Monday, January 1, 2018

Everything you need to know about garbing you learned in Kindergarten part 2! The Monochrome-ish addition!

Today, I want to tackle two myths at once: Our ancestors in the middle ages didn't have "real" white, it was more a natural cream color and Black was only for the rich because the dye was expensive/expensive to keep the fabric dyed, etc.


What the women are doing in the above image is washing the linen garments in a lye mixture and laying them out in the sun to dry. As the linked experiment by another individual shows, lye does an amazing job at bleaching. Also, using urine was well known to bleach things (the ammonia in it which we still use today) since the Classical Era. Catullus, the famous Roman poet, even wrote a scathing poem about it to a Egnatius. Although a lot of Roman technology was lost in the Fall of Rome around the 5th C, the use of urine for bleach wasn't one of them.

So with different types of bleach available, those living in Europe in the middle ages and Renaissance could very easily get their linen pretty darn white.

An important thing to keep in mind, all chemises, undies, and bras were normally bleached white. The one exception to this is the Irish Leine which is bright, bright yellow. There is some argument to whether the leine itself is a tunic or an undershirt but there is no argument over that it was yellow - a color we'll get to later.


The myth I've heard way, way too often is that Black was an expensive dye and it was difficult to keep clothing black because it fades as you wash it.

So, there are three things wrong with this. First in a list of 16 dyes black comes in at the 11th most expensive. So there goes that. In fact, there are several different ways to get a decent black dye to include walnut shells or acorns and alum.

However, you don't even need to dye wool black. Wool, being the most common fabric of the SCA period.

Meet my brother

Why people forget about natural black wool is completely beyond me. Did they not learn "ba ba black sheep?" in kindergarten? Do they not have a "black sheep" in the family? The term black sheep is so ubiquitous in Western Culture that is just seems obvious to me that they had to have black wool in the middle ages. After all, it's not like black sheep suddenly appeared in the early 18th Century with the nursery rhyme.

BNF Fr. 9, fol. 32v beginning of the 15th century

They may not have been as common as white wool sheep but black sheep were not unknown either. I've been to the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival - the wool can be pitch black. Yes, some may be sun dyed a bit but, really, you cut off the ends and have the super dark undercoat to spin up into black wool.

Also, even in the Greenland dig, mentioned earlier, most of the garments are made with white and black wool - just one is the weft and the other is the warp- to create neat patterns. They didn't have much, if any, natural dyes around in Greenland so they just used what they had which were the natural wool colors.

So, the third problem with the myth regarding the color black - that is somehow isn't colorfast for washing. Well, they didn't wash the outergarments, like dresses or doublets, as much as we do today. The chemise was meant to protect your clothing from you and you washed the chemise a lot (from one primary source reading, twice a week!). Think of the outfits of the medieval world like we would think of a coat or jacket today. You might wash it a couple of times a year but that's probably about it. Most people aren't stuffing their wool coat into the washer every week and neither did those living in the middle ages send their outfits to be washed often. Mostly, some spot cleaning is all that is needed.

Even if you have the dyed black rather than the natural black wool, you won't be washing it often so colorfast isn't quite a worry as the myth would lead you to believe.

Next, will be on Red, Yellow, and Blue!


  1. I just love debuking "facts", as in they only did this...or that.
    But I also hate the word garb. Sounds like garbage, not clothing.
    And a Happy New Year to you.

    1. Happy New Year!

      Garbage was originally a mixed up, mashed up stew. :-) Garb comes from the middle French (Garbe) and Italian (Garbo) meaning grace or elegance. Rather than think of modern garbage, think more Greta Garbo. :-)

    2. Thank you for referring me to your articles! I'll be reading them and again thanks for your comment on my Reddit post and feedback!