Preparing raw wool for use in Early Modern Historical Dress Reconstruction

Man shearing a sheep, early sixteenth century. The British Library, Egerton 1147, f. 11v.


Wool was a commonly used natural material in early modern Europe. Besides being spun for use in cloth production and knitted garments (such as men’s felted flat caps), wool was also commonly used in structural garments as stuffing. My construction of a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale, made as part of my PhD research, required the use of wool as stuffing.

We know that some sort of stuffing like wool was used in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries in the garments because wardrobe warrants, such as one for Elizabeth I dating from April 1581, specified its use:

“Item to Robrt Sipthorpe for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of peache color satten stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone and bent: for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of oringe tawnye & watchett damaske stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone & bent…”[1]

Like most early modern sources, terminology often becomes an issue when trying to decipher what materials were used and how. For example, in this wardrobe warrant it is not 100% obvious as to what “cotton wool” refers to. The fibre cotton as we know it was not unheard of in the sixteenth century, but it also was not very commonly used in garment production (although elite women like Elizabeth I would certainly have had access to this raw material from the Indian subcontinent).

Further compounding this uncertainty is that ‘cotton’ often referred to a type of woollen cloth in the sixteenth century.[2] Although these entries might certainly refer to raw cotton, it was probably more common for structured garments in England to be stuffed with wool, a natural fibre that was very readily available and a staple of English industry. As a result I chose to use wool instead of cotton to stuff the rolls of my French farthingale reconstructions.

Not only did I choose to use wool due to its ready availability in early modern England, but it was also easy for me to obtain because I was raised on a sheep farm in rural New South Wales, Australia.  So I asked my dad to put some wool aside for me next time he was shearing.

Raw, unwashed lambs wool


Preparing the Wool

One of the downsides of using this raw material though, especially when it comes from rural Australia, is that it contains a quite a lot of dirt and organic matter. So in order to use it for my reconstructions I had to wash and prepare it. However, as anyone who has ever worked with wool can attest, it is a temperamental fibre to wash. The first difficulty is that if wool is agitated too much in water it has a tendency to felt; great if that is your intention, but a pain if you just want to wash it. Secondly, wool fibres shrink at the high temperatures required to wash it correctly, so I ended up having to use twice as much wool as I thought I would need to allow for this shrinkage.

After chatting to other costumers I decided that the best way to wash and prepare my wool would be to buy some large laundry wash bags, stuff them with the wool and allow them to soak in a tub of hot soapy water (oil removing dish-washing liquid seems to be the best option here).

While these bags were soaking in the hot water I slightly agitated them every now and then, but not too much in case the wool felted together.

As you can see from the pictures the wool did shrink after being immersed in the hot water and A LOT of dirt came out. In fact, I had to repeat this soaking process about three times for each bag of wool in order to get it to a satisfactory state.

After getting the wool as clean as I possibly could, I laid it out on pavement in the hot summer sun to dry.

As you can see in the image above, the wool was still full of burrs and other organic plant matter. I did my best to pick out as much of this as possible, but I’m certain that some of it is sitting in my reconstructions, which is fine.

The wool when stuffed into my French farthingale roll reconstruciton

I hope this post has been helpful to anyone thinking of preparing their own raw wool for spinning or stuffing. If you have any tips or tricks that you use to prepare your wool, feel free to comment below and let us know!

[1] Wardrobe Warrant of Elizabeth I, 6 April 1581. The British Library, Egerton MS 2806, fol. 166r.

[2] Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 36.



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