my crazy life

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.

This Chauble from the Hispanic Society of America reused Iberian silks. Fifteenth Century

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.

Reliquary of Saint Isidore ca 1063

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.


Single Post Navigation

4 thoughts on “Recycled textiles in Medieval Europe: In short, my 10 page final paper in less than 500 words

  1. anyone used to historical textiles is more than familiar with grave finds, so I doubt you’d offened anyone

    • That is very true, but I can’t get over the idea of having a picture of a dead body in a post… I know it’s just modern sensibilities about death since reliquaries don’t bother me one bit, even the ones with bits of bone in them.


      • I have long harboured an ambition to make a replica silver arm reliquary, but the main problme is sourcing severed arms. A friend who worked in a local prison offered to get me a paedophiles arm, but he said I’d have to mummify it myself. erm…

      • I’m sure you could find a tutorial for mummification online somewhere. Or you could take a leaf out of Hollywood’s book and see if time in an air conditioning unit would work… It’s probably a better use for the arm as well..
        My parents took the family camping in the desert as a young girl. We collected assorted animal bones until my dad thought it would be funny to tell us we could get diseases from them. It’s probably why reliquary bones don’t bother me, but burial/grave finds discomfort me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: