Relics of Brigid’s Mantle

Relics of Brigid’s Mantle

I’ve started to read a small book, St Brigid of Ireland, originally written in 1954 by Alice Curtayne. She writes (page 31)

The old “Lives” speak of the nun, Brigid, as dressed in white … This idea of her appearance is disturbed by the fact that a church in Bruges possesses a circular cloak, said to be hers, and the colour of this cloak is red, but not a defiant, undoubted red, since her most recent biographer describes the colour as “dyed with Tyrian blue.” A portion of this mantle is in the possession of the Redemptoristine nuns, Drumcondra, and it is described as purple-red.

I’m intrigued by this relic of Brigid. In his paper The ‘Mantle of St. Brigid’ at Bruges, written in the 1930s, H. F. McClintock writes

There is in the ancient Flemish city of … Bruges, a relic of great antiquity and interest which claims to be of Irish origin. This is the so-called Mantle, or Cape, of St. Brigid … preserved at the Cathedral of St. Sauveur in that city.

… the name of “Mantle” is really a misnomer: it is not a complete cape or garment of any sort but simply a rectangular piece of woollen cloth measuring about 21 by 25 inches, of a dark crimson colour, and covered all over on its face with tufts of curly wool resembling the fleece of a sheep.

A photo of the cloth is included in the paper, showing the curly surface. According to McClintock, the tradition is that the relic was taken to Flanders by Princess Gunhild, sister of King Harold of England, when she fled there after his death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For a long time the relic appeared to be “a shoulder-cloak of yellow silk, interwoven with gold thread and decorated with gold lace” but in 1866 it was discovered that this was a “decorative covering” probably from about 1400.

The original relic was discovered inside, and was found to consist of a piece of shaggy cloth, with some sort of lining of blue and green linen which showed signs of wear. It was at this time that the silk covering was removed and the relic enclosed in the glazed wooden case in which it is now kept.

In about 1935 Mademoiselle Calberg of the Department of Textiles of the Royal Museum, Brussels, examined the cloth in detail and McClintock includes most of her report in his paper.

‘In its present condition the fragment of St. Brigid’s cloak consists of a rectangular bit of stuff measuring 0.545m. wide and 0.64m. long (about 21 by 25 inches) … a deep violet coloured woollen fabric … characterised by a thick curly fleece which entirely covers its outer surface, giving it the effect of astrakan fur. The reverse side is perfectly smooth … ‘

and she goes on to describe the plain weave structure, saying she can’t at first tell which is the warp and which the weft since there are no selvedges, but

‘Both of them are spaced at a distance of only 4 threads to the centimetre (i.e., about 10 to the inch), but the general appearance of the two is different, one being relatively fine and the other made of thick yarn with hardly any twist.’

Mlle Calberg was able to inspect the reverse side and ruled out both rug knotting techniques and supplementary yarns as are used in making velvet. She identifies three significant features

‘first, the free and varied interlocking of the strands in more or less closely compressed curls; secondly, the different lengths of these strands; and, above all, the very peculiar way in which they form part of the fabric’

In her report (and in further correspondence McClintock had with her), Mlle Calberg is sure that the curly strands are formed directly from manipulation of the thicker yarns but leaves the question open whether these thicker yarns are the warp or the weft – she concludes her report

‘the fabric of St. Brigid’s cloak seems to be simply a plain bit of woollen stuff the outside of which is covered with curled tufts of wool made by one of the two threads of the ground work.’

McClintock goes on to say that Mlle Calberg was also “confident that they could not have been obtained, as in the fluffy surface of modern blankets, by combing or brushing the cloth with cards” because the tufts are too long and too curly. He compares “shaggy cloths still made on hand-looms by the peasants of some parts of Hungary and the Balkans” and suggests a technique used in some Hungarian cloth in his possession where tufts of unspun fleece are laid into the weft every four or five picks – a rya-like technique where each lock is laid in with the tip projecting out and the base of the block parallel with the ground weft.

However, the singular thing about the mantle is that there are no extra picks of weft, as McClintock notes,

the chief difference being that no separate weft thread was used. The whole of what looks like weft (i.e., the thick, scarcely twisted yarn of her description) she believes to consist of the lower portions of the tufts of wool. The fact that many of the tufts seem to spring from more than one thread of weft is easily explained by their having become matted together from wear or handling at some past time

He then talks about various primitive shaggy cloths and cloaks made from the Bronze age onward in Europe and those documented in Ireland. He notes that the dye in the fragment in Bruges was analysed to contain iron oxide and that the wool fibre was also analysed but no structural conclusions could be drawn.

I thought about contacting the Redemptoristine nuns in Dublin to ask about their fragment of the mantle, but I wasn’t brave enough, and then joyously I found that an Irish writer, Shauna Gilligan, has done that very thing recently and has seen and written about this tiny piece of cloth. I watched this inspiring video of a conversation between Shauna Gilligan, Margo McNulty and Clodagh Doyle and bought the book, Mantles: Encountering Brigid – a beautiful book to read slowly. In the video Shauna shows her photo of the fragment at Drumcondra (“thick and full and not unlike the wool on a sheep’s back”), which has been stitched to a background, and looks as if the smoother surface of the cloth might be uppermost, not the curly side, but the side that was perhaps worn closest to the body.

There is, too, a Welsh side to the story of the mantle, a piece that might once have been, and now is lost, and that’s something else to explore.

For now I’ve been musing on McClintock’s thoughts on the structure, and on the photos, and how it could all be put together with what I know of weaving and spinning. I have done a few small experiments so far using different fibres, with more to follow. I want to find out more about what kind of sheep were in Ireland at the time of Brigid.

The weft at the top left is some carded short staple wool from Orkney, top right some handspun locks, and at the bottom some combed Norwegian wool with a staple of around 18cm. The same warp for each, a thin handspun singles. All lightly felted after weaving.
The reverse sides

I’m also looking at how some types of similar cloth are still being made today,,

Curtayne, Alice. 2022. Saint Brigid of Ireland. Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media.

Gilligan, Shauna, and Margo McNulty. 2021. MANTLES: Encountering Brigid. Dublin, Ireland: Arlen House.

McClintock, H. F. 1936. “The ‘Mantle of St. Brigid’ at Bruges.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 6 (1): 32–40.

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