One would expect wool and linen to be readily available in early medieval Britain, as the climate is suitable for growing flax and rearing sheep. What about exotic luxury textiles, like silk?
Textiles, like other organic materials, do not usually survive well in archaeological deposits, unless the environment is either very dry (e.g. caves in a desert) or waterlogged (e.g. peat bogs). However, if textiles are deposited in close contact with metal objects, the corrosion of the metal can sometimes preserve fragments of the associated textile, either directly or as an impression in the corrosion products.
One of the funerary practices in widespread use by the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’), before they converted to Christianity, was inhumation burial with grave goods. The body was placed in the grave fully clothed, complete with jewellery and clothing fasteners such as brooches and belt buckles. Many of the clothing fasteners were made of metal, commonly copper alloy (bronze and related materials) or iron. Other metal objects such as tools, weapons or personal possessions were sometimes also buried with the body, and where these items touched clothing or other textiles such as cloth bags or wrappers they may also preserve fragments of textile.
Obviously, these tiny pieces of preserved fabric say very little about the overall shape and structure of the garments or cloths they were once part of. Nevertheless, they can say a great deal about the types of fibres, the spinning and weaving techniques used, and even, with careful chemical analysis, about dyes, colours and patterns.
Analysis of 3,800 records of preserved textiles from 1,730 graves excavated in what is now England has provided a wealth of information (Walton Rogers 2007). It should be noted that, by definition, this is a sample of textiles buried in graves containing metal objects, and may not necessarily be representative of textiles in use that were not deposited as grave goods, or textiles that were deposited in graves that did not contain metal objects. This caveat aside, however, it probably gives us a reasonable idea (and very likely the best we are going to get) of the textiles in use in Anglo-Saxon England.
Two fragments of silk cloth have been recorded (Walton Rogers 2007):
- very fine silk twill* weave found with a Frankish brooch dated to the early- to mid-sixth century, from Dover in Kent;
- silk tabby* weave wrapped around a small copper-alloy ball from a seventh-century smith’s grave at Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire.
The smith had a miscellaneous collection of goods from Continental Europe, perhaps acquired in extensive travels (Walton Rogers 2007).
Letter written by Cuthbert, abbot of Wearmouth, to Lul, Archbishop of Mainz, in 764
...you have sent, namely, an all silk robe for the relics of Bede, our master of blessed memory...--Letter of Cuthbert to Lul, quoted in: Crossley-Holland 1999
Note: this Abbot Cuthbert is not the same as the famous St Cuthbert, who lived in the previous century.
Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow
Among other things, he brought two cloaks, all of silk, and of incomparable workmanship, for which he received an estate of three hides on the south bank of the river Were, near, its mouth, from King Alfrid
--Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Chapter 9, available online
The abbot in question is Benedict Biscop. King Aldfrid became king of Northumbria in 684 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV Ch.26). One hide was the area of land required to support one family.
The archaeological samples and the documentary evidence are consistent. Silk cloth was clearly known in Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. It was also clearly very rare, very expensive (two high-quality silk cloaks bought enough farmland to support three families), and confined to people who had contacts with Continental Europe (Benedict Biscop brought silk cloaks back from Rome; Abbot Cuthbert received a silk robe from the Archbishop of Mainz in what is now Germany; the grave in Dover contained a brooch from Merovingian France; the smith at Tattershall Thorpe had several items from Europe and had perhaps travelled widely).
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Chapter 9, available online
Crossley-Holland K. The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology. Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 0-19-283547-5.
Walton Rogers P. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England. Council for British Archaeology 2007, ISBN 978-1-902771-54-0.
Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire
*In tabby weave the weft threads go alternately under and over one warp thread at a time; in twill weave the weft threads go over and under two or more warp threads at a time, each row stepping one thread to the side of the previous row. Tabby weaving is the simplest type, and if you did some hand-weaving in junior school it was almost certainly tabby weaving. I’ll come back to these techniques in more detail another time.