Clothing in 12th Century Scotland

stone head of medieval woman from Dryburgh AbbeyThis stone carving of a woman's head was made in Scotland in the Middle Ages. Throughout this time, married women were not considered to be fully dressed without head covering. The cloth under the chin shown in this carving is called a barbette. The hat-like circle worn on top is a filet. The barbette was common, but it wasn't always worn.

When Bernard of Clariveax, founder of the Cistercian Order of monks, first saw the ladies of the court of France in 1137, he described their head coverings, which he considered scanty: "For head-dress they have a kerchief of fine linen which they drape about their neck and shoulders, allowing one corner to fall over the left arm. This is the wimple, ordinarily fastened to their brows by a chaplet, a filet or a circle of wrought gold."

For a very good discussion of  aspect of clothing with illustrations, visit the About 12th Century Women's Head Gear Page, part of the Angevin Treasures web site, a wonderful resource for information about clothing in the 12th century.

(photo by Janet McNaughton taken at Dryburgh Abbey )

Underwear, made of linen, was very basic. Men wore drawers. To see detailed information on medieval men's underwear and how to make it, see Andy Goddard's Braies Page.Women wore a long under-gown similar to a slip with sleeves. This was called a kirtle. The term kirtle is sometimes used to refer to an over-garment, perhaps because the sleeves and hem of the kirtle were often very much on display. If you look at the picture in the middle of this page, you'll see it's very difficult to tell what is under-clothing and what is outer-wear.

Men's Clothing

Men wore a simple tunic which came down to the knee or lower and could be tied with a belt around the waist. Men also wore hose, which were like stockings without feet. These were either pinned or tied under the tunic. To see pictures and a pattern for a simple man's tunic, visit Matthew Newsome’s page The Liene.  For more information about tunics and hose and how to make them, visit the Lothene page Early Medieval Clothes Patterns.

Men also covered their heads through this time period with hats and hoods. To see some examples of these, visit the Angevin Treasure's 12th Century Men’s head gear page

Women's Clothing

In the early medieval period, women's clothing was patterned very much like men's, but with hems that always reached the ground. In the 11 and 12th centuries, women's clothing began to be more elaborate, with fitted waists and long, sweeping sleeves. Sometimes, the elaborate kirtle worn underneath was deliberately revealed by cutting holes in the outer garment or gathering it up at the waist. The chronicle writer Geoffrey de Vigeois described the women of the court Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was queen of France in the 12th century in disapproving tones, saying:

    "They have clothes fashioned of rich and precious stuffs, in colours to suit their humour. They snip out the cloth in rings and long slashes to show the lining beneath, and the borders of the clothes are cut into little balls and pointed tongues, so that they look like the devils in paintings. They slash their mantles, and their sleeves flow like those of hermits."

From this time on, sleeves became so elaborate that they were often separate articles of clothing that attached into dresses.  A lady who wanted to show her favour to a knight in a tournament might give him one of her sleeves to carry. To see pictures of clothing worn by women in the 12th century, visit the Angevin Treasure web site's 12th Century Women’s Clothing page.
Women also wore hose.
12th century illumination showing clothing of the time
In Scotland during the 12th century, most women would have dressed more simply than those in the court of the king of France. For everyday wear, dresses may have been made of plain, undyed wool cloth, worn over a linen kirtle. For more formal occasions, dresses made of red or yellow cloth would have added some colour. Belts made of wool or leather would also add some extra decoration.  

This illumination from early 14th century Germany shows typical men's and women's clothing for upper class people of the 12th century. This is a picture of lovers in conversation. The woman is wearing a very basic filet which leaves most of her hair uncovered. Unmarried women were not required to cover their hair. You can see that the design for men's and women's clothing was basically the same, loose, flowing tunics worn over long-sleeved garments, although the woman's tunic is fuller and has been swept up to one side to create a draped effect and reveal more of the dress beneath. Both the man and the woman are wearing fur-lined tunics, a sign of wealth and a great luxury in a cold climate. In most places in the Middle Ages, only noblemen had the right to hunt and trap animals on their land, and only the king had the right to the animals on all other land, so fur was not available to ordinary people.
(The picture is from the Konstanz-Weingartner Leiderhandschrift.)


The man's shoes in the picture above look very basic, and they were. Shoes worn in 12th century Scotland were made of leather using the "turnshoe" method, meaning they were turned inside out after stitching so that the seams were on the inside. By present-day standards, these shoes would have provided little support for the feet. They look quite a bit like modern slippers. When the leather soles wore out, new soles were stitched to the uppers. In wet and muddy conditions, shoes with wooden soles, called pattens, were sometimes worn. Walking was the only means of getting from place to place for most people. Carriages had not yet been developed and only wealthy Normans rode horses. Cold, wet feet must have been common. As is the case today, though, shoes were subject to fashion.

Fabrics and Colours

Sheep that provided wool and the flax plants which provided linen were readily grown in the Scottish climate. Wool was sheared from sheep, washed and carded using square carding combs of wire teeth embedded in leather. The clean, carded wool was then spun into yarn. Spinning wheels were not invented until the 13th century, and in the 12th century, women spun yarn using simple spindle whorls, as they had for centuries. To see a picture of a woman using a drop spindle with a whorl, visit the Lothene Craft Page. Look at the first photo on the page. To find out how to spin yarn using a drop spindle visit Kathryn's How to Use a Low Whorl Drop Spindle page. 

Linen is made from the stems of the flax plant, in a very long and complicated process that involves letting the stems rett ( literally rot) for a while before they are dried and broken to separate the useful inner fibers, called tow, from the outer bark. The tow is then separated into long strands by being thrown repeatedly over iron hackling combs. All cloth was hand-woven on simple, upright looms that were usually supported against a roof beam. Making cloth was an important part of any woman's work, even if she belonged to a noble family.

Most cloth was left undyed in natural colours of grey, black or brown, but red and yellow were the most common colours for dyed cloth. Fine wool cloth was imported from "the Low Countries," present-day Holland and Belgium. Blue was a popular colour for clothing in pictures painted during this time, but in fact, blue was a very difficult colour to achieve with natural dyes.

Very fine cloth, such as silk, was imported from countries such as Spain, but it was rare. The remains of a fine yellow silk cloth dating from the 13th century were found during a dig in Perth, Scotland. The cloth had a woven pattern of doves in it, and must have been very costly in its day.

Sources for this Page

Medieval Scotland: An Archaeological Perspective, Peter Yeoman, B.T. Batsford Ltd/Historic Scotland, 1995.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England , Alison Wier, Pimlico, 1999.

Life in a Medieval Castle, by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper and Row, 1979.

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