How were ‘golden fabrics’ made in the Middle Ages and who wore them?

Above, a brocade ribbon dating back to the Late Middle Ages found in the Tartu Cathedral. Below, a detail of that ribbon and a copy on the right. Author: Jaana Ratas and Riina Rammo
Above, a brocade ribbon dating back to the Late Middle Ages found in the Tartu Cathedral. Below, a detail of that ribbon and a copy on the right. Author: Jaana Ratas and Riina Rammo

Vanity and a taste for luxury were not unknown to the citizens of medieval Tartu. Woven brocaded silk garments, embellished with precious metal threads, were undoubtedly the most expensive and desirable items on the textile market. Judging by both written and pictorial sources, these were not affordable for everyone.

You can see just how important looks were to noble- and clergymen at the new annual exhibition “Glory of the Cathedral” at the University of Tartu Museum, which pays special tribute to golden fabric and silk found in the Tartu Cathedral, for these were the most expensive textiles in the Middle Ages.

The way ‘golden fabrics’ were manufactured is described by Riina Rammo, the curator and research fellow of archaeology at the University of Tartu:

There were several methods for making metal threads: for example, a fine metal strip or wire could be simply woven in the fabric.

In the Late Middle Ages, however, the most common metal thread was made of very thin and fine metal strip spun around a silk or linen core. Although, completely golden strips were used as well, the more common and economical option was gilded silver strip.

The value of brocaded fabric depended on the costliness of used materials – for example, dyed silk thread was more expensive than undyed material or linen and gold was costlier than silver –, but also on the complexity of the weaving technique.

Detailed patterns woven in the fabrics required special looms and a number of trained craftsmen.

In the 13th–16th centuries, silk and brocade were manufactured for European consumers in several Italian and Spanish towns, while more exotic textiles were also imported from further in the East.

Luxury in medieval Tartu

Metal threads protect the significantly more fragile textile fibres from decay and the probability of staying intact in the ground for hundreds of years is higher for brocade than it is for other textiles.

Only a few golden fabric items have been found in Tartu. The most brocaded fabric remains have been found at the Cathedral burial sites dating back to the Late Middle Ages. It was, after all, the centre for the Bishopric of Dorpat and the seat for the Bishop and a cathedral chapter consisting of high priests. Important clergymen and maybe also noblemen, who were probably buried in the church and its vicinity, could afford fancy clothes. All these findings are fragments of ribbons that were used to embellish the edges of garments.

The cess pits of medieval down town, which once served as latrines and waste bins, have revealed 3,484 textile findings, out of which only 28 fragments are silken. Out of those 28, only three contain metal threads.

Such luxury would not have been thrown down the latrine light-heartedly, for these were clearly rare and highly luxurious items.

For example, one of these fragments was found in the courtyard of the current Café Werner and two on the plot behind the Town Hall, which stood against the slope of the Toome Hill (currently Hotel Lydia).

A brocade fragment in a complicated weave, found in a cess pit located on the plot at 14 Ülikooli Street. Author: Riina Rammo

A brocade fragment in a complicated weave, found in a cess pit located on the plot at 14 Ülikooli Street. Author: Riina Rammo

The most expensive textile? 

Mostly, the Tartu brocade findings are rather simple and therefore of the less expensive type. These are, in essence, two relatively narrow ribbons: brocaded plain weave in one case and decorative embroidery made with metal thread in the other. Research carried out for the microscopic identification of fibres and analysis of the chemical composition of metal with XRF or the X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer shows that almost all metal threads in the samples found in Tartu were prepared by the common and slightly modest method characteristic to the Middle Ages: gilded silver strip was spun around silk thread. Although, the findings have completely faded by now, their golden lustre was definitely noticeable in their heyday.

Still, an exceptional fragment has been found in a cess pit that was located on the plot at 14 Ülikooli Street in the early modern period (16th–17th century).

The tiny piece of brocade is remarkable due to its intricate weave pattern – double thread systems in the warp and weave – and an ornament made of in-woven metal threads. Assuming that the fragment is part of a fabric that was embellished with the same pattern throughout, it may be the most expensive textile that has been recorded from that period in Tartu. After taking a closer look, however, it is not completely certain.

To manufacture that textile, a metal thread was used, which was probably spun around a linen core. This is confirmed by the fact that by now, there is no thread left inside the spiral metal covering. Textiles that consist of plant fibres preserve much worse in the ground than do animal fibres (such as silk and wool). Considering the existence of a silk main fabric, the silk core of medal threads should have been preserved as well.

Moreover, it is the only textile in which XRF identified only silver, so it could have been ‘silver fabric’ instead. In addition, the metal strip was not solely made of silver. Sometimes, strips cut from animal intestines were used, covered with a thin layer of metal, and this method was probably used in this case as well. Therefore, despite of the complicated weaving technique, as much cost as possible has been saved on materials when making this fabric.

How well such economising was noticed in real life or how significant it was is another issue. Still, a garment that incorporated brocade fabric was the ultimate luxury in the medieval and early modern-period Tartu.

Both sides of the fragment of brocaded fabric found in a cess pit located on the plot at 14 Ülikooli Street. Author: Jaana Ratas

Both sides of the fragment of brocaded fabric found in a cess pit located on the plot at 14 Ülikooli Street. Author: Jaana Ratas

The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.