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Fiber Working Techniques

Fibers used:

Wool -- Most early Scottish cloth is worsted wool, i.e., when the wool is spun, the fibers are combed instead of carded, so that the fibers lie smoothly against each other. You can see the difference between worsted wools and carded wools when you look at a kilt or a wool business suit, in which the fabric is smooth-textured and not fuzzy, and a woven blanket, in which the fabric is fluffy and soft to the touch [Henshall, p. 1].

Woolen cloths woven from carded fibers were often felted and shrunk, which makes the cloth more water-resistant.

Types of sheep -- prehistoric sheep might have looked like Soay, Jacob, Orkney, Shetland, or Icelandic Sheep, or other 'primitive' types of sheep, depending the time period being discussed. Soay sheep are representative of the type of sheep that were in the British Isles before the Roman period; Jacobs, Shetland, Orkney, or Icelandic sheep are probably closer to the sheep raised in later periods. A web site with information about many sheep breeds is:

Silk -- In the Iron Age, silk textiles made their way from Asia to Europe as prestige gifts; later silk was brought to Europe along trade routes. Old silk clothing was unravelled so that the thread could be re-used, either for embroidery or woven with linen or other plant fibers into new cloth.

Linen & other plant fibers -- Linen was worn extensively, but it doesn't survive the centuries very well, so there is less evidence for linen garments from the Iron Age than there is for woolen garments. Linen and silks are sometimes found, but linen is much more likely to decay, so often only the woolen textiles remain, and the linen or hempen materials have completely disappeared. Silks were sometimes woven with linen, but when found, the linen base fabric has disappeared. Hemp was raised for fiber throughout ancient Europe, and was used for ropes and fabric. Because it is a plant fiber, though, it is hard to distinguish from linen. Nettles were also used for fabric. The stalks were 'retted' in a pool or stream like linen, then hackled and spun like linen.

Leather and Fur -- Leather and fur were used extensively for capes and jackets, and fur was used as edging for various garments. The furs used included badger, fox, seal, and otter. (Joyce, Vol. 2, p. 190) Irish leatherwork, including stamped designs, was fairly refined, as seen from the covers of ancient manuscripts. In addition to clothing and shoes, leather was used by British Celts for sails, and Irish Celts used leather hides for the hulls of boats (curraghs). Leather bags were also used to contain liquids such as milk and ale. Cuchulainn wears a jacket of hard leather in battle. This might be made using the technique called cuir boulli, which involves boiling the leather in wax and letting it dry and harden in the desired shape. This polymerizes the leather and makes it very hard.

For information on shoes, see Marc Carlson's site Footwear of the Middle Ages, and Molly Ni Dana's Irish and Scottish Shoes Page.

Old Irish terms related to leatherworking:

  • lethar -- leather
  • su/daire -- tanner
  • coirtech -- oak bark used in tanning
  • codal -- a hide
  • bolg -- a bag
  • lesan -- a bag used to hold ale
  • pait -- a leather bottle, or a pot of any kind
  • pattaire or su/daire -- a maker of paits
  • crioll -- a leather travelling-bag
  • criollaidhe -- maker of leather bags
  • crioll -- a leather bag stitched with thongs
  • cuaran -- untanned leather shoe
  • cuara/naighe -- maker of cuarans
  • greusaidhe or su/taire -- shoemaker
  • cairemain -- a shoemaker or a maker of leather bottles


See Dyes for information on the plant materials available for dyeing fibers.

Spinning & Weaving Techniques:

Spinning: Wool was shorn from the sheep, sorted, scoured, combed or carded, and then spun. The spinning wheel was not introduced until the 15th or 16th century, so earlier spinning would have been done using a drop spindle (flax spindles were called fertas and wool spindles sni/maire) and distaff (also known as a 'rock', or in Irish, cuige/al). A good book on the subject is The Essentials of Handspinning, available from Halcyon Yarns.  The most commonly used spinning wheel in the Highlands until the early to mid-18th century was the 'Muckle Wheel' or 'Walking Wheel', which is the big one without a flyer head.  After that, the Saxony-type wheel with the flyer head (and variations such as the Castle Wheel) became universal, with the Muckle Wheel used for plying and winding bobbins, and occasionally for spinning wool.

Sprang: See Anglo-Saxon and Viking Crafts - Sprang for information on Sprang. This is essentially a netting technique and was used to make caps, bags, and other items that might in later periods have been loosely knitted.

Nalbinding: See Anglo-Saxon and Viking Crafts - Nalebinding for information on nalbinding techniques. Nalbinding is a technique of looping thread with a needle so as to make stretchy items like mittens, socks or other items which might later have been knitted or crocheted. Nalbinding is a widespread technique that has been found from Scandinavia to Egypt. The general effect of the more simple types of nalbinding looks somewhat like tight single crochet stitch; there are more complex types of nalbinding as well..

Knitting: the earliest piece of knitted fabric found from Medieval Scotland dates to the early 16th century. It seems to have been most used to knit caps and flat bonnets, which were then felted to produce waterproof headwear. The cap was felted, then the outer surface was shaved to present a smooth surface to the rain [Henshall, p. 2].

Weaving: Most weaving was done on the warp-weighted loom, which was used from ancient times up to early modern times throughout Europe and Eurasia. The warp-weighted loom was used to weave everything from simple tabby and twills to complex tapestries, and from narrow fabrics to fabrics as wide as 60 inches or more (the weaver would walk back and forth while weaving, or two or three women would weave side by side and pass the shuttles back and forth between themselves) [Barber, Ancient Textiles, p. 105, 178]. There is some question as to what kind of loom was used in Ireland, as no loom weights have been found there; I think it's likely that the warp-weighted loom was used in Ireland, though, since there I haven't heard of evidence of an alternative form of loom, and that the borders of pieces of fabric found in Ireland seem consistent with the characteristics of fabric produced on warp-weighted looms.

The regular treadle loom spread throughout Europe starting in the early middle ages (1100 onward), and ultimately became the basis of large woolen cloth industries in England, Scotland, and the Low Countries.  Ireland (and until the mid 1700s, Scotland) were more known for linen production.

Tape Looms (aka rigid heddle looms) are small looms used for weaving ribbons, garters or other narrow bands.

Card Weaving: Card weaving (or tablet weaving) was used to start the heading borders for weaving on warp-weighted looms, and to make belts, trim and fringe for use separately. Quite complex patterns can be made using card-weaving, and many ornate and complicated examples of card weaving have been found. To make a heading border, oneweaves a card-woven band, but lengthens the weft on one side so as to make the warp for the eventual fabric. This technique is fully detailed in Marta Hoffman's The Warp-Weighted Loom and E.W.J. Barber's Prehistoric Textiles.  An excellent source of further information on the history and techniques of card weaving is The Techniques of Tablet Weaving by Peter Collingwood.

Related Links:
Anglo-Saxon and Viking Crafts - Braid-Weaving
Phiala's String Page
Ravensgard Costuming and Textiles Page -- has a description and pictures of warp-weighted looms
Tablet Weaving Archive

Old Irish Gaelic Spinning/Weaving terms: (/ denotes accent, or 'fada', over preceding letter, lengthening the vowel)

  • demess - shears
  • lomrad - shearing
  • belad - greasing the wool
  • cumusc - teasing/mixing the wool
  • ci/rad - combing
  • ci/r or ci/or-- wool comb
  • pes-bolg -- foot-bag, in which carded wool is stored
  • loes -- locks or rolls of wool produced after carding
  • cuige/al -- distaff
  • fertas -- spindle for flax
  • sni/maire -- spindle for wool
  • sni/m -- to spin (mod. Ir. sni/omh)
  • abras -- yarn
  • certle -- ball of yarn
  • garmain -- weaving beam (the larger of two; referred to as having a 'nin' - mouth or fork at its head; I suspect it is the top beam or one of the side supporting beams on a warp-weighted loom; the former is more likely, since they're referred to in the singular)
  • lu-garmain -- smaller weaving beam (possibly the rod that separates the shed on a warp-weighted loom)
  • claidim -- weaving sword
  • slata figi -- weaving rods, used to lift the shed
  • dluth -- warp
  • innech -- weft
  • feith-ge/ir -- sleeking-stick to put a smooth face on the weaving
  • corrthar -- fringe or border, sometimes woven into fabric, other times woven separately and sewn on
  • ci/ormhaire or u/caire-- fuller
  • li/n -- flax
  • smachti/n -- flax mallet
  • flescad or ailgubad-- scutching (the process whereby the flax is beaten to remove thewoody outer part of the flax stem)
  • flesc, flesc-li/n-- scutching stick
  • tuar -- bleaching green

Scottish Gaelic Spinning/Weaving Terms:

  • beart deilbh -- warping board
  • crios iarna - niddy noddy, used for skeining yarn
  • drogad -- cloth made of dark blue linen warp, striped woolen weft, used by women in the Scottish Highlands for their petticoats until modern times
  • luadhadh -- the waulking process
  • rolag (pl. rolagan) -- the rolls of wool taken off the wool cards


Thread for sewing tended to be of wool, or, in the Bronze Age, gut or sinew. Thread was kept in clews (small rolls). Needles were made of bronze in the bronze age, but steel needles were used when that technology became available. Needles were very valuable; varying in value from a yearling calf for a common needle to an ounce of silver for an embroidery needle. Workmanship was very fine. Embroidery was common; embroiderers used leather patterns in which the design was drawn and stamped (perhaps a template?) (Joyce, Vol. 2, p. 364). Well-born ladies were practised spinning, weaving and embroidery as an accomplishment and pastime.

Irish Gaelic Sewing Terms:

  • sna/that -- needle
  • sna/th -- thread
  • cro -- eye, the eye of the needle
  • e/dach -- garment, dress
  • e/tidach -- dressmaker
  • cusal -- wooden sewing box
  • iadach, tiag, ci/orbholg -- workbag (ci/orbholg -- comb-bag)
  • druinech -- embroiderer
More Fiber Arts Resources
Dharma Trading for Tie-dye, Batik, Dye, Fabric Paint, and Fiber Arts Supplies
EARTH GUILD: home page
G&S Dye: Natural Fabrics and Textile Design Supplies
Halcyon Yarn Home Page
Handweavers Guild of America, Inc.
Natural Dyes Mailing List
The Woad Page

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Copyright Notice:

The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Clothing of the Ancient Celts - Copyright 1997, M. E. Riley