Origins Part 1

To begin to answer the origins question let's talk about textiles in general. The wearing of clothing is a uniquely human practice. Not even other primate species use textiles or even animal hides. Humans are remarkably hairless unlike other mammals and our needs to both keep our skin safe from the elements and injury drove us to begin clothing ourselves. 

As an aside, there is an interesting study looking at the human body louse as being the reason we started clothing ourselves. That in combination with migrating our of equatorial Africa into more temperate and later, colder climes. See Travis, John. "The Naked Truth? Lice hint at a recent origin of clothing". Archived from the original on 4 March 2007. Retrieved 15 April 2007, for the full story.

 EST. 10,500 TO 11,000 YEARS BEFORE PRESENT COPYRIGHT AUGUST 31, 2012 PETER A. BOSTROM Cast of a bone needle from the Buhl site.

EST. 10,500 TO 11,000 YEARS BEFORE PRESENT COPYRIGHT AUGUST 31, 2012 PETER A. BOSTROM Cast of a bone needle from the Buhl site.

The archaeological record tells us that people were making finely turned bone needles and wooden awls as early as 40,000 years ago. The earliest definitive proof of the use of needles comes from the Solutrean culture, which existed in France from 21,000 to 17,000 years ago. We can extrapolate a bit and imagine these fine tools were being used to manipulate animal skins. Animal sinew worked very well as a sort of thread to bind hides together. We also see evidence in the record of embroidery with shells and bone beads. Here is a rendering of a burial of a boy and girl buried in Sunghir, Russia around 28,000 years ago. 

  Am J Phys Anthropol.  2004 Jul;124(3):189-98.

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2004 Jul;124(3):189-98.

These two children were thought to be wearing furs and skins but they were elaborately embroidered. Clearly there was an appreciation of not just covering the body, but decorating ourselves with this clothing.

Even more exciting, we know from the archaeological record that people were weaving vegetal fibers this early as well. Even in places like the Southeast US, people were using vegetal fibers for decoration on pottery and for use as fishing nets, weirs, baskets and more. Fiber, whether vegetal or animal, does not preserve very well so most of our evidence of this is from more permanent artifacts like pottery. 

 Prehistoric Textile Art of Eastern United States Thirteenth Annual Report of the Beaurau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1891-1892, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1896 pages 3-46

Prehistoric Textile Art of Eastern United States Thirteenth Annual Report of the Beaurau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1891-1892, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1896 pages 3-46

Some archaeologists have perfected the techniques of this type of work and reproduce it to act as a sample and study guide. 

 Making cord marked pottery with a paddle. From the Texas Beyond History website.

Making cord marked pottery with a paddle. From the Texas Beyond History website.

Here we see a modern example of how cord marked pottery was made. A flat stick is wrapped with spun/twisted fiber and with one hand inside an unfired clay pot against the pot wall, the other hand slaps the stick flat side against the outer wall. The pattern is then created and the pot is then fired, sealing the pattern with the heat. 

The earliest example from the archaeological record of such use of vegetal fibers is 27,000 years old and comes from  Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic.

But they weren't just using vegetal fibers for making pots and utilitarian items, they were also dying them! At Dzudzuana Cave in the modern day Republic of Georgia, archaeologists made an incredible find. "In 2009, researchers (Kvavadze et al.) reported the discovery of flax (Linum usitatissimum) fibers in all levels of the Upper Paleolithic occupations, with a peak in level C. A few of the fibers in each of the levels were colored in hues of turquoise, pink and black to gray. One of the threads was twisted, and several were spun. The ends of the fibers show evidence of being purposely cut. Kvavadze and colleagues surmise that this represents the production of colorful textiles for some purpose, perhaps clothing. Other elements that may be related to the production of clothing discovered at the site include fur hair and the micro-remains of skin beetles and moths." 

 Photo of the sprang stocking, or sleeve, from Tegle, Norway. It also has a tablet-woven border. Dated 3-5th c. in "Prehistoric Textiles" by E.J.W. Barber.

Photo of the sprang stocking, or sleeve, from Tegle, Norway. It also has a tablet-woven border. Dated 3-5th c. in "Prehistoric Textiles" by E.J.W. Barber.

AMS Radiocarbon dates for these fibers are as follows: 

  • Unit A: ~5,000-6,300 RCYBP, 6000 cal BP, Neolithic, 30 flax fibers, five dyed

That means we have evidence of dyed fibers as early as 36,000 years ago! 

Prehistoric textile experts suggest that the earliest textile (not just skins sewn together) was probably felt. Based on surviving samples (from the Middle East, parts of China and India due to arid conditions), we know early clothing was made of full loom widths which were draped over the body and then pinned or tied down. We see evidence of this in many pieces of art from this period. 

At the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, archaeological evidence reveals textiles were used to wrap the dead and have been carbon dated to 8,000 years ago (Jenkins, pp. 39–47).  "Evidence exists of flax cultivation from c. 8000 BC in the Near East, but the breeding of sheep with a wooly fleece rather than hair occurs much later, c. 3000 BC. " (Jenkins, pp. 39-47).

In the Indus Valley, people used spun cotton for clothing as early as 7,000 years ago. There is a story of cotton called the Vegetable Lamb. When Sir John Mandeville returned from India to the court of Edward III, he spoke of a wonderful tree that bore tiny lambs on the ends of its branches. Stories of these “vegetable lambs” spread throughout England. But in 1641, Kircher of Avignon examined cotton and determined it was actually a plant and not an animal.

But cotton has been spun, woven and dyed for many uses since prehistoric times in India, Egypt and China. Many hundreds of years prior to Mandeville’s “vegetable lamb” story, cotton textiles of incredible quality were woven in India and this skill spread to the Mediterranean countries. Arab traders traded fine muslin and calico fabrics to Italy and Spain in the 1st century A.D.  Cotton cultivation was introduced to Spain by the Moors in the 9th century and by the 14th century cotton and linen were both being produced in Venice and Milan.  Very little cotton was imported to England before the 15th century; thus Mandeville’s confusion. But by the 17th century, the East India Company was bringing rare fabrics to court from India.

    In the New World, Native Americans skillfully spun and wove cotton to create beautiful garments and tapestries. There are even fragments of cotton fabrics found in pre-Incan tombs in the Peruvian Andes. The image below is an example of a Byzantine tapestry from the 5th century. 

 Textile Fragment, 5th century. Byzantine; Made in Egypt Polychrome wool and undyed linen, tapestry, weave; 25 5/8 x 38 1/4 in. (65.1 x 97.2 cm)

Textile Fragment, 5th century. Byzantine; Made in Egypt Polychrome wool and undyed linen, tapestry, weave; 25 5/8 x 38 1/4 in. (65.1 x 97.2 cm)

Metallic fibers such as gold and silver were generally core spun around a cotton or silk core, sometimes intentionally letting the color of the core show through. Then these fibers were woven into the fabric itself. Generally reserved for royalty or very wealthy elites, we have evidence of this Cloth of Gold which was woven on Byzantine looms from the 7th to 9th centuries. There is also archaeological evidence of this type of spinning and weaving of metallic fibers in the 12th century during Genghis Khan's rule. 

So you see, the use of fibers, whatever their origin, goes back a long ways. In Part 2 we'll learn about the beginnings of animal fiber production and see how it went from using matted fur and hair to make felted garments, to actually spinning and weaving and knitting these fibers to make strong, durable textiles. 

Coming up on Friday, Origins Part 2!