Some people on the Internet are curious about how much a shirt cost in the middle ages. Now you could try to answer that question by trying to calculate how long it would take to spin and weave the linen and sew the shirt, combining your guesses in an elaborate chain of assumptions using your big modern educated brain. A certain Eve Fisher imagined and calculated and came up with the figures $3500 or $4200 for a shirt like those depicted by painters like Peter Brueghel the Elder. This has been re-posted by a number of popular websites, and several weavers and spinners have dropped by her website to comment that they are not so sure about some of her assumptions. But did you know that we can skip all of these guesses and calculations, and the questions which they pose about whether we spin and weave as fast as people in the past, and just ask medieval people how much they paid for a shirt?
I sew by hand, and I like to use this needle case. It holds pins better than my pincushion, it is easy to pack away and set up wherever I am working, and I like the feel of the stamped leather in my hand. I bought it from someone at a medieval fair 20 years and several lifetimes ago.
Now, if you ask most people how ancient and medieval people stored pins and needles, they will show you metal or bone cylindrical cases with lids, and maybe speculate about leather or wooden versions. As for the pins and needles themselves, they will usually point out clumsy things suitable for making sails or picking a lock. But there is a problem of evidence. They point to these things because they appear in collections of small finds and are reported by metal detectorists. And wee little fishbone or steel needles don’t survive as well as giant bronze ones, and are not as easy to detect and identify. A folding needlecase is just as hard to spot, especially if it is not of vegetable-tanned leather. Hide which is treated in other ways, with drying, oil, fat, or alum, tends to break down in the ground, and in many cultures these other treatments were much more common than tanning with oak or other sources of tannins. A folding needlecase also suits conditions before the 20th century, because it required few materials or tools: just a scrap of leather and felt, which can be made from the ‘cabbage’ left over from cutting larger items, and a needle and thread to put it together. Before the 20th century, preparing the materials for clothing was usually much more expensive than turning them into a specific product.
So how long have people been using these before someone at the fair sat down at their crafts table to earn some pocket money? I have no idea. But I would expect it to be very long indeed, and much longer than I can prove. In studying ancient history, you have to accept that all kinds of things were done which you can’t prove. And I am OK with that.
Further Reading: http://larsdatter.com/sewingkits.htm Carol van Driel-Murray of the Archaeological Leather Group has been one of the leading figures in laying out the evidence that vegetable tanning was not the dominant way of treating hides in the ancient and medieval world.
Some years ago, I made up one of the famous Persian hoods in red linen cloth. I machine-sewed it and bag-lined it, and did not have sources other than reliefs, the Darius Mosaic, the bonnet from one of the Pazyryk tombs, and an interesting woodcut which Jona Lendering showed me. I used linen because it was available and appropriately light and flowing. I had a feeling that wool would have been more common. Back then, I knew that Strabo said that ordinary Persians wore a rag of sindōn (fine linen? by the middle ages sindon was a delicate silk) about their heads while rich ones wore a tower-like felt hat, so I had one possible source for linen (the original Greek is ῥάκος σινδόνιόν and πίλημα πυργωτόν and the citation is Strabo, Geography, 15.3.19). In the meantime I learned a bit of Greek, and also some Akkadian. It turned out that both of those languages are relevant.
The forces of madness have been on an around-the-world tour, but when they got back and slept off the tasty kebabs, weak beer, and very sweet sweets they discovered that their agent in the Alps had over-reached himself. This particular style of clothing was meant to fit very closely in some areas while standing away from the body in others, and in an excess of enthusiasm, their humble servant cut too much away from the opening of the lower sleeve to finish its edges by rolling or folding and stitching down. Fortunately, there are solutions.
While getting involved in a land war in Asia and going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line are classic blunders, most scholars agree that quilting a garment before you have made sure that you really have one right and one left breast is a good one too. Fortunately, that is a mistake which just costs time and thread to fix.
Solution below the fold.
Since 1933, it has been well known that the forces of madness have an affinity with unusual topology. In the case of this style of garment, layers of flat cloth are assembled into a three-dimensional garment shaped like an hourglass, using a saddle-shaped curve along the high waistline. From this stage onwards it is hard to lay the assemblies flat for photographing, because the whole point of assembling them is to stretch flat planes into a three-dimensional shape. I used some books to support the edges of the seam across the small of the back to help create the right effect for the camera.