Medieval Crafts You Can Make Yourself
How to Relive the Middle Ages Through Medieval Crafts
I first started to become interested in the Middle Ages when I was in third grade and studying world history, although I could not have said why. Then, when I was finishing my music degree, we had several sections of history classes that had to be completed, and from the first, I was hooked on the Middle Ages! Although I enjoy crafts, I have never been the "crafty" kind of person, but when I was researching the Middle Ages and it turned out to be so much fun, I thought I would try my hand at a number of medieval crafts to see if I could be successful at some of them. After all, I had modern equipment, and a lot of books and other resources, so surely it would be easier than a medieval person trying to do the same thing!
I chose a number of medieval crafts to try, looking at lists of craft guilds of the Middle Ages from about 1300 A.D. in Europe, as well as some lists of household accounts, ships' cargoes and tax regulations. Here are the results of the ones where I finally could produce a reasonable product.
With some time, effort and perseverance, you too can learn how people in medieval times lived and feel a connection to them—or perhaps just knowing the place these crafts had in history will help you appreciate medieval crafts more!
9 Medieval Craft Ideas
- Paper Marbling
- Bookmaking and Bookbinding
- Fabric Printing
- Fabric Dyeing
- Chandling (or Candlemaking)
- Prayer Ropes
Crafts Used in Making Medieval Books
Books were a staple of the Middle Ages, and a large number of crafts were involved in their production: making the paper for the book, sewing the signatures of the book, marbling the endpapers, binding the book, and the calligraphy and illumination involved in the actual words on the page.
Books are perhaps the ultimate amalgamation of crafts in the Middle Ages, and probably the reason why books are still so loved today. By making a book yourself from start to finish, you can experience the pleasure of learning to master each of the crafts involved in making books, and show off your finished product with pride!
Paper in the Middle Ages was usually made from bark, and because of its fragility, it was primarily originally intended only for temporary use. Although thousands of manuscripts existed before the secret of papermaking was discovered—some scholars think Marco Polo did not bring the technique back from China, but argue for the independent discovery of papermaking—those manuscripts were inked onto prepared animal hides.
Preparing animal hides to turn into material suitable for manuscripts was a long, tedious process in scraping the hair off the hide, smoothing the hide, then immersing it in chemicals, stretching it, drying it, and so on, before a hide would be ready to use. When Marco Polo returned from Asia with the secret of papermaking that produced a sturdy product made from rags, Europe went wild for paper.
Paper was extremely valuable, and although at the time it required heavy machinery driven by water to pound linen and cotton rags into pulp, making paper at home is now an easy craft and can be done as a lucrative hobby (handmade paper sheets often are sold for $4 each, and it takes about an afternoon to make 50 sheets).
How Do I Begin?
Originally I apprenticed under a papermaker, and I was intrigued. Then I found that started me on making paper more seriously. It has beautiful projects and easy-to-follow instructions with a lot of detailed information, but at the same time, it is accessible to someone with no papermaking experience. this book
Papermaking is easy—there's a little skill development in "couching" the paper that is perhaps best learned by apprenticing under a skilled papermaker—but papermaking has all the pleasure of playing in mud, with none of the mess. And the best thing is, you can make this medieval craft out of recycled paper—junk mail, old records—or any plant material, such as fallen leaves, onion skins, yard waste, whatever you find on your walks. You can even make the mould and deckle, drying racks, and the paper press at home from old stuff lying around. Whether you use it for stationery, as wallpaper, to cover boxes, or make gift bags, cards, or tags, you'll find that handmade paper is a highly affordable luxury!
Fontaines-de-Vaucluse: A Medieval-Era Paper Mill
When I first went to live in France, I visited the famous paper mill at Fontaines-de-Vaucluse, an enormous structure with wooden hammers weighing tons pounding down onto wet cotton and linen rags. The paper sold there at the mill is often made mixed with flower petals in honour of their famous resident, the poet Petrarch. If you go, be sure to stop by the Petrarch museum and the castle where he stayed! And nearby is Les Baux, where Petrarch's friend Dante received the inspiration for Inferno.
Closely allied to the crafts of papermaking and bookbinding was marbling paper, seen nowadays on fine endpapers in expensive books.
How Do I Begin?
The medieval craft of marbling paper consists of four basic steps:
- Float oil paints on top of water (mixed with gall to make the oils a little more pliable).
- Make patterns through the paints with a comb. Depending on the comb technique, you can make peacock or fan patterns, or simpler wavy patterns, or even more elaborate patterns. You can use a regular hair comb or a wide-toothed comb, or you can make a comb by driving finishing nails into a stick. In any case, by dragging the comb through the paints floating on the water, you will create interesting patterns.
- Transfer the pattern onto a sheet of paper by gently placing the paper on top of the water, so that the paint sticks to it.
- Lift the paper up and dry it. When you get a pattern you like, you are done! The secret to good marbling is not to mix the paints too much, but to be satisfied with a little development—otherwise you will end up with a muddy-looking mess and have to throw out the tray of paints.
Although marbling paper takes a bit of practice to learn, once the skill is acquired, it can be fairly fast and easy to do. The real skill in marbling paper is in turning out nearly-identical patterned sheets of paper over and over again (the patterns will not be exactly identical, since each tray of paint will vary slightly in the way it is combed and the pattern as it lays on the water). For paper marbling reference, try —it's not a book for beginners, but if you have already tried marbling, this provides an excellent overview of marbling patterns. How to Marbleize Paper
Once you learn how to marble paper, the skill can easily be transferred to fabric, or any other surface that will accept paint (glass, leather, etc.). I've even seen marbled sneakers and hair accessories!
Bookmaking and Bookbinding
Bookmaking is the medieval craft of folding paper into pages and sewing it into "signatures," and then sewing the signatures together to form the finished book. Up until the nineteenth century, sizes of paper were so named because of how many pages the paper could be folded into—thus the "quarto" (four pages) and "octavo" (eight pages) sizes that we still read about today in literature classes. If you have ever bought a book with uncut paper edges, that book has been made with the old art of bookmaking, and the uncut pages are still formed into their signatures.
Bookbinding is the art of adding board covers to the signatures and covering the boards with material. In high-quality books, this medieval craft used leather, ceramic, or metals, gems, stone, and even gold and silver. Often the papers between the boards and the signatures are marbled.
Both these skills are easily learned, but they involve sharp knives, and bookmaking involves needles, so do not let children attempt these medieval crafts unsupervised until they have acquired a great deal of skill. The skills are worth learning, because there is nothing like the feeling of looking at a beautifully-bound book that you have done yourself. For Renaissance faire enthusiasts, having your own hand-bound book is an accessory to show off to everyone!
How Do I Begin?
For more about bookbinding, check out . This Dover publication covers making tools you will need for bookbinding, along with a number of techniques for binding books. It's eminently practical, with instructions for slipcovers, music binding, and more. Hand Bookbinding: A Manual of Instruction
No one really knows when lacemaking began because laces are so fragile that they tend not to survive the centuries. However, lacemaking was practiced by women in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, and we know this because of extensive financial records and household inventories. Lacemaking was a highly-prized medieval craft, and a good lacemaker could easily support a large family in comfort. Lacemaking was a slow process that could be done only in the daytime because it requires a lot of light, so a highly talented lacemaker might turn out only a half-metre of lace per month. But because it was so labour-intensive, the lace itself was a luxury item and very expensive. Both needle and bobbin laces were available in the Middle Ages, so whichever type of lacemaking you prefer will still be a medieval craft.
Lacemakers were commonly trained in the lacemaking tradition of the region in which they lived, and many of the laces sold today still bear the names of those regions.
How Do I Begin?
Learn more about lacemaking in , which is an excellent guide for the beginner to begin making bobbin lace. If you love Chantilly lace or Torchon lace, this guide will help you develop the skills to make bobbin laces like those. this book
Printing was not just for books, although that was a major industry in the Middle Ages: The real money was in the medieval craft of printing cotton. Printed cotton was originally developed in India, and many printed cottons (such as calico) bear the name of the regions of India in which they were developed. Printed cotton, called in French "indienne," was so wildly popular that in many countries like France, this medieval craft was made illegal. However, the tiny prinicipality of Avignon, surrounded by France, was the private property of the Pope, and printed cottons were worn there, to the shock and dismay of French and English inhabitants.
In fact, in Avignon, you can still walk down the Rue de Teinturiers, or Dyer Street, and see the buildings where dyers plied their crafts; some of the original water wheels that drove the printing machinery are still visible above the canal constructed along the street to drive them! Even today in the south of France, many of the traditional printed fabric designs from medieval times are still being printed and sold in street markets—and then there is the famous Souleiado factory in Tarascon, which houses a number of different fabrics and historical printing blocks showing this medieval craft at its finest.
How Do I Begin?
For more on fabric printing, try . Classified by period, it's useful for learning to build complex patterns from simple shapes, thereby enabling you to get your printing shapes in order for repeating patterns. this book
Dyeing is a medieval craft messy but fun—and a great way to sharpen your scientific observation skills. Numerous mineral, animal and vegetable dyes were common in the medieval era; everything from roots to crushed-up insects to lapis lazuli were used to produce dyes for fabrics.
How Do I Begin?
If you want to try dyeing fabric, I suggest you begin by dyeing natural fabrics with tea to get used to the process. However, many plants, herbs, fruits and vegetables make beautiful and inexpensive dyes for cotton, linen and wool. These same dyes can often be used to dye your hair and as dyes for Easter eggs!
Dyeing requires the following supplies:
- a colorant
- a mordant (to help the dye "bite" onto the fabric)
- a natural fabric like cotton, linen or wool
- a container that you don't mind getting stained!
Some of you may remember the Friends episode where Chandler was complaining about his name. In fact, Joey was not far wrong in saying that Chandler's name was like "chandelier"—a chandelier is a holder for candles, and "chandler" is the medieval term for someone who makes candles!
How Do I Begin?
Candles in the Middle Ages were typically made from either tallow or beeswax. Because I had much easier access to beeswax, I chose to learn how to make beeswax candles. Plus, tallow candles sputter, whereas beeswax not only burns cleanly but also gives off a beautiful honey smell that perfumes the whole house.
I've completely quit buying candles because the beeswax is just so satisfying. This medieval craft can be a real moneymaker if you have cheap sources of beeswax, like , which I use—they are easy to work with and yes, they do make whole house smell like honey! these chunks
There are three ways to make beeswax candles:
- rolling sheets of honeycomb
- using a mold
Molds are much faster than dipping, but I find it more difficult to get the wicks prepared properly. Dipped candles take more time, but there's a great amount of satisfaction in getting a beautiful-looking, dipped beeswax candle—and all you need for heating is a crock pot or hot plate and a tall Pyrex container.
Although the typical medieval craft bead is often made of metal or glass, glassblowing requires a lot of equipment and skill, as does metalworking. However, there are four easy media for making beads: clay, paper, rose petals and wood.
How Do I Begin?
- Clay: Clay is cheap and can be fired in a regular kitchen oven, glazed or painted, and then taken to a kiln for final firing—or you can build a clay firing oven yourself in your yard. I own fabulous set of tools for working with clay. this
- Paper: While not used in the Middle Ages, this medium does require a medieval skill. Paper can be fashioned into a lovely bead, either from pressing pulp together and molding it (called "papier-maché") or from taking damp sheets of paper, folding or rolling them into a bead, and letting them dry.
- Rose Petals: The third medium that is excellent for trying medieval beadmaking is rose petals. These petals, which would otherwise go to waste once the flowers die, can be turned into lovely jewelry and preserved for decades. I've made both clay and rose petal beads, and I much prefer working with rose beads, although it takes much longer. However, you will have the extra benefit of the house smelling like roses for a week or more after making them! Rose beads were the original beads used in Roman Catholic rosaries and date from the early Middle Ages. This medieval craft is also a great way to preserve your wedding bouquet!
- Wood: The final, easy medium for trying medieval beadmaking is wood. A simple lathe can help you make gorgeous wooden beads, and with a wood carving kit and a wood burning kit (or a handy soldering iron) you can make exquisite and useful beads from wood (even using fallen branches you pick up off the ground).
Want to Try Making Glass Beads?
If you are going to try medieval glass beadmaking, I recommend lampwork. Blowing glass is an extremely dangerous trade and best learned under an apprenticeship with a skilled glassblower. Lampwork requires much lower heat and is much less dangerous than blown glass.
Orthodox Prayer Ropes
I am a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and these prayer ropes are a part of our tradition. Many of the faithful make them themselves, but in my case, I am afraid I will end up on the floor, tied up in twenty yards of cord! So as much as I would like to learn this medieval craft, it will take some hands-on teaching for me to be able to do it.
However, you may be interested in learning this medieval craft in the video below! Again, the initial use of prayer ropes was not documented in the historical records, but from tradition, we know that making prayer ropes was common in the Eastern Church in the Middle Ages.
Video: How to Tie a Prayer Rope
Ready to Try Medieval Crafts for Yourself?
Crafts that were common in the medieval era don't necessarily involve expensive equipment or materials; you're likely to have most of what you need lying around any ordinary residence. Whether you are a beginning crafter or an experienced crafter, you are sure to feel a kinship with your ancestors who lived in the Middle Ages by recreating these lovely and interesting crafts for yourself. I hope you will try making at least a few of these crafts and enjoy the experience!
Don't Forget the Essential Medieval Tool: The Bone Folder
I discovered one tool that is so useful, not only for medieval crafts, but for all crafts, I can't ever imagine living without it again. That tool is the bone folder. (No, you don't use it to fold bones.) It's used for making creases in paper, handling gold leaf and burnishing, turning out sharp points in fabric such as collars or corners—no matter what medieval craft (or even modern craft) you're doing, if it involves paper or fabric, there is no better tool.
I love mine so much that I even use it to crease edges when I'm done wrapping Christmas or birthday presents for a gorgeous, professional look, and it takes only seconds to do. A good, real bone (not plastic) folder will last you a lifetime and you'll find new uses for it all the time!
The bone folder you choose should have a rounded end and a pointed end, as well as a flat side and a curved side (it will lay flat one way, and rock the other way). I use six-inch, hand-carved bone folder. As you acquire skill in using your bone folder, you'll be reaching for it almost every day! this