Even though I have been quiet, I have done something!
I had fallen in love with the idea of making a white open surcoat to be worn with my white woollen underdress. I cherished the idea of a roba, a complete set of 4 to 6 garments (at least an underdress, an overdress, a hood and a cloak) made out of same fabric. I also remembered a pretty picture of a group of elegant people all wearing white – although admittedly the painting* I had in mind is of a later date: the courtiers of Philip the Good (1396-1467) wander around the Garden of Love, probably celebrating the wedding of Philip’s chamberlain André de Toulongeon in 1432. The painting is right there, on the left. (Oh, and actually the painting is a copy painted in the 16th century, so the accuracy of it can be argued.)
Naturally I didn’t have any more of that white wool so I started looking around the fabric stores. Then it occurred to me: how white was the white wool they would have used in 14th century clothing – as (off-)white as they could get out of a sheep, or somehow bleached to whitewhite? And right after that question I thought of a second one: even if they had had a way to bleach the white, would they have done it? What was the desired whiteness of wool? With linen, the questions would have been easier: they could bleach it with the help of sun and snow, and the whiter the result, the better. But what about wool?
I also bothered the matrons of Neulakko and Hibernaatiopesäke with my questions (what else are friends for!) and pretty quickly we found out that wool was not bleached. To get pure white wool you apparently need optical whiteners and they were not available.
There, one less problem to think about. I could now go back to browsing Medeltidsmode’s and Naturtuche’s selections with my eyes set on off-white. And I did find something lovely: a thin diamond twill. Why not just order that?
Well, because there was this discussion on luxury fabrics. Before the 14th century it was obvious that a fine fabric had a visible, even intricate weaving pattern, e.g. this diamond twill I mentioned. During the 14th century the fabrication of finer fabrics started including the finishing techniques like napping and shearing. With those techniques a smooth, even surface was achieved, and any weaving patterns were covered, making them also less desired. So, my 1340s persona, looking for a luxurious fabric, would probably not have chosen a diamond twill but a beautifully and fully finished wool.
I didn’t want to waste my money so I started reading. Medieval Clothing and Textiles 3 has 2 interesting articles that I hoped could shed some light on the matter. The Finishing of English Woollens, 1350-1500 by John Oldland confirmed that woollens were indeed treated several times to achieve a smooth surface.
The Anti-Red Shift – To the Dark Side: Colour Changes in Flemish Luxury Woollens, 1300-1550 by John H. Munro revealed a bit more because it studies the textiles and in particular the colours purchased for the civic leaders of the wealthy Flemish wool trade towns. Munro uses the town treasurers’ annual accounts as material.
Based on Munro’s article, you can quite clearly see what was hot and what was not in the world of period wool trade – after all, the Flemish woollens were The Most Desired Woollens, the luxury fabrics of the era. The textiles bought for the officials over the years revealed that the taste for colour varied and evolved, but what was the deal with white? According to Munro, whites were bought but only to be dyed to other colours. IF they were bought at all: the final nail to my white coffin might have been the table indicating that the amount of white wool bought during the 14th century was a perfectly round zero. Nothing. No whites at all.Blah.
Of course I have options. The far ends of the scale are:
A) I buy the beautiful white diamond twill and risk being seen as odd and old-fashioned
B) I even dye my white underdress with something more appropriate.
I just don’t know yet. See, I happened to read about colours from another source too (Florent Véniel: Le Costume Médiéval de 1320 à 1480) and there was some talk of white:
“Si elle est employée majoritairement pour des pièces d’habillement secondaires comme des vêtements de dessous, les tabliers ou la doublure, elle est de plus en plus soumise, à partir du XIVe siècle, à d’autres utilisations et peut ètre portée en vêtement de dessus.”
In short: even though white was mostly used in underwear, aprons and linings, from 14th century onwards it was beginning to be used more elsewhere too, and perhaps even in overdresses. So perhaps…
What I did notice again, is that a seemingly small detail can lead to an interesting quest for answers!