Also see: Fabrics, Fibers and Weaves, Colors
The use of 'mottled' or 'heather' fabrics in Black Swan Designs clothing
Although ‘’motley’ is often used to describe a heterogeneous, often incongruous mixture of elements, in Middle English the word motlei refered to variegated cloth, i.e cloth made of multiple colours. I like and use these ‘motley’ fabrics because I think they represent a class of fabric which shows up frequently in the archaeological record but is underutilized in reenactment.
To understand this fabric it is important to understand a few basics of textile production, including fibres, weaving and dying.
Fabric is made of fibres treated a number of different ways. Fibre can be left natural, and used in the colour it comes off the animal, or in a bleached or semi-bleached state.
It can be dyed in the wool before or after spinning, or it can be piece dyed as a length after it comes off the loom.
The fibres can be sorted by colour, or they can be mixed to produce a variously coloured thread, generally refered to as 'mixed spun' or 'mixed spinning'.
The spun fibre is first woven into cloth. The weaver can use the same colour thread for the warp and the weft, or they can use 2 or more different colours. 70% of the clothing from Herjolfsnes show warp and weft of different colours, regardless of weaving pattern (1). Most of those colours appear to have been dyed over naturally-coloured fibre. Similar proportions of multi-coloured fabric turn up in archaeological remains starting with the earliest finds- the fibre making up the Tolund man's clothing is multi coloured, and the skirt and scarf worn by the Huldremose woman is an rather complex plaid made of multiple colours (2). Multi-coloured textile remains comprise a significant proportion of the remains from Coppergate (3).
J. Peter Wild discusses wool colouration in his book 'Textiles in Archaeology' (4), including a section on Scottish sheep. He says the first domestic sheep were dark brown with paler underbelly wool. White is a dominant gene, so early on men began to breed selectively so white or grey animals became commoner. Analysis of prehistoric textiles reveal that by the Iron Age fleeces of various colours and tones would have been found in the same flock- dark brown, red brown, light brown, grey and white. He goes on to discuss two breeds of Scottish sheep; the first is the Souy, which has flourished on the islands of St. Kilda since at least the Viking era. These sheep are dark brown and light brown with white underbelly and rump patch. Soay wool would yield a naturally mottled/varigated thread when spun.
Orkney sheep live on the seashore of North Ronaldsay, and have predominantly grey fleeces comprised of white and dark hairs, but there are also white, near-white,reddish-brown and dark brown animals (5).
Laura Hodges discusses 'motley' fabric in some depth in her book 'Chaucer and Costume' (6). "Mottelee has been variously defined...as 'polychrome' or multi-coloured....motlee was inexpensive to moderate in price....the best quality of motley might be fashionable..but it would not speak loudly of great wealth...it speaks discretely of economic moderation." (7)
Based on what we know of the colouration of period sheep, archaeological finds and written records, I believe a number of modern 'heather' and 'mottled' fabrics could easily fit the category of 'motley', and match archaeological remains.
Here are a few examples...
Striped cloth is usually referred to as 'rayed' in period texts (8). The same texts refer to large blocks of colour (as in quartering, or colouring the left and right sides of garments in differing colours) as 'mi-parti', or 'parti-colour' (9). It is likely that both 'rayed' and 'mi-parti' colouration falls into the classification of 'motlei'. Based on what we know of the colouration of period sheep, archaeological finds and written records, I believe a number of modern 'heather' and 'mottled' fabrics could easily fit the category of 'motley' as well.
These are the reasons why I tend to use these 'motley' fabrics as much as I use 'piece dyed' solids. I see a lot of this type of cloth in the archaeological record, and I think it's underused in reenactment. I think many of us rely too heavily on visual sources to tell us what fabric looked like, and don't look at the actual extant textiles. We forget that an artist doesn't have the ability to paint weaves or subtle colour variations, and would simply paint them as a solid.
1 Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland, Ostergard, E., Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2004. ISBN: 8772889357
2 The Development of Costume, Tarrant, N., Routledge, 1996, ISBN: 0415080193
3 Anglo-Scandinavian Finds From Lloyds Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites. MacGregor,A., 1982. The Archaeology of York, AY173. ISBN: 0906780020
Finds from Parliament Street and Other Sites in The City Centre. Tweddle, D., 1986. AY17/4. ISBN: 0906780020
4 Textiles in Archaeology, Wild, J.P., Shire Archaeology, 1988, ISBN 0-85263 931 7
5 Wild, pg. 15
6 Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue, Hodges, L.F., DS Brewer, Cambridge, 2000, ISBN 0-85991-577-8
7 Hodges, pp 85-87
8 The Devil's Cloth- A History of Stripes, Pastoureau, M., (Gladding, J. trans.) Washington Square Press, 2003, ISBN-10: 0743453263
9 Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, Newton, S.M., Boydell Press, 2002, ISBN: 085115767X