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
2 Research question, data and methods

2.3 Methods

2.3.1 Some central concepts: skill and quality

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The following discussion focuses on the concepts of skill and quality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun ‘skill’ as: 1 the ability to do something well; expertise or dexterity. 2 a particular ability. Production of textiles was commonplace in Early Medieval society. Manufacture for daily clothes, household furniture, and sailing clothes must have taken up a considerable share of everyday life. From a study of working time conducted in 1760, it is known that up until the eighteenth century women in south Sweden worked at least eight months a year on textile production for domestic needs only (Andersson 2003). The techniques to make textiles were therefore widespread and embedded in the entire society. Skill in Early Medieval textile production must be conceived as the ability to make textiles of a higher level of skill, using refined techniques or expertise. Skill does not necessarily lead to finer textiles, there are many other reasons for which a textile may be valued. The quality of a textile and the way it was valued depends on its properties in relation to the use of the textile. It is often a combination of several properties, which makes a fabric suitable for a specific use. In cases of clothing it is obvious that a fine and technically complex fabric is very suitable and valuable. Fabric for sailing clothes, on the other hand, would have required other properties. A suitable sail cloth may very much resemble a fabric that in terms of clothing would be seen as of average quality (Cooke et al. 2002). The appearance of a textile may also be of significance because it can be just as important in signalling social status as the form or shape of a garment (Hammarlund et al. 2008). These properties are generally not easy to measure using standard analytical methods for archaeological textiles because these methods may describe textiles as technically similar while the naked eye conceives differences (Hammarlund 2005).

2.3.2 Chaîne opératoire

An important research question concerns differentiating domestic craftsmanship from production for a textile market via the analysis of textiles. A useful tool in this regard is the concept of chaîne opératoire, or operational sequence, which considers a production process as a sequence of (interrelated) actions influenced by technical possibilities and personal and cultural choices (Skibo & Schiffer 2008). This implies a study of the individual steps in the process of textile production, which makes it possible to evaluate every action and to discern the general mode of production. In each step one can ask whether producers had access to the same materials, skills and tools in the making of the final product. Although this is a somewhat technical approach, it is useful for possibly distinguishing ordinary textiles from specialized products made by people with specific skills or tools.

2.3.3 The social modes of production

Olausson (1997) has pointed out that it may be possible to gain greater insight into social complexity by studying how production was organised. Her model, developed for Neolithic Scandinavia, has previously been successfully applied to textile production by Andersson (2003, 2007). Olausson recognises five levels of production in terms of specialisation. Table 2 shows the characteristics of the first four levels.

Household production can be present in any kind of society but if it is possible to identify the product of a specialist, this should indicate a higher level of social complexity. The products of these types of specialised production must surely have different characteristics. A craftsman, producing for his patron, will make a product that will heighten the status of this patron. His products will therefore have to show the time and effort the craftsman has put into them. An independent craftsman would not have the time to elaborate on his work in the same way. He would have to be efficient to make his money, suggesting that his products could therefore be characterised as efficient and standardised, requiring a minimum of production time and there should be little evidence of errors (Olausson 1997).


Table 2. Characteristics of the different modes of flint production defined by Olausson (1997) and applied on archaeological textiles by Andersson (2003 ).

Following this model an assessment of the textiles is needed regarding how they were made and whether there are indications of a specific type of production or specialization as pointed out in table 2. This is reflected in the details of the process of textile production, from producing yarns (collecting fibres and the fineness of the spinning), through the careful weaving, to the way the cloth was sewn into a garment. It is also useful to consider whether the quality of the different steps in the process is the same or not. For instance, has the same level of craftsmanship been applied at each stage of the entire process of making textiles, or has part or parts of the process been of different levels? Lastly it is important to analyse how textiles were used after production and how they were possibly valued by the person or people using them. Therefore it is important to ask what they were used for, how they were sewn and how much effort was put into repairing them until they were finally discarded. It can be argued as to whether this is part of textile production, but these questions need to be taken into account when analysing the use, repair and value of a fabric.

2.3.4 Theory turned into practice

The textiles in the dataset are analysed to ascertain the degree of specialisation in the production process. To do so, every step of the production process has been considered. Analyses of spinning, weaving and needlework have been conducted by the author. These analyses involved describing the techniques used and the quality or craftsmanship visible in the thread, weave or stitching. Sections 3 and 4 include a discussion of the variables used in measuring these qualities. Fibre and dye analyses of several samples were done by P. Walton Rogers at the Anglo-Saxon Laboratory. The following sections will present the results of these analyses and a discussion of fibre processing, spinning, dyeing, weaving, finishing processes, sewing and repairing.