Textile history in Spain


By  Juan Carlos Rua Alvarez , Tamara Fernandez Seguin and Carolina Sulleiro Matilla

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Romanesque dress of the upper class consisted in two overlapped robes: the brial, which had long narrow sleeves made of embroidered and dyed fabric, and the skin or pellizón, which was worn over the brial. It was shorter and had wider sleeves.

The king needed two people to get dressed, and was the only one who could wear purple clothes. This color was extremely difficult to get, as it was obtained from shells.

The Romanesque costume of the lower class consisted in a dress girded by a belt, where the leather pouch was held. The collar had round shape and a vertical slit at the bottom. Over the dress they could put on another piece of cloth called pellote, similar to the previous one, but sleeveless and with two openings on each side. 

Women's clothing was longer than men’s so they could hide their feet. The common warm clothing to all social classes was the mantle. 

Men used to go outdoors bareheaded and they liked wearing a fringe, which was very stylish in that time. Wearing a beard was also frequent. Their shoes had a wide cork sole.

Flax was already being cultivated in Galicia, although the production and the weaving were only women’s tasks.

It was a medieval custom to wrap sacred relics with precious fabrics brought from Byzantium, where the best ones could be found. The clergy wore capes made of silk and precious stones, silver brooches as well as gold necklaces and beautiful sandals with girdles.



This work by Francisco de Moure can be found in the Archeological Museum in Ourense. It dates from the reign of Felipe III (1598-1621). This is a sculpture in walnut wood. It has a size of 1.30 meters and it depicts a knight of San Juan kneeling and praying, dressed in armour.

In his neck we can see a pleated ruff and his left knee is on a pillow. On his chest on the armour he has a cross of the Order of Malta. In the late 15th century ruffs were very fashionable, but they became so exaggerated in size that they were forbidden by King Felipe IV with a law against luxurious attire. Black was also considered an expensive colour to maintain.

In the sculpture of the knight of Beade we can see items like hinges, buckles, gloves, the scabbard and the ruff in every detail. The armour, the sword and the spurs are features of the knights of this era.

This is a very detailed sculpture that reminds us of people like Miguel de Cervantes. We can see similarities with the character of Don Quixote, when he was knighted by the Inn Keeper in chapter III and he was given the sword and the spurs. The Inn Keeper also gives a minute description of a knight.


“There was no need to mention anything so obvious and necessary as money and clean shirts”

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes by Juan de Jáuregui. Painting of Don quixote and Sancho Panza by Pablo Picasso. By By Andrea Rivero, Javier Borrajo, Juan Antonio Prieto Cañizo and Carmen Rodríguez Iglesias, 2º Bacharelato 2016.



Textile Industry in Galicia

This is a long term account of an ancient activity in Galicia, the making of textiles and clothing, focusing on the factors that led to a deep decline in the mid 19th century and trying to depict a new setting that led to a rebirth at the end of the 20th century and a success at the beginning of the 21st century.

In the 18th century in Galicia, textile activities were oriented to the processing of certain fibres: wool, linen and in less quantity hemp- for ropes, canvas, etc.

Two remarks are relevant to be made. Firstly, urban industry organized in guilds was not important. Therefore, and throughout the next century, the manufacturing activity was mainly rural, carried out by peasants and out of the guild regulations.

Secondly, the production of wool fabrics was extended, but the economic value was less important than the production of linen, wool fabrics being rough and sold in the district markets.

Therefore, we have an industrial activity at domestic level in rural areas that produced mainly linen. As a raw material the flax in mid 19th century was local, but as it was not enough to provide spinners and weavers, since the 1770s linen began to be imported from the Baltic.

The techniques used here were similar to other European regions, except for the whitening process. Whereas in other areas the fabric was whitened at the end of the production, in Galicia the linen thread was whitened before being woven. In this way, less lawn was necessary for drying, and the whitening could be made in a common domestic saucepan that was used for cooking by adding ashes to the boiling water, and it took less time. But this peculiarity in the whitening process prevented the final product from having the quality reached in other places.

In the mid 18th century the sector gave employment through a part of the year to a minimum 15,000 weavers and 60,000 spinners and other people who took part in the preparation of linen.

The period of highest growth in the sector spanned between 1750 and 1830, thanks to the expansion of potential markets for Galician linen and favourable conditions for more production as a response to a higher demand, due to a growth in population.

The model of growth was based on low production and distribution costs, for products of medium-low quality destined to not very wealthy customers. Among the reasons for the growth we find that the raw material was local and later on imported from the Baltic. Secondly is the growth in rural population, who could supplement their income at low cost with textile production. And finally, we have the informal distribution system, that even resorted to travelling peasants, contributing to the low cost.

The inability to introduce technical and organizational advances in the 19th century to compete with the cotton and linen products of other regions and countries that produced at lower prices, caused the Galician textile unstoppable loss of  market.

Galician textile was displaced from the traditional markets. At first, the American market was lost, as a result of the independence of Latin American countries in the 1820s, by the loss of privileges and above all the inability to compete neither with the cotton products nor the fine linen sent there from other European regions at a lower cost.

And the Spanish market was also lost, including Galicia, first to British cotton smuggled since the 1820s, and later on to the modern textile from Catalonia, which also took advantage of the improvements in coastal navigation and the railway system to reach areas previously supplied more easily from Galicia, and also favoured by a protectionist policy.

What were the obstacles that prevented the success of Galician textile? Firstly, the technical conditions of production made it very difficult for the linen to have a certain quality and standard. The whitening process was harmful for the final quality and diversity of the product. Additionally, the size and quality was varied according to the area of procedence, which made it really necessary to arbitrate a way to standardize these aspects. This was not possible in Galicia, whereas in other regions it was fundamental to give a guarantee to distributors and customers of the product they were buying.

It was not easy to convince the small rural manufacturers that they should change the production methods or adjust to certain standards of size and quality, when many of them considered textile activities as a supplement, as one among many alternatives to earn a living.

Apart from this, and contrary to what had happened in other European regions, a social group linked to the sector had not been created, which could intervene in terms of techniques and production organization, in order to adjust to the demands of the new times.

We must conclude that in the 19th century the techniques of production and the marketing of Galician textile prevented the progress of a business network that could lead to transformation.

The sector went through difficult times of mere survival during most part of the 20th century, unable to compete with the consolidated textile industry of Catalonia, until the 1980s when it reached unexpected protagonism.

There is no doubt that the sector led a difficult life for much of the twentieth century. The factors that prevented the modernization of the sector in the second half of the nineteenth century remained valid for much of the twentieth, and this made it very difficult to compete with such a consolidated industry as the Catalan.

In the first third of the 20th century the few factories which were created in Galicia at the end of the 19th century survived the best they could. The production of fabrics and clothes at rural domestic level also continued, which is not surprising as many areas were still difficult to reach for imported textiles due to the deficiency in communications. There, many families still had wooden looms –for local linen and wool- and the workforce was especially women, for whom the cultivation of land and livestock breeding left some free time to produce textiles for self-sufficiency and to sell in the local markets.

After sthe Spanish Civil War, the supply bottlenecks and the scarce vitality of the internal market that Spain experiences in the 1940s and 1950s should not have been precisely favorable for the development of a Galician textile sector that had little to do before the competition of the industry of other areas of the peninsula . Some textile and clothing companies continued to operate, supported by the international isolation of those years - which prohibited the Spanish market for foreign textiles - and the still poor communications of Galicia - which gave some advantage to local companies in some product ranges compared to those of Catalan origin.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the expansion cycle of the Spanish economy offered opportunities to many small size Galician enterprises  in the ready-to-wear industry. But the crisis in the mid 70s was a drawback. It affected especially  those regions with more textile industry like Catalonia, but it also had consequences here.

It must be assumed that at the beginning of the 1980s a continuous decline in the sector could be expected rather than a rebirth, which had outstanding dynamism and notorious public acknowledgement. The most important example of this vitality is the extraordinary growth of the group Inditex from A Coruña, which is now a multinational and an impulse to a broad network of small enterprises, workshops and co-operatives in the textile sector.

There are particular elements that explain the success of textile in Galicia. Thus, its expansion has been very beneficial and has benefited at the same time by the institutions of self-government of the Xunta de Galicia (the autonomy began in 1980-1981). The Xunta de Galicia, from its beginnings, has formulated a conscious strategy of renewing the external image of the territory of the four provinces. In this context, the slogans "Galicia Calidade” - Galician quality or "Galicia Moda” - Galician Fashion, with which we can enunciate the idea of ​​the strength of the Galician autonomous community in the 1990s, "Galicia is in fashion", acquire a strong content, revealing the leading brands of textiles and clothing of the country. Of course, this use has been very favorable to the interests of certain companies (Adolfo Domínguez, Roberto Verino or the Zara phenomenon as emblems), which in conventional terms had not been much supported by public policies of incentives to industrial activity, or more generically, entrepreneurial.




by Ana Arias Santiago

“Spinning was carried out in a meeting that also involved chatting, joking, singing and even dancing at the end”. It was an occasion for work and amusement. From ancient times, these gatherings contributed to establishing links in small  communities.

Textile handcrafts in Galicia had an enormous socioeconomic importance in the past. One of the activities that had great relevance in the family economy and the way of living in Galicia was the linen industry, with a long tradition, even though the documents which have been found about linen production date from the Middle Ages. Wool production in Galicia was not relevant.

The highest peak in linen production was mid 18th century until the beginning of the 19th century. During this period, apart from the flax cultivated here, foreign linen from the Baltic was woven, which reached Galicia through the ports of  Ribadeo, Carril and Vigo. The linen was then exported to Castilla or America.

With the foreign linen there was a decrease in autoctonous production, which lost quality as the seeds were not being renewed. From the 1830s this kind of handcrafts went into a crisis as a consequence of the flourishing English and Catalonian textile industry.

Although this activity continued until the mid 20th century, it was limmited to self-consumption in hard times like post world war I or the Spanish civil war.

Recently, some associations are interested in recovering the linen handcrafts, which were present in most of the Galician territory.

Linen was the protagonist of a good part of our culture. Each family cultivated flax for home use and to make blankets, bed sheets, bedspreads, table linen, towels, carpets, clothes and underclothes, everything necessary and expensive in those times of a subsistence economy.

A relevant aspect of the works connected with textiles is the importance given at the time to women, who throughout history remained retreated into a domestic context, as part of a model of work that intended to increase the family income through activities connected with sewing, combining with other household chores. This way, women in Galicia took part throughout the centuries in this socio-productive system carrying out traditional jobs like seamstress, weaver, spinner, knitter or lacemaker, in a mainly rural society.

Linen handcrafts

It was a labour-intensive process that was carried out all year long. The flax seeds are planted in May and the harvest takes place three months later.The plants are not cut, but uprooted in handfuls. In the same place they are threshed with a ripple to remove the seeds.


Stalks are then immersed in slowly-moving waters of rivers, in a process called water-retting, and stones are placed on top so that they do not drift away.

After some weeks, the flax is spread on the ground to dry. Once it was dry, in some places the cows trod on it to break the fibre.

Then it is further broken with a flax break, which is is a set of hinged intersecting wooden blades. This is done to crush the stems and separate the flax fibre inside. To finish this process, scutching swords are also used.


During the winter nights the separated bast fibres are next heckled, or combed with heckling combs, through a bed of nails that splits and polishes the fibers.

Two tools are used for spinning: the distaff or rock and the spindle. Flax is always spun from the rock very finely resulting in a thin yarn, then winding the yarn onto the spindle. When the spindle is full the skeins are made. The yarns are then bleached by boiling in soapy water with oakwood ashes. With a winder, the yarns are then wound onto spools.


The spools are then taken to the weaver to weave in the loom the linen that will be used for clothes or home use.


Even though women carried out most of the tasks, the whole community participated many times and spinning for instance was a festive occasion.

Women gathered in the kitchen or barn of a house for spinning and other people attended to sing or tell stories. These fiadeiros, after the day’s work, became an occasion for amusement for young people. There was dancing, tambourine playing and singing. They began around Christmas and finished by Carnival.

Vicente Risco pointed out that the gathering was quite a collective courtship occasion.

With the loss of hand spinning the fiadeiro became a festival called in different ways, depending on the area of Galicia: ruada, foliada, serán, pandeirada, etc. 


Fontes consultadas:
Os Oficios. Xaquin Lorenzo, 1983. 

O Liño. Xosé Manuel de Bernabé, 1992

Museo Etnográfico da Limia, Vilar de Santos