Fashion in the Age of Datini

Tailor's Tools

My gentle subscribers don't need a nice big pocket as part of their tailoring equipment! British Library, Harley MS. 6563 Book of Hours (southeast England, probably London, c. 1320-1330) fol. 65r

What tools did tailors and pourpointiers use? The guild rules and laws on Age of Datini tend to take them for granted. Most of us have seen the famous pictures of tailors at work from the 14th century onwards. But what tools do written sources mention? One of my favourite strategies is to find medieval names for things, then mine modern dictionaries for texts which mention them.

Encyclopedic Works

Scholars sometimes set out to discuss the tools used in all trades, or all liberal arts, or everything a student would need to talk about. I think Katrin Kania's book reminded me that these exist. Most of these are in Latin so there may be a gap between them and the terms workers normally use!

Book II, chapter 21 of the Didascalicon of High of St. Victor (Paris. c, 1125-1130) lists fabric-making as one of the seven mechanical arts. His tools are acus, ūs f. "needle", fūsus, i m. "spindle", sūbula, ae f. "awl", girgillus i m. "skein winder?" (du Cange), pecten, inis m. "comb", alibro "steel?", calamistrum "crisper?", chilindro "loom?", "or other tools of whatever sort." English translation on the Internet Archive and Latin original at

Bartholomew de Glanville's De Proprietatibus Rerum (c. 1240-1250) mentions thimbles and scissors / shears in describing animals and plants (

Around 1400, John Trevisa mentions scissors (Latin forfices, MED s.v. shēre n.(1)) and thimbles (Latin digitabulum, digitale, theca: MED s.v. thī̆mel n.) in his translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum. finger-stal appears in a dictionary from 1475. MED has an entry for 'pressing iron' from 1459.

The list of trades and their tools by Paulerinus (composed c. 1455 to 1471) has:

Instrumenta autem, per que exercet (sc. sartor) suam operacionem, sunt: acus, fila, forfex, ulna, nodile (gl.: knoflerz), aplanile (gl.: sstreycholecz), filatorium, digittale, forale, acuale, penna, latriculus, torculacio, longale, ceraculum et si aliquia sunt, alia eis nota instrumenta.

Unfortunately, many of these words are in the editor's paragraph on words which she could not find in any other Latin text. The glosses in Czech or German are not always helpful.

The illustration for LINEN CLOTHING from one of the Taciunum Sanitatis manuscripts from


Most inventories from the middle ages are from after someone's death or imprisonment.

The inventory of Feu Regnault Chevalier, taillor to the duke, dated 24 March 1396 at Dijon, has one table to put robes (ie. suits of clothing) and a table with two trestles, the bow of chain (!) of two pieces, for cutting robes upon.

Item, 1 traiteaul a metre robes; (TRESTEAU "trestle") / Item, une table et II traiteaulx, l'arche de chaigne de II pieces a taillier robes dessus

The inventory of the draper Ludovico Mengozzi at Rimini (1440?) has one pair of sissors for cutting cloth, eight pairs of scissors for shearing cloth (of which only five belonged to the deceased), a table for shearing, and yard for measuring cloths (Brandi, Abbigliamento e Società a Rimini pp. 130, 131)

item unum par forbicium ad incidendum (130.xxi) pannum; item duo zaloni ad ponendum supra bancha; ... (130.xxiv) item octo paria forbicium ad cimandum (130.xxv) pannos quarum Ghiraldus asseruit duo paria esser sua et unum (130.xxvi) par esser Michaelis a tobaleis at alia esser hereditatis; item una (130.xxvii) tabula ad cimandum ...(p. 131) Item unus passus ad mensurandum pannos

Regnault Chevalier and Ludovico Mengozzi were rich, and an inventory of a poor tailor might have more details.

Lorentz Schneider (d. 1414) from the Mendel Hausbuch


Laws and guild rules don't have a lot of information on tools as far as I have seen.


Ann Crabb, The Merchant of Prato's Wife (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbour, 2015) p. 49 “Also, Margherita at one point describes herself as a large woman, although not as large as the woman who was using her dress as a pattern.” See “Margherita, 27 Oct. 1397” (James and Pagliano (ed.) M. Datini, Le Lettere di Margherita Datini, M. Datini, Per la tua Margherita [p. 219 note 1]) Complete edition from 1977 on Worldcat and select edition from 2001 on Worldcat

Painters' Books

Cennino Cennini mentions gesso da sartori "tailor's chalk" (ch. B. 180 = M. clxiii, B. 184 = M. clxv)

Segreti per Colori ie. 'The Bolognese Manuscript' on Painting (circa 1400?). This is less helpful than the original translation in Merrifield's Original Treatises, pp. 466, 467 suggests (my translation below):

Original Translation
157. Ad faciendum literas auratas.- Summe gissum cum quo ingessatur tabulas et ocrea i.e. cum aqua saccatoris tingunt filum et modicum et clare ovi bene rupta cum spungia aut aliter et omnia ista insimul macina per magnium spatium ... To make gilded letters.- Take gesso, with which panels are primed, and ochre, ie. that with which taillors colour thread, and also a little egg white well beaten with a sponge or otherwise, and grind all these things together for a long time.
The Tailor in Jost Amman's Ständebuch from 1568. Image from Wellcome Images c/o Wikimedia Commons

Early Modern

These are easy to find, and its unlikely that tailors in the 17th century used fewer tools than tailors in the 14th century.

One of the most useful details is that raw edges could be waxed to prevent them from unravelling inside the garment (ordinance of the hosiers of Granada Tit. 110 §1, 3, 4). According to Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiders, cut edges on some medieval embroidery were protected the same way.

Summing Up

We seem to have plenty of texts mentioning scissors or shears for cutting, awls for piercing, needles and thread for sewing, thimbles, rules or yards for measuring, and charcoal or tailor's chalk for marking. Wax and soap were widely available, and we would not expect to have sources for an ounce of wax for lubricating thread or a scrap of soap for drafting the garment.

Painters and embroiderers spread cloth on wooden frames.

I am surprised not to have evidence for pins, right angles (for drafting), or clamps (for quilting, see finley-luebeck-wappenroecke pp. 137, 138 [1]) and the evidence for pressing irons is pretty late. The late 15th century clothes from Lengberg seem to have been shaped with steam and heat, but how early and what did the early tools look like? I would like to have better evidence for the knotted cords or notched paper or parchment strips to take a customer's measurements. I would like to have evidence of medieval equivalents of the later tailor's books with sketches of garments and cutting plans. I talked about how paper patterns are later than the middle ages in Canvas Patterns.

What Else?

Can anyone think of anything else? There must be sermons or moralizing literature.

Are there simple tools which are not on this page but which you would expect to see?

Another Vocátio will focus on pictures of tailors.

[1] Edit 2022-09-12: finley-luebeck-wappenroecke pp. 137, 138 reads as follows:

(A quilted jack in Lübeck is quilted through dense cotton and five layers of heavy fabric to a total thickness of up to 4 cm) In order to compress the cotton fibres to the desired density yet still produce such perfectly straight quilting lines, the creators of these garments must have used specialized tools. As yet, no particular tool for this purpose has been definitively identified, but many known medieval tools could have ben used to achieve these results. In particular, table vises with twin screws, such as those used for woodworking, could have been used to compress the cotton for stitching and would provide a straight line along which the stitches could be laid. When compressed, the layers are quite stout and difficult to stitch through. However, during experimentation, I found that using thread, needle, and thimbles of the type used by medieval sailmakers allows for quick and precise stitching of even those thick materials. Further research is required to unquestionably place these tools in the shop of fabric armor makers.

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