In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Textiles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals and Other Serial Publications
  • Anthologies
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Museum Catalogues
  • Textiles as Identity and Propaganda
  • Textiles as Social History

Art History Medieval Textiles
Elizabeth Coatsworth, Gale R. Owen-Crocker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0130


The decorative and pictorial properties of dress and furnishing textiles, and their power to express group identity, fashion, wealth, status, or piety, were recognized even before the medieval period. As sewing techniques and weaving technology developed, so too more sophisticated expressions became possible. These were often costly in man/woman hours and in materials—whether dyes; imported threads and fabrics; or gold, silver, pearls, and other gems—and so took their place along with painting, sculpture, and fine metalwork as an important medium of expression of the art movements of the time, dominated by the needs of major ecclesiastic and royal/aristocratic institutions and figures. The splendid textiles for which the medieval period is famous were not produced by homeworking amateurs. Most rich textiles for dress, pageantry, or soft furnishing (and most of their cheaper imitations) were made by professionals, and both elaborate patterns and figurative scenes must have been drawn initially by artists or copied from their works. There is evidence both of embroidery professionals and the involvement in design for embroidery by a scribe and painter in England from as early as the Anglo-Saxon period. The ability of both weave and embroidery to use subtle changes of color to emulate modeling and light and shade—and even to a limited degree, to create actual surface modeling—were, not surprisingly, exploited alongside the development of more naturalistic styles in painting and sculpture. In the medieval period as a whole, textiles were as highly regarded as any other artistic medium, not only as decoration but also for their ability to convey both royal symbolism (the grave furnishings from Burgos, Spain; the Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire) and ecclesiastical iconography (individual vestments) as well as major secular narrative. Indeed, the Bayeux Tapestry is the largest surviving non-architectural artwork of the Middle Ages. At times, as in the flourishing of opus anglicanum embroidery, textile art was one of the most visible expressions of art styles of the day. Elaborate textiles are often depicted in artworks in other media, especially manuscript illumination, in the form of dress and soft furnishings. As such they may indicate status and are sometimes, especially the furnishings, decorated with heraldic motifs to exhibit royal or family importance.

General Overviews

Harris 1993, Jenkins 2003, Schrenk 2004, and von Wilckens 1991 range widely in terms of geography, date, and textile type. Bonner, et al. 1989 is confined to one collection (not solely textiles) amassed and depleted over centuries, of which several items are of art historical importance. Coatsworth 2005 is confined to a single technique and a defined period, but aimed to be comprehensive at the time of publication.

  • Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe, eds. St Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to A.D. 1200. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1989.

    A detailed overview of the social, political, and historical contexts that allowed the survival of the coffin of Saint Cuthbert and some of its contents, from the saint’s death in 687 through several recorded reopenings and reburials. A section of the book is devoted to the coffin and its treasures; four important chapters deal with medieval textiles of various dates.

  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Stitches in Time: Establishing a History of Anglo-Saxon Embroidery.” Medieval Clothing and Textiles 1 (2005): 1–27.

    Useful for its cataloguing of known western European embroideries from the 6th to the 11th centuries. Discussion of each piece includes iconographical and stylistic relationships as well as a description of technique, in the first attempt to consider the possibility of regional variations in all these features.

  • Harris, Jennifer, ed. 5000 Years of Textiles. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

    A volume of essays by twenty-four contributors, lavishly illustrated in color. A useful introduction to and overview of the whole subject area, including a survey of techniques followed by geographically arranged sections covering textiles from ancient times to the 20th century. There is a brief glossary and a section of Further Reading/Sources Cited for each chapter. Published in association with the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  • Jenkins, David, ed. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    With its wide geographical and chronological coverage, this is a still up-to-date account of the production and varied uses of textile, drawing on the work of archaeologists and social, economic, and textile historians. For the medieval period, it covers wool, linen, silk, and cotton, with useful explanations of textile terms and production processes. For textiles as art, see especially essays by Bender Jørgensen, Wild, Vogelsang-Eastwood, Allgrove-McDowell, Muthesius, and Pritchard.

  • Schrenk, Sabine. Textilien des Mittelmeerraumes aus spätantiker bis frühislamischer Zeit. Riggisberg, Switzerland: Abegg-Stiftung, 2004.

    Catalogue of textiles in the Abegg-Stiftung collection from the Late Antique to the early Islamic period (c. 800) from Mediterranean countries such as Egypt. Listed by function, beginning with furnishing and ending with garments. Important for understanding later developments in the area. Useful synopsis of the general and sectional introductions in English.

  • von Wilckens, Leonie. Die Textilen Künste: Von der Spätantike bis um 1500. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1991.

    Still the most comprehensive survey to date of western European textiles from the late Roman period to the end of the 15th century, including imports. The chapters are divided according to materials and/or techniques, with chronological development analyzed in each. It is well illustrated and its accounts of individual textiles include discussion of stylistic features of iconography and/or pattern elements in relation to date and place of origin. Includes a useful glossary.

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