The Weaver's Life

This message about the weaver's life was found by Dori Rhody <> (a Krassin descendent) on the Bohemia discussion list.

In most cases all of the people who lived on land owned by a noble lord were serfs. That included all farmers, merchants, tradesmen, day laborers, millers, etc., unless they were designated "freemen." A Master craftsman was often free, but that was not necessarily true of journeymen and apprentices unless they were sons of freemen (Masters). Until about 1780 enserfed journeymen had to have permission to travel about to get the work experience they needed to become Masters (if they could ever afford the cost of entering the guild). In some cases even free schoolteachers became serfs if they happened to marry the daughter of a serf. All serfs were freed in 1849.

I have never read about weavers from rural villages who were prosperous. It is doubtful that weavers in rural areas ever achieved the status of Master weaver -- they were simply too poor to invest the money that would have required. There may have been some master weavers in cities that provided cloth for noble houses and wealthy burghers, but they would most likely have other weavers who actually worked the looms for them. They would design the weave of the cloth and oversee its production.

Weavers were among the poorest subjects in most villages and they were almost always serfs. Virtually all of them were "hausler" -- meaning they lived in a small cottage. They did not have any land to farm and if they were fortunate if they had a small garden and maybe a shed where they kept a goat for milk and a few chickens. They received handspun yarn/thread in linen or wool from locals and they wove it into cloth. Keeping some of the yarn for their own use was the major way they were paid. They would spin this extra yarn into cloth to sell at fairs or in the local market. They also received farm produce and maybe a chicken or two from time to time and some coins when cash was available.

Serfs had to give part of their produce to their noble landlord and they also had to work his fields or do special tasks for him. Some lords demanded so much work that the serfs were hard-pressed to find time to make a living in the time left to them. Weavers may not have had to give all that much to their noble landlords in terms of product and labor because they could not afford very much. The rules for Robot (the labor and produce due the landlord) based the amount a certain person owed on how much land and equipment he owned. Weavers didn't own any land, they were tenants in the landlord's cottage, and all they had was what they earned. They provided modest labor and services as "rent."

Every farmer had a field of flax for his own use. The women would spin linen yarn for their clothing and flat goods. When there was flax to spin they were never idle. Girls and elderly women who tended geese, goats and sheep in the pastures and meadows would while away the time spinning flax or wool on a spindle.

The fineness of cloth a weaver produced depended on the fineness of the spun yarn. Women who could spin very fine yarn would show off that skill by getting sheer fabrics woven from them. A sheer blouse with extravagant big puffy sleeves was the ultimate fashion luxury and marked a girl as having good potential as a wife. Coarser threads were used for men's work clothes, aprons, etc. Medium to fine grades went into elaborate folk costumes that were meant to last a minimum of 25 years. (Bozena Nemcova"s "Granny" says, "A skirt that does not last 25 years is no skirt at all!") Bed linens and other flat cloths were of a much heavier grade than we find comfortable.

How the cloth used for feather beds was feather-proofed is a mystery. Today we have to have special very tightly woven and smooth light cloth on down comforters or the feathers come through.

The homespun cloth had to go to a cloth finisher and a dyer after the weaver finished with it. The finisher washed and scraped it to give it a smooth surface and he stretched it into a straight piece with squared ends. Unfinished cloth left as it came off the loom had a relatively coarse appearance but some peasants may have thought that was OK for work clothing. They might spare themselves the expense of finishing and dyeing or they might do elementary finishing and dyeing at home if they could do so cheaply enough.

For a while the weavers did fairly well as travelling entrepreneurs began to hire them to produce cloth for distribution outside the local area. A thriving cottage industry developed that gave the weavers a steady income. But when the industrial revolution came about the weavers were among the hardest hit. Some of the first factories to develop were textile factories. Manufactured cloth was relatively cheap, of high quality and easy to get. It also meant that peasants could afford more fashionable clothing and many peasants preferred to buy that instead of using the traditional homespun cloth. Many weavers had to migrate to the cities where there were textile factories in order to get any work. The factories paid such low salaries that they were sometimes better off staying in their home villages, doing what little weaving they could get, and working as a day laborer on the noble landlord's manor or with the local farmers.

Some weaver's solved the problem of factory competition by weaving specialized items that the factories did not produce. One such was "rag" rugs. Another was blankets. They would wait until they had enough on hand for a good day or two at a large market and then bundle them up and walk the distance to the biggest town around with the bundle on their backs. Some were fortunate enough to have a handcart to transport the goods. They would sell their goods for cash at the markets and fairs.

There is an example of a 19th C. weaver's cottage at the farmhouse museum at Bad Windesheim in Germany. The loom takes up almost a quarter of the main room. The bed takes up more of it and the tiled stove doesn't leave much space for table and chairs. I don't recall if there was a separate little kitchen (a windowless inner room with a little stove and some shelves on the wall -- pitch dark even in daytime. It offered a very small living space for a growing family.