The Middle Ages Unlocked: Medieval Crafts

Middle Ages Unlocked

The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300, is a new book Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania. Now available from Amberley Publishing, the book explores a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic, between the eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, the structures, institutions and circumstances that formed the basis for daily life and society are revealed. In this series of posts, Gillian and Katrin write about how this book was created.

When an archaeologist and a historian team up, amazing things can happen. The Middle Ages Unlocked, brought an archaeologist (Dr Katrin Kania) and a historian (Dr Gillian Polack) together. Working on the book was a process of discovery, for both of them. We’ve decided to share some of the questions Gillian asked Katrin, because the answers are fascinating and only some of them appear in the book.

Gillian: We’re coming from very different backgrounds, you and I. It’s not just that I’m the historian and that you’re the archaeologist, it’s that we reach out to the public in different ways. I mostly work with fiction writers (and, of course, by writing novels), and you do work in museums and at festivals and you teach crafts. I’ve wanted to know for a long time how the theory side of archeology matches with this outreach and how they inform each other.

Katrin: Ah, that is a fascinating topic. I see myself as both a crafter and an academic person. Sometimes, those two parts of myself inform each other very well – for instance when I look at sources to research a craft aspect, and my practical knowledge lets me estimate how truthful the source might be, or why a certain detail is there. At other times, the two parts are like two distinct personalities that are hard to reconcile. Ther most important factor in that is something I call “crafter’s bias”. Crafter’s bias means that you learn how to do a certain process, such as how to proceed when you set up a warp or how to proceed when you are forging an arrowhead. You learn this, and you do it a number of times – typically quite often – and it becomes ingrained into your memory, both the brain part and the muscle part. It is a good, solid way to do that process, and you start to think that it is the way to do the process, period.

Just like there’s no other way to do this. A brilliant example is that of the old spinner, which a colleague once told me. She met this old lady who had been spinning her whole life and wanted to show her that she had done some hand-spinning too.

So she pulled out her spindle and started spinning – when the old lady cried out, in deep dismay, “You cannot spin that way! This is not how it is done!”

Gillian: Does this mean that your academic side has to pay attention to the crafter’s bias and question it? Can you give me an example of how it’s affected your research?

Katrin: Yes, that is exactly what it means. It has affected my research in many ways. One of them was only realising a rather short while ago that the method I was using to spin was very different from the medieval way to do it, as far as we can reconstruct that from the pictures of spinners (mostly women). When I talk about crafts that I have done myself, I try very hard not to fall into my own crafter’s bias and emphasise that there are probably other, different and just as good ways to do something. I also do that when I am teaching things – I feel that it is especially important to help keep an open mind about techniques when researching or teaching historical crafts, so as not to promote even more crafter’s bias. That will develop even if you are aware of the possibility!

Gillian: Is it easier to analyse crafts when you don’t have as deep a bias ie where you’re less proficient?

Katrin: I think it’s easier to analyse crafts you do know a lot about, even if that means you need to be aware of any bias. But having no clue on why things happen, or how things are done can lead to really bad misunderstandings. I have read articles about textile production or spinning in encyclopaedias about historical crafts that were very obviously written by someone who has researched the craft without ever getting some practice, resulting in glaring and downright ridiculous mistakes. I’d say that you do not need to have a masterly level of proficiency, but you should at least be thoroughly familiar with the basics of a craft when you wish to do some research about it.

Katrin spinning
Katrin spinning

Gillian: Can you talk me through one craft? How do you spin, for instance? And how do you spin when you create yarn using reconstructed ancient techniques?

Katrin: The way I learned to spin was according to the western modern style, where you spin fully suspended and the spindle travels towards the floor on the ever-lengthening thread. These days, I call that “long suspended”. It’s what you see in most circumstances today in Germany, Britain and the US when somebody does hand-spinning, and this probably extends to most parts of Northern and Western Europe. When you use this technique, you can spin without a distaff. You hold a batch of fibre in one hand, and the other hand sets the spindle into motion, then helps draft the fibre to form the thread.

The medieval method keeps one hand close to the spindle at all times, usually the right hand. The fibre is mounted on a distaff, and you never see a picture of medieval spinning without a distaff. That is because you physically need it for this technique, not only to keep the fibres orderly and easy to reach. The right hand keeps the spindle in motion, either by turning it between the fingers continually, or by flicking it to twirl while it hangs suspended right underneath the hand (I call that “short suspended”). The right hand also does most of the drafting by moving away from the distaff, to the right and downward. The left hand controls the flow of the fibres from the distaff, making sure the thread remains even.

With both techniques, the amount of twist determines how firm and stable the thread will be, but it is much easier to get the very high level of twist with the medieval-style method.

Gillian: Does the thread feel much different using the different techniques?

Katrin: It does, and it also will behave much differently when you use it. The high-twist yarns that were usual in the Middle Ages will felt less and are much more resilient against wear. They will also have a stronger tendency to kink and twist up on themselves, which makes them a bit harder to handle than soft-spun yarns.

Gillian: One last question: has working with a historian for three years changed how you view your craft in any way?

Katrin: I think it has not changed the way I see crafts, but it has taught me more about how others, historians included, might see crafts. When we went through the crafts chapter together one last time, for example, it really made me realise that the importance of details is not universally known when you are talking to non-crafters. A weaver will know about the huge difference that a soft-spun yarn versus a hard-spun yarn will make in a fabric, and a smith knows that it makes an enormous difference whether you use stone coal or charcoal, and even whether you use pine charcoal or beech charcoal – but somebody not well-versed in at least one craft might underestimate the importance of these details.

We were discussing whether to cut some parts from the chapter, since it was fairly long in comparison to some of the other parts of the book, and that was when things clicked into place for me: the details were already there, but without an explanation of their significance, they just looked like extra details and extra examples strewn in – something we had to avoid in general so that the book would still fit in one volume.

That was one of the many, many moments when our different backgrounds resulted in an “Oh!” moment – something which I thoroughly enjoyed throughout these three and a half years of working together, by the way.

Gillian: I loved these moments, too, and the learning and discovering how what we knew needed translation for the wider public. Thank you!

Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at and her blog at

Dr Gillian Polack is a novelist, editor and medieval historian as well as a lecturer. She has been published in both the academic world and the world of historical fiction. Her most recent novels are Langue[dot]doc 1305 and The Art of Effective Dreaming (both Satalyte publishing). Find her webpage at

Click here to learn more about The Middle Ages Unlocked from Amberley Publishing

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