Textiles and Fiber Arts as Catalysts for Ideas

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Working with fiber has generated many seminal ideas in the course of human history, including the first notions of rotary motion, machines, and computers. The fiber arts also have provided an important means of expression of the human condition.


At some unknown time before 25,000 b.c.e. (when we get our first direct evidence), humans figured out that you could make long, strong flexible strings by twisting together thin, easily broken plant fibers. Twist adds great strength, as one learns by twisting together a handful of fibers from a dead vine after the winter weather has rotted away (retted) the woody parts. The resulting string can be used in numerous ways to make life easier and more convenient: for tying things together (increasing one's power to carry, to store, and to make compound tools) or tying things down, and for crafting snares and nets (making hunting and fishing far more efficient). String is probably the special toolalmost unseen in the material recordthat allowed the human race to move, during the Upper Paleolithic, into many ecological niches they otherwise could not have handled. All human cultures have string. Actual impressions of twisted plant fiber string and twined netting were found at Pavlov, Czech Republic, from 25,000 b.c.e., the middle of the Upper Paleolithic (Fig. 1a). These remains are already so sophisticated that string-and net-making must have been practiced for some time, possibly since the start of the era of cave art, c. 40,000 b.c.e. Other evidence of Paleolithic string and its uses has been found across Europe from 20,000 b.c.e., including increasing numbers of bone needles and fine-holed beads.

Once the domestication of plants and animals began in the Near East at the beginning of the Neolithic, c. 9000 b.c.e., evidence for fiber arts increases dramatically (partly because the newly permanent settlements make it easier to find human artifacts at all), allowing us to see new ideas in fiber and string technology.

Flax, still today an important fiber plant, was one of the first plants domesticated, and one of the first animals domesticated was the sheep (specifically Ovis orientalis ). But sheep were domesticated for meat, not wool, as most people assume. Their coats were not soft and woolly, but coarse and bristly like a deer's, and it evidently took some four thousand years of inbreeding and selection to develop usably woolly sheep. Before that, domestic sheep and cattle were raised to be killed for food, but around 4000 b.c.e. people conceived the radical idea that they did better by keeping the sheep alive. Instead of providing one feast and one hide, each animal could provide a continuing supply of wool for clothing and of milk for food (preservable as yogurt and cheese). This change, as revolutionary as domestication itself, came to be known as the "secondary products revolution." Wool, from ever woollier sheep, is still one of the most important fibers worldwide.

Another key Neolithic invention was the spindle. Plant fibers are often long, making them easy to twist by hand into a single length of string. But for longer pieces, or if the fibers are short, one encounters a problem, for the string, once twisted, becomes quite ornery the moment you let go of one end to add more fiber to the other. It either untwists or gnarls up in a tangle, both effects being counterproductive. The solution is to wind it up on something, say a stick, which both stores it and keeps it from tangling or untwisting. But then the easiest way to twist more fiber onto the free end is to turn the stick itself. That's what a spindle is: a rod for holding the finished thread while adding twist to the newly forming part. The spindle can be twirled in the hand (hand-held), or with one end in a dish (supported), or hanging in the air from the newly forming thread (dropped) (Figs. 2 and 10). The speed and steady inertia of its spin can be increased by adding a little flywheel to the rod: an apple or potato will do, but we start finding small clay disks or wheels for the purpose, called spindle whorls, early in the Neolithic, by 6000 b.c.e. Spinning with a whorl-weighted spindle is many times faster (and easier) than twisting without a spindle.

So from the notion of twist to the notion of twirling a stick to the addition of the spindle whorl, humans came up with their first ideas of rotary motion, translated only much later, c. 3000 b.c.e., to the idea of the load-bearing wheela key idea that seems now to have been thought up only once, and in the area where spindles were invented.

Spindle technology was so easy, efficient, and portable that it remained essentially unchanged for seven thousand years, until the invention of the foot-powered spinning wheel in the Middle Ages, a design that quadrupled the speed of spinning and that was apparently jump-started by ideas from China, and finally, the spinning jennya hand-powered multiple spinning machineduring the industrial revolution. Hand spindles are still used in rural areas, however, where women make thread from fiber while doing other chores.


Toward the end of the Paleolithic, people developed the idea of interlacing string or other long thin elements in a regular way to form a broad fabric: impressions of twined net or cloth were found at Pavlov (see above) from 25,000 b.c.e., and fragments of mats and baskets are often found in the Near East from 7000 b.c.e. onwards. In a sense, the idea of interlacing is far older, since other large primates, such as chimps, will loosely "weave" together a few branches in a treetop to make a comfortable place to nap. (One can still see pleached [plaited] fences woven of the live branches of hedge plants in rural Wales [Fig. 3], and house walls woven of dead branches [wattle] were common in earlier times.) But interlacing in a regular way to make a portable object was a much newer idea.

Cloth differs from mats and baskets in one important respect. Mats and baskets, which hold their shape, are made principally from stiff materials, whereas cloth (whose prime quality is floppiness) is made entirely from pliable string or thread. A little experimentation will convince the reader that one cannot compactly interlace several pieces of string that are simply lying about: one set of string must be held under tensiona substitute for stiffness. This "foundation" set of threads is called the warp, and the frame that holds it is the loom (Fig. 4). Then it's easy to lace in crossways a second setthe weft or woof (both from the same ancient linguistic root as weave ). There are also ways of holding several sets of material taut, as in braiding and other forms of plaiting and netting; but tension is basic to all of these.


Most cloth today is true weave, in which the weft simply goes over and under successive warp threads (Fig. 1c; possibly in a pattern) rather than twisting around the warp or around other weft (twining; Fig. 1ab). Because of the twist, twined fabrics are inherently more stable than those in true weave (consider how easily a torn edge of modern cloth frays out). Early cloth-like fabrics were therefore twined, as at Pavlov and in the earliest known cloth in the Western Hemisphere (from at least 8000 b.c.e.). The only advantage to true weave is that, unlike twining, the weaving process is mechanizable, making the production of true-weave cloth many times faster than that of twined cloth. When you can make so much so fast, the problem of unraveling becomes less important (and one can prevent raveling by binding the raw edges). Our first proof of true weaving occurs at Çatal Höyük, in central Turkey, around 6000 b.c.e., where we find a large amount of plain-weave linencoarse and fine; tight and open; hemmed, fringed, and with reinforced woven selvedges of three sortsand a very small amount of twined linen. The sheer statistics, as well as the fine and even weaving, tell us that these people knew and used the heddlethe invention that mechanized the loom.

Heddles are difficult to explain abstractly (although easy to use) and must have been very difficult to think up. The evidence suggests that the heddle was invented only once in human history and spread across the world from there. In 1900, when extensive ethnographic work was being done in remote parts of the earth, it was clear that many human cultures had never got the idea of weaving with heddles, or even, in a few cases, of any kind of weaving.

Let's imagine a loom in which the warp lies horizontally. The problem is to separate the warp threads so that one halfevery second threadis lifted. When the weft passes through the resulting "tunnel" (called the shed, from an old word for "divide"), it leaves its trail under one (lifted) thread, over the next (unlifted) thread, under the next, and so on. This can be accomplished easily by shoving a rod, called a shed bar, through the warp in exactly this way: then lift the rod, and you open the shed.

But the problem of lifting the other half of the warp, for what is called the countershed, is not so easy. You could stick a second rod into the opposite shed, but you will find your two rods interfere with each other hopelessly: one prevents the other from being raised. What you need is a discontinuous rod. Impossible.

The solution is to lay the second rod on top of the warp (not the obvious place), where it won't interfere with the shed rod, then make a series of string nooses (heddles), each of which is attached to this rod (the heddle bar) and to one warp thread. Among them, they catch up all the intervening warp threads that still need to be raised. Now raise the heddle bar, and you open the countershed.

The solution of this difficult three-dimensional problem produced the world's first complex machine, one with multiple moving parts, before 7000 b.c.e., more than a millennium before the invention of fired pottery and nearly four thousand years before the hot-working of metals.


Once heddles were invented, loom weaving spread rapidly, spawning different types of looms. Narrow band-looms must have come first, then wider ones, with the warp stretched horizontally (as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Southeast Asia), vertically (Syria), or aslant (Europe and Central and South America), and tensioned with twin beams (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syria), weights (Europe), or the body (China, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America) (see Figs. 2, 4, 5, and 10). On all these early looms, the heddle barsof which there might be several, for patterninghad to be shifted by hand to change the sheds.

The next conceptual development was to rig up pulley-linked treadles to use the feet for changing sheds, thereby freeing the hands to manipulate the weft more efficiently. Our first evidence for treadled looms comes in a manuscript of 1200. It shows the weft carried in a true shuttle (Fig. 6) rather than on a simple stick bobbin (as in Figs. 2 and 10). With the flick of one hand, this boat-shaped device can be shot rapidly through the wide-open shedlightly supported on the horizontal warp as it passes acrossand caught with the other hand, ready for the return shot a moment later when the stomp of one foot changes the shed. Again the new ideas, possibly inspired by information about Chinese practices, helped speed the work enormously.

To produce the elaborate silk brocades Chinese customers wanted, weavers eventually developed a system of pulling ("drawing") the pattern heddles up by means of strings attached to special heddle bars that caught up the requisite threads for each row of the pattern. Called the draw-loom, this extremely complicated device required both a weaver to insert the variously colored wefts and a "draw-boy" (or -girl) perched above the loom to pull the strings. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with fancy brocades in high demand in Europe, a French inventor from Lyon (center of the European silk industry), J. M. Jacquard, figured out how to mechanize the draw-loom process by punching onto cards the information about which heddles to raise for each successive row of the pattern (Fig. 7). The information was picked up mechanically, since the needles that slid through holes in a given card caused iron bars to lift hooks attached to the heddles. This idea of punch-hole patterns to encode and store information, already used in Lyon for simpler textile mechanization by 1730, facilitated the development of data storage and control mechanisms in the later nineteenth century, leading ultimately to the twentieth-century computer.


Why was textile production such a catalyst for new ideas? Presumably because textiles had such important uses that people were pushed hard to improve the technology. But what were these uses, and how did we become so dependent on them?

Cloth is so perishable that until the advent of writing we have very little direct evidence of how textiles were used in early eras. (Writing began in the Near East shortly before 3000b.c.e., by which time humans had been speaking for more than 100,000 years.) But we have a few interesting hints.

As already discussed, string alone enabled people to catch and hold more; nets did likewise. But cloth enabled people to cover and wrap things, and especially, because of its extreme flexibility, things of odd or lumpy shapelike the human body.

Already at 20,000 b.c.e., still in the Upper Paleolithic, we have a few representations of people wearing clothing clearly made from twisted fiber string. For example, a carved "Venus" (or fertility) figure from Lespugue, France, depicts a plump woman wearing a so-called string skirt, a belt-band supporting a row of strings that hang down like a skirt or apron (Fig. 8b). (The carver marked not only the twists on the strings but even how the strings are coming untwisted at the bottom.) Other Venuses of the same era from Russia (Figs. 8a and c) are shown wearing string skirts or twisted bands worn across the chest, while the Venus of Willendorf (Austria) wears a spirally worked cap on her head.

All this clothing, clearly, was fashioned from string. Yet none is of any use for either warmth or what we would call modesty. So why did Paleolithic people trouble to make such clothing?

Apparently to communicate messages. String skirts continue to appear on European figurines through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, by which time we begin to find actual string skirts preserved on buried women (in Denmark, where woolen garments often survive), and we see them occasionally in Iron Age Greece (in literature, and on figurines and vases). These womenboth those buried and those represented and talked aboutare clearly not children, but full-grown. In recent centuries such skirts still turn up as a key part of women's folk costumes (rural dress) throughout eastern Europe, from the Adriatic to the Urals and from southern Greece to Latvia.

Wherever we find representations or physical remains, the woman has reached child-bearing age; wherever we find direct information about the skirt's meaning, from Homer to the modern ethnographers, it invariably indicates something about the ability or willingness to bear children. In eastern Europe, in fact, we learn that girls are not allowed to wear them until they reach puberty, at which point they must do so. In short, the string skirt (or its surrogate) gives the viewer crucial biosocial information about both the females who wear it and those who do not.

A quite different piece of clothing, in these societies, signals that the woman is also married and therefore no longer available: a headdress completely covering the hair. (It was, and in some places still is, widely believed that a woman's fertility resides in her hair.) In modern Western societies, this message is conveyed by a piece of jewelry, the wedding ring.

What we see, then, is that humans started to devise clothing as a means of communication, and not, as is generally supposed, for warmth. We tend to forget that prolonged exposure to less-than-extreme cold inures the body to frigid weather (and, in fact, the humans in most depictions prior to the Bronze Age, which begins about 3000 b.c.e. in the Near East, are naked). Although not so flexible as language, clothing signals have the advantage that they do not die away instantly, but rather persist over time. If a woman wears a wedding ring, she doesn't have to keep saying "I'm taken" every time a man looks at her. The earliest signals sent by clothing that we can detect thus concern marital status. Such signals gradually formed a vital communication system parallel to but independent of language.

Although harder to pin down, early uses also include marking special events, particularly religious rites, and along with this, marking people central to those events. For instance, Upper Paleolithic cave art includes a depiction of what appears to be a dancing man clad in what look like a deerskin and antlers (Trois Frères, France), presumably involved in a ritual.

One of the earliest clear depictions we have of a religious scene is on a tall alabaster vase from the great Mesopotamian city of Uruk, shortly before 3000 b.c.e. (Fig. 9). The bottom registers depict the key domestic plants and animals (wheat and sheep); above them, lines of naked workmen carry baskets laden with agricultural produce. In the top register we see people wearing kilts or long robes presenting some of this produce to a long-robed woman who, judging from the banners hung next to her, is either the goddess Inanna or her priestess. So people already "dressed up" for religious ceremonies, and the textiles sometimes marked the religious space itself.

We still tend to dress more specially for church, synagogue, mosque, or temple; special shawls, robes, or hats usually mark key participants; and the place of worship is generally set off or "dressed" with special textiles, from altar cloths to prayer rugs to screens and pavilions. In fact, in many cultures (for example, Indonesia or classical Greece), the laying out or hanging of special textiles serves to make that space sacred for the moment, in order to carry out a wedding, funeral, judgment, or other rite. Anyone of that culture, seeing that textile, recognizes its significance, although others probably will not.

The Uruk vase shows us something beyond religious status, however. While the peasants are naked, the elite are coming to be distinguished by their clothing. This idea of social status as economic and political, rather than solely marital or religious, seems to begin with the concentration of masses of people into cities in the fourth millennium b.c.e. and to spread with the quest for metals that ensued.

Metals were the first important commodity that people could neither grow nor find in their backyards; obtaining them required organizing resources to support expeditions to mine ore or to trade for finished metal. This meant increasingly permanent stratification into leaders and followers (instead of temporary stratification for local warfare) and quickly led to the differentiation between those who had powerand easy access to imported goodsand those who did not. The ancient monuments show us that soon everyone in "civilized" areas took up clothing. Wearing clothes even came to be viewed as a mark of being civilized, to the Chinese and to many other cultures.

Clothing Design

Belts, cloaks, kiltsthe earliest garments depictedare mere wraparounds. The Egyptians are the first on record to think of sewing up cloth into a permanently formed dress, in their case a tube for the torso, held up by a strap over one or both shoulders and forming a sort of jumper (Figs. 10 and 11a). The earliest preserved body garment we possess is a First Dynasty linen shirt (c. 3100 b.c.e.) in which the idea of tubes has already been taken further to include sleeves (Figs. 11b and 12). Where one would expect the narrow supporting straps, two long rectangles of cloth were added, sewn up along the edges to form tube sleeves.

In the Near East, on the other hand, people seem to have worked from the concept of a garment hung from the shoulders. When they began sewing up clothes, rather than draping them anew with each wearing, they cut a neck hole in the middle of the cloth and sewed up the sides, eventually adding two tubes for sleeves (Fig. 11c). Our first extant example of this garment type was found in Tutankhamen's (c. 13701352 b.c.e.) tomb (though details show it to be a Syrian import). This general design, improved by opening the front for easy donning (Fig. 11d), was destined to survive till today as our basic upper garment. Our oldest examples of this construction occur on magnificently preserved Caucasoid mummies from the deserts of central Asia from 1000 b.c.e.

These same immigrants also preserve our first examples of another clever use of cloth tubes: trousers, invented shortly before 1000 b.c.e. by Eurasian horsemen for protection while riding horseback (Fig. 13). Again, this clothing design has come down to us as one of our basic garments.

As textile technology progressed, who wore what often became strictly codified. In Egypt, only the pharaoh folded his kilt with the left lappet on top; in Rome, only the emperor could wear a garment entirely of purple, and only noble citizens a purple stripe. This meant the viewer could read rank and station from another's costume, even, in some cases, down to the last degree. In China, for example, officials of all types sewed onto their robes fair-sized rectangular emblem-patches, known as rank badges, that specified their exact rank and position in the governmental hierarchy. (The highest emblem was the dragon, which only the emperor could wear.) Aztec warriors, for their part, displayed their degree of prowess in battle as special emblems on their cloaks. Less formally, but just as rigidly, European folk dress evolved in such a way that the knowledgeable viewer could look at a village woman's garb and determine that, for example, the wearer had reached puberty, was a Christian rather than Muslim or Jewish, was not particularly wealthy, came from a certain village or locality, and was a skilled and diligent worker. The elements that conveyed this information accrued one by one over twenty thousand years, to the point that the costume represents multiple layers of walking history.

Although much of this kind of information could be read from nineteenth-century traditional dress throughout Eurasia, the same could not be said in England, for an interesting reason. There the nobility habitually gave its cast-off clothing to the servants and tenant farmers, a practice that increasingly obscured an observer's ability to determine someone's standing by clothing alone, although poor fit, fraying edges, and outmoded fashion would give clues. Consequently there is no English "peasant costume" as in other parts of Europe. In this way, although court dress at the top of the scale was highly controlled, dress in the lower classes became more democratic, a trait that, to some extent, moved to North America with the colonists. In the early twenty-first century, the farther west you go across the United States, the less dress and its potential signals of status matter to many people. On West Coast college campuses it can be hard to tell students from professors, and at the Los Angeles Opera you may see everything from tuxedos and jeweled evening gowns to blue jeansand running shoes on both sexes. For the middle class, at least, what you wear during leisure time is more a function of how you feel that day than of how you wish others to perceive you. If anything, the Bronze Age idea of telling people your social rank through dress has been emphatically rejected, and westerners will complain about easterners' "class consciousness."

The same people, however, still send messages through the textiles they choose to wear by selecting them according to their personalitieswithin, of course, the general mores of their culture. Pluck them out of Los Angeles and drop them into, say, Ankara or Turfan, and their clothing readily signals their cultural origin.

Handmade textiles, too, have always had a personal element. Those who wove, embroidered, or knotted pile for home use are repeatedly documented as taking the attitude, "If I'm going to put this much work in, and use it all my life, I want it to look the way I want it to look." Hence no two rugs or aprons or blouses looked alike: the traditional was simultaneously personal.


Since about the third millennium, messages similar to those given by clothing have been transmitted by the textiles we use to dress our surroundings. We mentioned using cloth to set apart and adorn religious or sacred space, but textiles also adorned the home, as bedcovers, curtains, cushions, and so forth. Evidence from Çatal Höyük, Turkey, whence some of our earliest textile fragments (6000 b.c.e.), indicates that people slept and sat on low clay platforms covered with padding (dried grass? rushes?) topped with mats or textiles. The ancient Egyptians manufactured only plain white linen for normal household usesheets, bedspreads, towels, and clothingbut from at least 2000 b.c.e., they were importing fancily patterned woolen cloth from the Aegean to make into ostentatiously colorful canopies, apparently to advertise their social status. Around 1370 b.c.e. we also glimpse colorful rugs and cushions, again probably of imported fabric.

We read in classical Greek literature that cloth tents were set up temporarily on temple grounds for celebrations. These pavilions were constructed from textiles decorated with elaborately woven scenesrare and expensive textiles dedicated to the deities as votive gifts and stored in temple storehouses. Temples served as the treasuries, and indeed, museums, of the ancient world, just as cathedrals did in medieval times, and the rarer the gift, the higher the giver in people's estimation.

Among nomadic peoples of Eurasia, cloth furnishings were even more important than among their sedentary neighbors, since cloth was highly utilitarian yet portable. They made their houses out of collapsible wicker frames covered with felt (densely matted wool) and fastened with colorful woven straps that signaled to visitors whose yurt (felt tent) it was (Fig. 14). Their possessions were stored in chests covered with brightly patterned felt padding, and their precious china teacups were carried in padded felt pouches. Pile carpets formed the (movable) floors, and colorful interior hangings further insulated and adorned the walls. Even the plates for dry foods were often made of felt. Because textiles were so central, they were an important form of gift exchange: in frozen burial sites of the fourth century b.c.e., in the Altai Mountains, excavators found saddle cloths of Chinese embroidered silk from far to the east, and of Persian woolen tapestry from far to the west, as well as of local polychrome felt cutwork.

As the world became more interconnected, trade in textiles became increasingly important. We hear of such trade already between Mesopotamia and Syria before 2000 b.c.e. and between Assyria and Anatolia (roughly modern Turkey) in 1800 b.c.e. between China and India in the second century b.c.e., and between China and Rome in the early centuries c.e. (along the newly opened, so-called Silk Road). Long voyages of discovery were undertaken by Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to open up more trade with the Orient in textiles, as well as in spices and other commodities, leading to the accidental opening of routes to the New World. As such trade became serious international business, textile wars also broke outthe struggles among the Spanish, British, and Dutch over the wool trade among themfor, as the middle class rose after the breakdown of feudalism, more and more people wanted to display their status by means of elegant textiles for the furnishings of their parlors as well as their clothing. Imported fabrics spelled luxury, and their display announced those ever-crucial social messages.

See also Class ; Communication of Ideas ; Dress ; Life Cycle ; Trade .


Adovasio, J. M., Olga Soffer, and B. Klima. "Palaeolithic Fibre Technology: Interlaced Woven Finds from Pavlov I, Czech Republic, c. 26,000 year, B.P." Antiquity 70 (1996): 526534. Earliest preserved textile remains yet found.

Anawalt, Patricia Reiff. "A Comparative Analysis of the Costumes and Accoutrements of the Codex Mendoza." In The Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt, vol. 1, 103150. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Aztec clothing described and analyzed.

Barber, E. J. W. The Mummies of Ürümchi. New York: Norton, 1999. Superbly preserved textile finds from prehistoric Central Asia.

. "On the Antiquity of East European Bridal Clothing." In Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs about Protection and Fertility, edited by Linda Welters, 1331. Oxford: Berg, 1999. History of the string skirt and its relatives.

. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. The majority of the data in this entry is documented in this compendium of archaeological textile data from 20,000b.c.e. to about 400 b.c.e., from Iran to Britain. Includes massive bibliography and index.

. Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: Norton, 1994. Broudy, Eric. The Book of Looms. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1979. Lavishly illustrated, with well-selected bibliography.

Emery, Irene. The Primary Structures of Fabrics: An Illustrated Classification. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum, 1966.

Geijer, Agnes. A History of Textile Art. Translated by R. Tanner. London: Pasold Research Fund, 1979. Classic general history of textiles.

Rudenko, S. I. Frozen Tombs of Siberia: The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen. Translated by M. W. Thompson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Superbly preserved textiles from prehistoric Siberia.

Sherratt, Andrew. "Plough and Pastoralism: Aspects of the Secondary Products Revolution." In Patterns of the Past: Studies in Honour of David Clark, edited by I. Hodder, G. Isaac, and N. Hammond, 261305. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

E. J. W. Barber