• Miranda Knutson, who graduated from the history program at MIT last spring, pins a hood being fitted for Tim Abbott, a senior in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science. The two were participants in an MIT IAP class on the technology of medieval clothes creation. 
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    Miranda Knutson, who graduated from the history program at MIT last spring, pins a hood being fitted for Tim Abbott, a senior in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science. The two were participants in an MIT IAP class on the technology of medieval clothes creation. Open image gallery

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IAP 'Distaff Arts' students learn production, politics of medieval wool clothing

Miranda Knutson, who graduated from the history program at MIT last spring, pins a hood being fitted for Tim Abbott, a senior in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science. The two were participants in an MIT IAP class on the technology of medieval clothes creation. <a onclick="MM_openBrWindow('medieval-hood-enlarged.html','','width=509, height=583')">
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Technologies don't have to be complex to be effective. Nor do they need to be complex to be difficult to master. These were among the lessons made clear to students during the first-ever Independent Activities Period class in making clothes the very old-fashioned way.

"The Distaff Arts: Medieval Clothing Technology," taught jointly by Anne McCants, professor of history, history graduate Miranda Knutson and Margo Collett, administrative assistant to the history faculty chair, introduced participants to the whole range of ancient fiber technologies, from washing, carding, dyeing and spinning fleece, to weaving and constructing simple garments.

The course, held in the basement of the Tang Center, paired well with one that McCants has taught for several years--Old Food: Ancient and Medieval Cooking. Both are in some sense spinoffs (no pun intended) from her popular MIT course, Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective. In the distaff arts course, refreshments consisted of old foods: handmade butter and olive oil drizzled over focaccia and wheat-berry bread, made with a sourdough starter that McCants first incubated in Berkeley, Calif., in 1985.

Standing in a kitchen pungent with the smell of wet sheep fleece, McCants explained that the IAP class sprung from discussions she has had over the years with students in her medieval economics classes about the nature of human capital, and the problem of defining skilled versus unskilled labor. Students are inclined to dismiss tasks like spinning and weaving as unskilled and therefore fungible. If it's repetitive, they seem to think, it must be unskilled. "But if you think of something like hip-replacement surgery," said McCants, "you can see that repetitiveness of a task is not a marker of something being skilled or unskilled." At the same time, she noted, students find it difficult to comprehend that textiles could make up a significant share of a person's wealth in medieval society, that something like a shirt could be a precious possession to be itemized in one's will.

In fact, she explained in a later e-mail, textiles were "the engine of urbanization, economic growth (of the high medieval variety--think Gothic cathedrals, etc.), long distance trade (to China and back), and significant technological change, in this case mostly wind and water mill technologies." Moreover, textiles and their precious value were intimately connected with the women who made them. In Beowulf, which McCants teaches every year in a spring seminar, feuds are settled by "the giving of gifts, often in the form of gold, or women, or women's work--and all three put together in many cases." This is a hard sell to the students, however. "They can't see textiles as the cutting-edge technologies of their day, and they don't think of these things as luxury goods," she observed.

Until, that is, they try their own hands at the spinning wheel, or attempt to figure out the complex geometry of weaving using a waist loom. Said one student weaver in frustration, "I think I'm doing the exact same thing every time, and yet I'm getting these mysterious stripe things."

Many MIT staffers from a variety of departments lent their expertise to the project, which was aided by grant money from the Class of '51 Fund for Excellence in Education. Collett has extensive experience in knitting, spinning and dyeing, and intervened frequently to untangle a jammed spinning wheel or demonstrate the proper use of the lazy kate, a simple but ingenious tool for winding spun yarn into skeins. Valarie Poitier, assistant to the dean of student life, helped guide the weaving segments. "I have a 6-foot-by-8-foot loom in my living room," she explained matter-of-factly.

Knutson, who has made the mastery of textile technology her focus since graduating from MIT last year, moved from group to group, offering advice and occasionally turning for help to the pile of books she had accumulated over months of research, with titles like "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant." "I tried hard to find instructions for card-weaving online," said Knutson, noting that everything she found online was inadequate or incomplete. "Google has failed; the library has won."

Many of the students chose to undertake the IAP distaff arts course because it looked like fun. "It's a nice change from soldering," said Finale Doshi, a second-year graduate student in robotics. Other students were veterans of McCants's medieval economics class, drawn to the clothing technology class both by the subject matter and by McCants herself. "She's a great professor," said Jeremy Hurwitz, who was making himself a hooded cloak using a pattern of great antiquity and simplicity.

Christine McEvilly, a history major who intends to pursue graduate study in intellectual history of the early modern period, reported that on the first day of the medieval economics class, McCants brought in a jar of milk. Students took turns shaking the jar until the butter separated from the whey: a vivid demonstration that sometimes the simplest technology makes the most sense for getting a task done under a given set of circumstances. "This is what people did on a daily basis," said McEvilly as she carefully carded wool that had been dyed bright purple with indigo and madder. "You need to know how people lived to know how they thought."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 7, 2007 (download PDF).


Topics: Economics, History, Technology and society, Independent Activities Period

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