).


Fig. 14 Piled weave of Dokkum. The pile has been partially woven into the fabric.

Finally there is one type of fabric that required extra technical skill to produce, piled weave. Piled fabrics are sparsely represented in the Netherlands. Examples were only found in Leens and Dokkum (figs. 13 & 14).[15] These weaves are rather coarse, very thick and densely felted z/s 2/2 twills, with long strands of s-spun thread worked into the fabric and hanging from the surface. These threads had the same function as fur, causing water to drip down the threads instead of drenching the woven cloth beneath. This fabric was very suitable for cloaks, which has been confirmed by finds in England. There, this fabric has been mainly found in men’s graves as a cloak or body cover. In some cases piled fabrics had been dyed (Walton 1989, 336; Geijer 1938, 132) and the quality of the wool suggests that they were luxury goods (Walton Rogers 2007, 85). The production site of piled fabrics from the fifth to the seventh century (presumably contemporary with the Dokkum textile) is unknown. From the eighth century onwards (contemporary with Leens) piled fabrics were traded from Ireland and Iceland and the Frisians also seem to have had a share in this trade. Texts mention that they were trading in a cloth called villosa that may have been used for this type of cloak (Gudjonsson 1962, 70, Walton Rogers 2007, 85-86).

In summary, it is possible to conclude that the coarser weaves were generally made in z/s 2/2 plain twills. These twills were quick and easy to make and were used for household needs, bedding, sacks, etc. The largest group of textiles consists of regularly woven 2/2 twills or diamond twills that could have been produced by any able weaver, so presumably production took place on a domestic level. Applying Olausson’s model, the regularity and efficient production of these textiles may however also be interpreted as characteristic for the work of independent specialists. Only a small group of mainly z/s diamond twills are of a finer quality, which required more time to weave. It is not clear whether this production took place at the household level or at a specialist workshop. One can merely conclude that people did occasionally take the time to make these textiles or pay somebody else to spend their time weaving the cloth. The veil weave found at Leens and the two piled weaves from Leens and Dokkum are rare examples of textiles that were almost certainly objects of trade.