Unit 5 Clothing

Section 1

From the Search Menu select ‘Modern English Word Search’. First look up the word ‘belt’ and choose the heading ‘A girdle, belt’. You will find only two words there, both resembling the Mod. E. words in the heading. Similarly, if you look up the word ‘hat’ you will find its OE equivalent hætte (‘æ’ was pronounced much like Mod.E. ‘a’, see Unit 3, section 3). These are core vocabulary words for common items of clothing and have changed little over the years, even though the shape of hats has varied a lot.

Q1a. Look up the word ‘hood’ in the Mod. E. word search. Choose the headings ‘A hood’, then ‘A cap, hood’, and find the ancestors of the Modern English words. Are there any other words you recognise here? Answer Q1a

Q1b. Now look up the word ‘veil’ in the Mod. E. word search and choose the heading ‘A veil’. Can you find any words you recognise there? Can you think why this should be so? Answer Q1b

So what did the Anglo-Saxons actually wear? This is a difficult question to answer, since fabrics rarely survive and we have to get evidence wherever we can – from art, literature and vocabulary as well as archaeology. You also have to remember that we are dealing with a period of around 600 years, and that the clothing of different sections of society would have varied considerably. For a modern reproduction of what ordinary people might have worn, have a look at

You will see that men probably wore a short tunic and some kind of leggings, while women wore longer robes.

Q2. Linguists often make the point that socially important concepts will be well-represented in vocabulary (see Unit 1 Language and Culture). Using the Mod. E. word search, look up the word ‘cloak’. Scroll down the headings and note some of the different types of cloaks and the materials from which they were made. Is there an ancestor of cloak itself? Can you deduce anything about Anglo-Saxon society from what you find? Answer Q2

Materials for making clothes were also important, as was trade in materials.

Q3a. Enter the word ‘wool’ in the Mod. E. word search and look through the headings and some of the sections. How many stages in the process of acquiring woollen cloth are represented? What does this suggest about the place of wool in the Anglo-Saxon economy? Answer Q3a

Q3b. Do the same for ‘linen’ and ‘silk’ and compare your results with those for for ‘wool’. Answer Q3b

We know from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book IV, 19) that when Æthelthryth, the foundress and abbess of Ely, ‘decided to become a monastic postulant, she never wished to wear linen clothing, only woollen…’

Q4. Using the information gained in Question 3, can you suggest an explanation for Æthelthryth’s decision? Answer Q4

Most clothing would have been made at home by the women of the family, though richer people might have employed specialists to do the job for them. Our word ‘tailor’, however, comes from an Old French word ‘tailleur’, a cutter.

Q5. Look up ‘sew’ in the Mod. E. word search and find a word meaning ‘tailor’. Do you recognise any of the other words as ancestors of Mod. E. words? Answer Q5

You may have noticed that the word seamestre in the previous search is also defined as a ‘sempstress’ (or seamstress), that is a woman engaged in making clothes. The suffixstre was often used to indicate a woman involved in a particular occupation or activity, though sometimes it could apply to both sexes. The suffix survives in some modern words like ‘spinster’, and in some surnames like Baxter and Webster (compared with Baker and Weaver).

Q6. Go to Old English search, Wildcard search, End-of-word, and type stre. You will get a long list of headings, not all of which are relevant. Scroll down and pick a few which refer to human activities, such as Parent, Baking, Embroidery, Teacher, Servant, Harpist, and see whether the highlighted words refer to women. Answer Q6

You may have noticed that changes in the relationship between spelling and pronunciation sometimes hide the fact that OE and Mod. E. words are related. One such change is the pronunciation of ‘sc’, which in OE was pronounced like the ‘sh’ in Mod. E. ‘shop’. When you know this, it’s easier to see how words like OE scoh and Mod. E. shoe, or OE scear and Mod. E. shear are related. Another such pair is OE scyrte and Mod. E. shirt. However, in this case we are up against the fact that the words don’t refer to exactly the same thing.

Q7. Look up the word ‘shirt’ in the Mod. E. word search. Do you recognise any of the words in these sections? Do you see a familiar word if you look up to the top heading, ‘Short garment, skirt, kirtle’? Answer Q7

Section 2

As far as we can determine from the available evidence, the usual style of dress for an Anglo-Saxon man included a knee-length woollen tunic that was usually belted around the waist. This was worn over close-fitting trousers, sometimes with long strips of fabric wound over them to hold them tight to the leg. A long cloak was often worn on top. Then as now, women’s fashions changed faster and more radically than men’s. Their dress usually consisted of a straight gown, often belted around the waist or hips. Items needed to run a household, such as knives and keys, might hang from the belt. The gown was often worn over a light under-dress similar to a man’s tunic. Women also wore cloaks. In the earlier part of the period, gowns and cloaks might be held in place by brooches

For ordinary people, clothing was normally made of wool in natural colours. Animal skins were used for outer garments or shoes, though peasants usually went barefoot. Finer fabrics such as silk or linen were available, and might be dyed in rich colours, mostly using dyes made from plants – the best-known of these is woad, a blue dye. Clothing could be ornamented with braiding, embroidery, or jewellery such as brooches and glass or metal beads. Garments worn by high-ranking churchmen were often very elaborate. Bede, in his Life of St Cuthbert, mentions that the saint is known to have forbidden his disciples from dyeing their woollen clothing, suggesting that brightly coloured clothes were considered something of a luxury.

Textiles do not survive well in Britain’s damp climate but some four thousand fragments of materials have been found (see Owen-Crocker 2004: 272), usually attached to metal items such brooches and belt buckles in burial sites. There are various references to tanners and leather-workers in Old English literature that tell us that shoe-production was practised in the Anglo-Saxon period. This is supported by archaeological finds of parts of leather shoes, such as those from Winchester (see the section in Biddle (1990) titled ‘Tanning and Leather Working’), as well as metal shoe buckles and fastenings.

A lot of the information we have about Anglo-Saxon clothing comes from medieval art. Anglo-Saxons are portrayed in manuscript art, carvings and sculpture. However, this evidence has to be used carefully as often the figures shown are copies or imitations of those found in art from other places. An artist may also depict a figure in grander clothing than he would have worn to give the impression of high status.

We can also learn something about Anglo-Saxon clothing by studying its place in trade and social exchange. Clothing was a valuable asset in a society where wealth was usually held in possessions rather than money, and often features in barter, trade agreements and bequests made in wills. For example, in one of Ælfric’s homilies (Catholic Homilies I, XXVII) clothing is described as a ‘treasure’ and used as a fine offering to a prophet:

Then was the prophet’s servant, Gehazi, beguiled by avarice, and he ran off, the officer Naaman thus deceiving by words, “Now suddenly the sons of two prophets are come to my master: send him two garments and a pound.” The officer answered him, “It will be mean to send him so little; but take four garments and two pounds.”

Old English literature does not yield much information about everyday clothing. However, it is a rich source of information on another kind of body covering: the armour worn by warriors, as the TOE section on warfare testifies.

Section 3

Further Reading

Biddle, M. 1990. Artefacts from Medieval Winchester: Object and Economy in Mediaeval
, volume 1, part 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Coatsworth, E. 2005. ‘Stitches in Time: Establishing a History of Anglo-Saxon Embroidery’.
          Medieval Clothing and Textiles 1
, 1-27.
Harrison, M. 1993. Anglo-Saxon Thegn AD 449-1066. London: Osprey Press.
Hoffmann, M. 1974. The Warp-Weighted Loom: studies in the history and technology
          of an ancient implement
. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
Hyer, Maren Clegg and Jill Frederick (eds). 2016. Textiles, Text, Intertext: Essays in Honour of Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
Owen, G. R. 1979. ‘Wynflæd’s wardrobe’. Anglo-Saxon England 8, 195-222.
Owen-Crocker, G. R. 2013. ‘Clothing’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon
, eds M. Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 109-111.
Owen-Crocker, G. R. 2004. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd edn. Woodbridge:
          Boydell Press.
Owen-Crocker, Gale. 2011. ‘Dress and Identity’. A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, ed. Helena Hamerow, Sally Crawford and David Hinton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 91-118.
Owen-Crocker, Gale R. et al (eds). 2012. Encyclopedia of Dress and Textiles in the British Isles c.450–1450. Leiden: Brill.
Pritchard, F. A. 1984. ‘Late Saxon Textiles From The City of London’. Medieval Archaeology 28, 46-76.
Walton Rogers, P. 1997. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of
          York vol. 17, fasc. 11
. York: Council for British Archaeology.
Walton Rogers, P. 2006. Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England: AD 450 – 700.
          London: Council for British Archaeology.
Whitelock, Dorothy. 1968. The Will of Æthelgifu. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
          (see pp. 82-86 “The Bequests of Chattels and Clothing”)


The ‘Angelcynn’ website has some detailed information about both men and women’s clothing in the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Ashmolean Museum website has a section on Anglo-Saxon clothes: http://anglosaxondiscovery.ashmolean.org/Life/clothes/clothes_index.html

This website contains a portfolio of manuscript images depicting tenth and eleventh century clothing in England. Remember when looking at these images that the Anglo-Saxon artist did not necessarily draw what he saw in real-life and may have copied some of his images from continental sources.

‘Regia Anglorum’ contains some information about Anglo-Saxon and Norse weaving techniques with some further textile related links at the bottom of the page.

This website has an extensive bibliography of all things to do with the construction of Viking clothing, much of which also applies to the Anglo-Saxons.

An example of Anglo-Saxon embroidery can be seen at

There is an essay by Owen-Crocker comparing Modern and Anglo-Saxon attitudes to dress at

Ideas for essays and projects

1. Write an essay on the clothing worn by Anglo-Saxons, taking account of changes during the period.

2. Make a detailed analysis of the vocabulary of EITHER Weaving and Spinning OR Footwear in Old English. You should consider the types of words, e.g. the structure of compound words, and their relationship, if any, to Modern English, and what your analysis reveals about life at the time.