Friday 24 February 2017

RED ALL ABOUT IT: A Bit of a History of Scarlet Cloth by Elizabeth Chadwick

Bellini - portrait of a young man in red, circa 1480 
 Scarlet cloth has been on my radar for a while.  I learned several years ago that it was a fabric name rather than a colour, but that since it was often dyed red, the two became associated.   I think I was writing The Marsh King's Daughter at the time.
When writing my Eleanor of Aquitaine novels The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne, I read (in secondary sources - I have not yet found the primary one) that Eleanor was married in a scarlet gown.  This again led me to a spot of trawling.  Wikipedia (without references) described it as "a type of fine and expensive woollen cloth common in Medieval Europe.  The world "scarlet" is derived from Old French 'escarlate' (itself derived from low Latin and Persian).  Scarlet cloth was produced in red, white, blue, green, and brown colours, among others.  The most common colour was carmine-red though, which resulted in the double meaning                                                                            of the  word as a colour designation.'                                                                                                               

That was all I needed to know at the time, but I was still curious and even when I move on from a subject I am always keen to add to my knowledge base.  Having recently acquired The  Enclyopedia of  Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles circa 450-1450, edited by Gale Owen-Crocker,  Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward, I was delighted to find a highly detailed entry on the subject of scarlet.

Although it's a similar name, the scarlet cloth mentioned in European inventories of the high middle ages does not get its name from low Latin or Persian as I had been led to believe, although that appellation  does remain in the mainstream and I can understand why.  The Persian term comes from a 9th century red silk cloth, widely traded in the Middle East and known as siklat, more commonly siklatun and the Persian Farsi word sakirlat.  Sounds feasible doesn't it?  And indeed it is recorded in the charter for the Abbey of Cluny in 1100 as 'de scarlata rubea tunicam.'  The Persian version was a luxury silk textile dyed red with
Kermes dyed silk coronation cope of Roger II
of Sicily. So of the Persian etymology, not European
kermes. (produced from crushed insects). Almeria in Muslim Spain was a centre of this cloth production because they had good access to kermes, the most expensive dyestuff of the European Middle Ages and accounting for half the production cost of making a length of cloth.

The European origin of the name 'scarlet' seems to have originated in high German from 'Scarlachen' in the early 11th century, meaning 'scraped' 'smoothed' or 'shaved' cloth. In other words the cloth was napped with shears. The best wool for this shearing process was English wool and it was in high demand among the Flemish weaving towns who specialised in making this kind of cloth.  Around the middle of the 10th century that the new horizontal treadle looms began to emerge and it became possible to weave heavy weight woollens that could be teaselled and shorn to produced a high quality cloth that had a texture as fine as silk but was in fact wool.  If you trawl through the Renaissance paintings of men of status in their winter best, they're all clad in in their scarlet robes!

 The European version of Scarlet with the name from German origins was also dyed with kermes. The cost of the dye and the fineness of the wool made scarlet cloth the textile of the rich.  In the early 15th century, a length of scarlet would have cost a purchaser in London £28, 10s 0d.   A master mason in London at that time earned 8d a day, so it would take him more than two years to afford just one length of that cloth, and that was without having to keep body and soul together!  It was a textile beyond the reach of Joe Public - unless of course it was gained as a spoil of war.  After the sea battle of Sandwich in 1217, the Dauphin Louis's French treasure ship was captured and the wealth, including fabric, distributed among those who had taken it. The Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, completed less than 10 years after the battle says 'If only you had seen the sailors, rich in clothes and money, walking up and down the road, dressed in scarlet and silk, (eskarlete e de sei).

Scarlet was always dyed with kermes, but it wasn't always red because it might be mixed with other dyestuffs.  Woollens were often dyed with woad because woad did not require a mordant and was easier to work with than mordant based dyes.  Once the base blue from the first dyeing with woad was in situ, the cloth was redyed with a mordant and kermes was added in the case of scarlet.  Depending on additions and mordants, the scarlet cloth could end up as brown, perse (ashy purple), murrey (mulberry) and sanguine - a bluish red.  Some cloths had differently dyed warps and wefts to form a stripe and were redyed once woven with the kermes and were known in Flanders as striptje scaerlakenen. 

So, 'scarlet' was a high status cloth, woven from English wool and always dyed with kermes, but not always red in colour.  Its main centre of production was Flanders, spilling over into Northern Italy, specifically Florence. England, although the producer of the wool, only had a small scarlet industry. 

A couple of sources: 

Encyclopedia of Medieval dress and
textiles of the British Isles circ 450-1450
Edited by Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth
Coatsworth and Maria Hayward.
Published by Brill 2012

Medieval Clothing and Textiles 10
Article Some Medieval Colour Terms
For Textiles by Lisa Monnas.

Pictures - Bellini - Web Gallery of Art
Cloak of Roger II of Palermo - Wikipedia


Sally Zigmond said...

Absolutely fascinating, Elizabeth. I have been interested in the history of fabric and fashion in context for a very long time, since childhood I suppose. I even took an A level paper (as a mature lady in a small class of 16-year-olds) at a local high school entitled 'Fabric and Fashion.' Although it concentrated on the 19th and 20th century, one paper was more comprehensive and studied the manufacture and differing water-retaining nature of cloth - wool, cotton, silk -from ancient times to the latest man-made fibres plus dying, tentering and fulling from pre-history. I loved it.

Wasn't there a law which prevented people of a lower status from wearing scarlet cloth or have I dreamed it?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Sally, I'm fascinated by the history of fabric and fashion too, although my knowledge isn't as wide ranging as yours. I expect that the sumptuary laws of the high middle ages would have prevented ordinary plebs from wearing scarlet. I remember in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal that some French treasure ships were plundered and scarlet cloth retrieved and distributed. 'On the next day if you had seen the sailors, rich in cloth and money, walking up and down the road, dressed in scarlet and silk.' (eskarlete e de seie). Thanks for the comment, I had forgotten about the Marshal quote, I'm going to pop back into the blog and edit it in!) :-)

Catherine Hokin said...

Really interesting stuff. The encyclopedia looks fascinating but am now going to put in a request to the uni library as it is retailing at £232, gulp.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Yes, I trawled and got mine for quite a lot less than that, but still a sizeable chunk... but I felt it was going to be very useful as a core reference work so I splurged!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

So interesting!

Dara Hurt said...

Thanks for this! I'm fascinated by the history of pigments. I highly recommend a book called "A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire" by Amy Butler Greenfield. It's a well-researched history of red pigment and how rare and valuable it was.

Marjorie said...

Fascinating! I had no idea it was originally a type of cloth, and not just a colour.

Janie Hampton said...

I love fabrics too, so really enjoyed this. So do you think the red petticoats of the medieval and Elizabethan era were a sign of wealth? I thought they were that colour to hide menstrual blood. Or maybe in the history books I've read (and no longer quote), 'scarlet' was changed to 'red' when in fact they weren't red in colour but good quality wool?