Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles

Get access Subject: History
Edited by: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth & Maria Hayward
The single volume Encyclopaedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c. 450-1450 is a unique work that intends to bring together in 582 signed articles the latest research from across the range of disciplines which contribute to our knowledge of medieval dress and textiles.

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(437 words)

Author(s): Ralph Moffat
Derived from the French for 'little wing', the ailette was a fabric-covered leather or parchment plate (usually square or rectangular) that was attached to the shoulders for heraldic purposes on armour (see armour: plate armour). Although no extant examples survive, ailettes can be identified on seals, stained glass, monumental brasses (see effigies and brasses) and manuscripts. Documentary evidence records that they were purely decorative. They were not mentioned as defensive armour in the 1292…


(1,065 words)

Author(s): Ralph Moffat
The aketon was a piece of textile, quilted, padded body armour. It was worn beneath armour and so it was often confused with the gambeson and pourpoint. It was a military padded and quilted body defence armour. Its function was to absorb and cushion blows, primarily from the sword and lance. The term comes from the Arabic word alqūtn, French auqueton (from which English cotton also derived) and it initially described the material used as a stuffing to pad a garment of sendal (fine linen or finer cloth) as a body defence. Later the term was used to descri…


(249 words)

Author(s): Gale R. Owen-Crocker | Elizabeth Coatsworth
Taking its name from the colour of the cloth of which it was made (Latin albus, 'white'), the alb was a full-length, girdled, long-sleeved tunic made of white (undyed, bleached) linen. It originated from the linea alba, the white linen under-tunic worn by the upper-classes of the late Roman period. From the 9th century it was worn by all who served at the altar, whether bishops, priests, deacons, sub-deacons or acoloytes. It was the innermost mass vestment (put on after the amice): deacons and sub-deacons were on occasion required to officiate in…


(2,153 words)

Author(s): Gale R. Owen-Crocker
Abbot of Malmesbury by c. 673/4, and bishop of the West Saxon diocese of Sherborne from c. 705 to his death in 709 or early 710, Aldhelm is best known for his Latin treatise on virginity, De Virginitate, written in both prose and poetic versions, which was dedicated to the abbess of Barking and other nuns; and for his metrical Latin Ænigmata or Riddles, for which he supplied titles. He also composed poetic church dedications, one of which mentions specific church furnishings, including a rare description of an altar cloth: 'a golden cloth glistens with it…


(52 words)

Author(s): Gale R. Owen-Crocker
Documented from the end of the 14th century, the term ‘alien’ designated a foreigner, and in terms of legal documents a foreign-born merchant or other worker resident in England. Gale R. Owen-CrockerBibliographyKURATH, H., KUHN, S. M., REIDY, J. and LEWIS, R. E. The Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor, MI: 1952-2001), s.v. āliē̆n.

Alnage or Ulnage

(775 words)

Author(s): Phoebe Merrick
Ulnage (the preferred term in The National Archives) means 'measurement', but in England the word came to be associated with a subsidy levied on high quality woollen cloths. In addition many towns appointed their own ulnagers whose duties were to measure lengths of cloth for sale. The only other country to levy a tax on cloth in medieval Europe was Catalonia, where it was known as bolla. The king appointed ulnagers, whose duties included buying cloths for his household. There were long-running disputes about the sizes of cloth, and standards were laid down in t…

Alnagers or Ulnagers

(738 words)

Author(s): Phoebe Merrick
The Ulnage or Alnage, a subsidy on woollen cloth, was established in 1353 and for forty years the revenue was accounted for by the county sheriffs. A reorganisation took place in 1393 when ulnagers were appointed directly by, and answerable to, the Exchequer. For about ten years, depending on county, they were employed and remunerated directly, although the scale of the remuneration is not known. From the early 15th century, ulnagers bid for the farm, or franchise, of their county or counties, paid the agreed fee and kept any profits. In 1463 there was another m…

Altar Cloth

(14 words)

Author(s): Elizabeth Coatsworth
See liturgical textiles ante-1100; liturgical textiles post-1100. Elizabeth Coatsworth

Altar Cloths

(1,199 words)

Author(s): Thomas Izbicki
The medieval church developed a complex set of cloths for use at the altar during mass, most of them made of linen, which were to be kept intact and clean because of their sacred purpose. Beginning in late Antiquity, the Christian church used linen to cover the altar tables used in the Eucharist. By the 4th century, these altars came to be made of stone and covered with cloth during liturgies. By the 7th century, cloths were left on the altar continually. The use of linen for this purpose, which emerged with the development of stone altars, was b…

Altar Frontal

(14 words)

Author(s): Elizabeth Coatsworth
See liturgical textiles ante-1100; liturgical textiles post-1100. Elizabeth Coatsworth


(685 words)

Author(s): Megan Tiddeman
Alum signifies a group of mineral salts which typically contained aluminium, potassium, sulphur and hydrogen and which were used as chemical dye-fixers or mordants in the medieval cloth and tanning trades. The salt was extracted from naturally occurring deposits of the non-soluble mineral, alunite, and usually took the form of whitish crystals or powder.  Wool or plant-based fabric would be soaked in alum solution prior to dyeing so that dyestuffs (such as madder, woad or brazil) would better bi…


(194 words)

Author(s): Gale R. Owen-Crocker
A fossilised tree resin, amber is recoverable from the sea after stormy conditions have detached it from rock, or it can be picked up from the shore, especially in the Baltic areas. It may possibly have been found on the shores of East Anglia in Anglo-Saxon times. Amber has a range of attractive colours, from pale yellow to dark orange; it has magnetic properties; and it has been valued since ancient times as a preventative and cure for various ailments. Pierced pieces of amber, not artificially…


(179 words)

Author(s): Elizabeth Coatsworth
The amice (Latin amictus) consisted of a square or rectangle of cloth, usually linen, placed round the neck to prevent the more precious vestments being soiled by the hair or perspiration. Despite its utilitarian origins the amice could be lavishly decorated. It is recorded that Queen Edith, wife of King Edward the Confessor (d. 1066), gave as a gift to an abbot an amice (Latin amictum) of enormous value and great beauty. It was decorated with gold and precious stones, and though the source does not specify how the effect was achieved, it was probably embroid…

Animal Fibre

(267 words)

Author(s): Gale R. Owen-Crocker
By far the commonest animal fibre in use in medieval Britain was sheep's wool. This would be plucked or sheared from the living animal, and spun into thread for sewing or embroidering (see embroidery); or woven into cloth with a range of thickness, weaving techniques and ultimate functions. The sheep's fleece, unspun, could also be used as clothing or a furnishing fabric, and sheepskin, taken from a dead animal and with the fleece still attached, could be utilised too. Goat hair is less commonly…