Sixteenth Century Textile Fibres:

A Little About the Fibres in Fabrics Used For Clothing In Venice

One of the most unworkable tendencies in historical costuming is the tendency to put the results of costuming efforts into just two categories - "authentic", and "inauthentic". There are many things to take into account when trying to determine the authenticity of any given finished item. The elements of authenticity - materials, method, and final appearance of the finished item all contribute equally to the overall level of "authenticity". There are almost as many levels of authenticity completely authentic reproduction of a in each of these elements as there are shades of grey between black and white.

One such level is the authenticity of the fibre composition of the fabric we choose to use. Someone could choose to use a figured fabric with a completely authentic reproduction of a sixteenth century design, but unless that fabric was also made from a period fibre (and handmade at that) it won't be completely "authentic". Natural polymers and synthetics were, of course, unknown to sixteenth century weavers, so we must look to the use of the natural fibres used for textiles in the sixteenth century - linen, wool, silk and cotton - to be better able to make modern day substitutions. This is not intended to be a comprehensive history of each fibre, merely a guide as to what was used for clothing and how.

Linen - Lino

Linen is strong and lustrous, and feels cool to the touch. Cities in France and the Low Countries were centres for the sale of linen, with Bruges and Antwerp being the main centres of export to Europe. “Cloth terms in use today derive from this...region of skilled linen manufacture – cambric from Cambrai, diaper from toile dYpres, holland which is a fine linen cloth, and hessian from the province of Hesse in northern Germany.” (History of Linen) It seems likely that Venetian nobles would have used these superior imported linens.

Linen's main disadvantage is that the fibre does not take dye readily, which is probably why this disadvantage was negated by its advantages of durability and ability to be bleached by the sun, to produce a fabric perfect for underwear which, due to its very purpose as the absorber of body oils and perspiration, needs the harshest and most frequent washing. For this very reason, since the fifteenth century linen diaper was made in "Italy, Germany and the Low Countries from at least the 14th century and subsequently in many other parts of Europe" for tablecloths, napkins and handtowels, along with linen damask. (Grove)

For the purpose of clothing, apart from the plain linen woven for underwear, there is also evidence that beginning in the mid twelfth century, linen was woven into a fabric with cotton, known in the English language as fustian. It appears to have been used mainly for unseen garments like petticoats/underskirts and interlinings. During the sixteenth century Genoa exported a fustian known in England as "gene" or "jean", a derivative of the word Genoa. It was "a cotton, linen and/or wool blend....woven of two threads of the same color." (History of Denim) Linen in Italy was also woven as part of a brocatelle, which was "a lampas with a silk main warp and a main weft, generally in linen. The pattern is obtained with a silk pattern weft." (Landini & Redaelli 2)

Wool - Lane

Wool in the sixteenth century was economical and readily available, warm and strong when spun into yarn. It is less economical today, in an age when synthetic fabrics are much more economical to produce, and easier to look after. In the sixteenth century, in Venice, wool was produced on the 'terra firma' - the provincial land holdings of the Venetian republic, most notably Vincenza, which has been a centre for the production of wool fabric since the fifteenth century. "High quality production characterised the town, in which there were at that time 150 workshops, although the villages at the foot of the mountains - Schio in first position, followed by Valdagno, Arzignano and Thiene - turned the situation to their advantage over the next couple of centuries, by adapting to the development of the international market." (Vicenza Qualita) In the sixteenth century much of the Venetian wool was exported to other markets. Wool, even high quality imported wool, was cheaper than high quality silks, even more so than quality velvets. As such it was a less prestigious fabric by far, and thus much less in demand by the Venetian nobility.

There was, however, a market for light fabrics similar to fustian which were manufactured in Italy. They were "made from mixtures of woollens, linen, and cotton fibres, and a wide variety of says, semi-worsteds, and coarse woollens, woven from "low-priced, mediocre Italian and western Mediterranean wools", were sold under a variety of names such as stametto, trafilato, tritama, taccolino, saia, saia cotonata." (Munro)

Silk - Seta

A luxurious and much sought-after fabric, "near Eastern and Byzantine silks have been found in European tombs dating from the ninth century onwards" (Grove). There is debate as to where in Italy silk was first woven. According to one account, "the art of silk weaving...began to appear in Europe between the tenth and eleventh centuries, in an area around the Mediterranean basin that included...Sicily and southern Italy, in those places that had most contact with Constantinople and the Arab world." (Moronato) But according to another source, silk weaving in Italy began in Sicily in the twelfth century, due to the Norman King Roger II, who brought back Arabian and Saracen weavers following his invasion of the Byzantine empire. (Tilton)

As to Venice, the production of silks there can be found documented in the charter of the Samite weavers guild of 1265 - the Capitulare Samitorium - "in which the rules of their profession are set out and precise criteria regarding working methods are laid down." It is noteworthy that this document is in fact a revision of an earlier ordinance, and thus silk weaving in Venice predates 1265. (Moronato)

I am especially interested in the weaving of silk velvets. Despite much documentation for the early weaving of other types of silk fabric in Sicily, I have so far not found evidence that western european velvet was first woven there. There is some evidence that silk velvet was woven "in Italy beginning in the 12th century and continuing through the entire eighteenth century". (de Marinis) As to where exactly this was, one author states that it was "likely" to have been the town of Lucca. (Tilton)

Regardless of where in Italy the weaving of velvet first began, it was probably long in existence by the time that the velvet weavers felt the need for a guild charter separate from the Samite and silk weavers guild charters, which was drawn up in 1347. (Moronato) At any rate, Italy had "the largest industry for the production of velvets in the western world...for centuries Lucca, Venice, Florence and Genoa supplied the rest of the world with these valued fabrics, to be used in clothing, wall coverings, upholstery..." and more. (de Marinis) By the sixteenth century silk was available in many weaves, both in plain and figured weaves, and Italian silks, especially velvets, were highly sought after.

Cotton - Cotone

As early as the 12th century cotton fibre was being at least imported into Italy from places such as Corinth, Alexandria and Antioch. It was being grown in Sicily, a Spanish dominion, which was by the middle of that century "a major exporter of unprocessed cotton and an importer of finished cloth." In Spain, "cotton manufacture was an important branch of the textile industry......, where it appears to have reached a high level of specialisation. Production was oriented toward local consumption. Demand came from all social classes, assuring a steady outlet for both the fine and coarse stuffs." (Mazzoui)

Fustian is a blend of cotton and linen. Its name is thought to come from Fustat near Cairo, where it was originally made. Cotton/linen fustian was woven in England, usually "used for undergarments and linings". (Textile Dictionary) Italy manufactured its own fustian, most notably the Genoese cotton/linen fustian known in England as gene and eventually "jean", a derivative of the word Genoa. (History of Denim) Within our period "...all cotton fabric made in Europe was woven with linen warps as people felt cotton was not strong enough for warp threads." (nicDhuinnshleibhe) Cotton "wool" was also used as padding and stuffing in garments. (Arnold)


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