If you travel into Nottingham by train, the fields flanking your approach are rippled with the ridge-and-furrow remains of long-abandoned open fields. The wider Midlands too are scattered with earthworks marking the locations of deserted medieval villages. Many of these traces bear witness to the brutal impact of the Black Death on 14th-century England. Because of the devastating swathe that the pandemic cut through the population, there were no longer enough labourers to work the land, and large areas once dedicated to cultivating crops were given over to pasture. In the Midlands, sheep-rearing, wool-production, and textile-making became vital new sources of local prosperity, part of an industrial innovation that would flourish into a powerful driver of the broader medieval economy.
At the University of Nottingham Museum, an exhibition has been exploring the regional and wider impact of this industry, as well as weaving together the social story of cloth-manufacturing and medieval clothing. The creation of the displays represents a great collaborative effort from five regional museums (see ‘Further information’) working together just as they were opening up again from COVID-19 restrictions. ‘Everyone was determined that this should happen,’ museum Keeper Dr Clare Pickersgill said, ‘and we are so grateful to everyone for their support.’
The exhibition’s four cases explore themes ranging from medieval fashions to how techniques of spinning and weaving evolved (featuring various tools, including 6th-century loom weights and an intriguing lead spindlewhorl, dating to the 13th century, which is incised with the names of Jesus and the Virgin Mary). Here, too, are the plants and materials that were vital to the dyeing process: woad to create blue, madder for red, and weld for yellow. As most of these dyestuffs were available in nature, colour was not only the privilege of the wealthy, although some more costly shades – such as the deep crimson produced using kermes, ground insects imported from the Mediterranean – were more exclusive.
The medieval period saw weaving move out of the home into dedicated workshops where it became a male-dominated trade, while spinning remained a firmly domestic, female role, exhibition curator Dr Chris King explained. The 14th century also witnessed the advent of the spinning wheel in England, making the manufacturing of thread much more efficient, he said, but the new technology did not prove popular as it forced its user to remain in one place, when spinners were used to mobile multitasking. ‘In manuscript illustrations, you see women using portable tools while doing other tasks like carrying children or feeding chickens,’ he added.
After the Black Death, surviving labourers could demand higher wages – some of which they funnelled into more fashionable dress. It was no longer only the elite who were expressing their status and identity through their clothes – simple but decorative brooches, buckles, and strap-ends (some of which are displayed in the exhibition) proliferated among more ordinary folk, and their new purchasing power helped to fuel the further expansion of the cloth industry. The development of buttons proved particularly transformative, allowing loose tunics and gowns secured with brooches and belts to be traded in for more close-fitted clothing than had been possible before – much to the dismay of the contemporary Church, Chris said.
Examples of such clothing rarely survive to the present day, but one of the star items in the exhibition is a rare exception to this rule – particularly rare, as it is a garment that was owned by an ordinary working person. The early 16th-century Coleorton Tunic was discovered in a mine gallery at the Lounge open-cast coal mine near Lount in Leicestershire in 1988, and has never before been displayed outside its home county. Only the woollen body, with its long 12-panelled skirt, survives – it is suggested that the missing sleeves and skirt infills might have been made of another material (possibly linen) that has not been preserved – but details such as its closely packed rows of buttons and the dense tabby weave of its fabric can still be clearly seen, while analysis of the fabric indicates that it had originally been yellow in colour, with blue thread (an imaginative reconstruction, included in the displays to show how the Tunic may have looked when complete, uses different colours).
Such a garment is rather more elaborate than might be expected for a Tudor coal miner, particularly if he was using it for workwear (there is damage to the left shoulder, which might be expected for a right-handed individual working in low passageways), but possible clues come from the fact that the Tunic is strained and misshapen around the shoulders, as if it had been too small for the person wearing it. It seems likely that the Tunic had already been old by the time it came to its final owner, perhaps as a second- or third-hand item that had originally belonged to a yeoman farmer or liveried servant, Chris suggested – one more figure in the exhibition’s colourful cast of craftspeople, merchants, and eager new groups of consumers.
Cultures of cloth in the medieval East Midlands runs at the University of Nottingham Museum until 20 February. The museum is open noon-4pm Thur-Sun, and admission is free. For more information, see www.lakesidearts.org.uk/museum/event/5473/cultures-of-cloth-in-the-medieval-east-midlands.html.
The exhibition was a collaborative project with loans from Nottingham City Museums and Galleries; Leicestershire County Council Museums; Bassetlaw Museum; National Civil War Centre – Newark Museum, Newark & Sherwood District Council; and Derby Museums.