Recycled textiles in Medieval Europe: In short, my 10 page final paper in less than 500 words
So…. Not exactly costuming/sewing related at first glance, but hear me out first. This is essentially the short version of the very long and extensive paper for my Medieval Art History class fall semester. Needless to say, this baby took me several weeks and three all-nighters. Even at that I can’t say I know it all, so if I have mistakes, please correct me.
There’s a huge trend these days for recycling older fabrics and reusing them in sewing projects/crafts etc. I do it. There is something immensely satisfying about knowing you didn’t waste perfectly good fabric even though it was in awkward shapes from being sewn previously. It also helps alleviate the budget a little bit too sometimes.
The funny thing is, this isn’t a new occurrence. In Europe since about 800 C.E. textiles, silk especially, were re-used for ridiculously dissimilar purposes. The European Christians were notorious for taking silks produced in parts of Islamic Spain and turning them into liturgical items, tomb linings, and reliquaries.
While the embroidery on the orphrey (the straight band down the back) was added a century later, the red embroidered silk is typical of Mudejar textile aesthetics popular in fifteenth century Spain. The Fermo Chausble attributed to St. Thomas Becket is also a Muslim made silk that has been reused.
I understand the need and importance of tomb linings, but I can’t get over the fact that beautiful textiles were used to encase dead bodies. Now I’m not coroner/scientist/forensic pathologist, but given the wear and tear our bodies put fabric through on a daily living basis, I’m sure being the tomb lining for some really old dead guy would be just as damaging. (I’m not posting a picture of an Iberian textile used as a tomb lining. For one, its hard enough to find photos of them, and second, I don’t want to offend anyone’s sensibilities by posting something like that.)
The best part of Iberian silks is that they were rampantly used as reliquary lining/covers throughout Europe. Ignoring the fact that the textiles usually had Kufic inscriptions praising Allah, Medieval Christians loved these fabrics. Why wouldn’t they? The embroidery on the silk was absolutely amazing, it was high quality, and best of all, they could pass it off for silk produced in the Middle East because the silk weavers in Spain had perfected mimicries of most Middle Eastern weaves including the prestigious attabi weave produced only in Baghdad.
Isn’t it interesting how fabric can last hundreds of years and still remain just as beautiful while the cultural perceptions of what is an appropriate use completely change? Today we would have no qualms with cutting up this beautiful fabric and wear it down to the supermarket, while in the medieval period, these silks were so valued, they were only used in important purposes like tomb linings and reliquary covers.
Burns, E. Jane. Sea of Silk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Print.
May, Florence Lewis. Silk Textiles of Spain: eighth to fifteenth century. New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1957. Print.