A new habit

We’ve started on a rather exciting project with the Middle Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers which I thought would make interesting reading.  There really is quite a lot of research and work going on behind the scenes, and I thought it would make an excellent subject for a blog.  I’ll be getting regular updates from the guild via Lesley Ottewell, so keep checking in and see what’s been going on behind the scenes.  All of the posts from here on will be from Lesley, and there’s a bit of catching up to do at the start…


We were celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Mid Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at Grange Barn in June 2011, when a chance remark from Stuart led to the launch of this project. On Stuart’s wish list for the barn was an accurate replica of a medieval monk’s habit. We, as a guild, had the necessary skills and tenacity to achieve this so I agreed to give it a try.


I presented the idea to the guild and held an informal meeting with those who were interested in the project. There was plenty of brainstorming with many suggestions about the design of the garment, the fleeces used and the manufacturing processes involved. Potential sources of information were listed were followed up after the meeting. Useful replies came from the Textile Department at Colchester Castle and from the Norfolk Horn Breeders Association.


It was decided to use Norfolk Horn fleeces, as these were local to the area and would have been common at the time. Jean acquired some from Simon at Wimpole Hall and I did some test spinning. I passed the sample on to Vivian, an experienced weaver, for her to check it for suitability.

There were no spinning wheels with bobbins in the 13th century. With the amount of yarn needed they would most likely have used a great wheel rather than a spindle to spin the wool. One such wheel figures in “Sleeping Beauty”.

Jean started to prepare the fleece by taking out all the bits of hay straw, seeds and other rubbish, which collects on it. It was then ready for carding. This is the process, whereby the fleece fibres are organised and all the little knots removed.

They would have used hand carders in the 13th century but as we had a hand operated drum carder, we decided to speed up the process by using this method as the outcome is the same.


Pauline took some fleece home to spin a sample on her great wheel, which is smaller but similar to the wheels in use in the 13th century. This will accompany the final display in the barn. As our members have spinning wheels with a bobbin, these will be used for the monk’s habit.

Jean took a drum carder to the Beer Festival and carded the fleece, producing “batts”, ready for spinning. Sue and I began spinning while we talked to visitors. We both took some extra batts home and managed to spin and ply about 500g between us before the next meeting. The fleece had been washed in cool water to remove the dirt but not the lanolin, which is greasy. We washed the hanks in warm soapy water to remove the grease. Jean had also managed to get a black Hebridean fleece (from Andrew at Orford) for the scapula, which is the black tabard worn over the white tunic. Hebridean sheep were far more widespread in the Middle Ages and could well have been the source of black wool for the monks at Coggeshall, as they had contact with abbeys in other parts of the country.

Late September

In order to process enough yarn for the project, Jean and I visited Vivian, taking the hand-spun hanks of yarn and pictures of the monk’s habit. Using an ingenious set of scales, she calculated the number of threads needed for the warp and then worked out how much yarn would be needed for the whole project: 2.1 kg for the tunic and 600g for the scapula. This equates to 42 x 50g hanks of white and 12 x 50 hanks of black. That will take many hours of spinning. It takes me about 3 hours to spin 50g and a further hour to ply the yarn and wind it into a hank. The best part of our visit was when Vivian offered to do the weaving. This was a huge relief to us, as the white tunic will need about 9 metres and the black scapula about 4 metres.

Jean had carded some of the Hebridean fleece and gave it to me to try. So far, I have spun 100g. It is very different from the white fleece, which is soft and wavy. The Hebridean fleece is nearly pure black and is the natural colour of this ancient breed.


I have managed to contact a historian from a project in Cumbria. Alice has written books on Furness Abbey in Barrow and was given a complete monk’s habit by Nunraw Abbey. She has offered to lend it to me so we can make an accurate pattern for our replica version.

I have printed some paper bands to go round the carded batts of wool. These will give directions as to thickness of yarn and easiest method of spinning. This is where our guild members play an important part. If each spinner takes one or two batts of fleece, we can get the spinning completed quite quickly.


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