One of the fibers we have the most and earliest archaeological information for is wool. Wild sheep were originally more hairy than wooly. The archaeological record indicates sheep were domesticated between 9 and 11, 000 years ago. But evidence from a few Iranian sites shows people began selecting for more "wool like" coats on sheep around 6,000 years ago. So over time, this quality was bred into the sheep.
Prior to the spinning of wool to make yarn or thread, it's believed felting was the main method of wool production for fabric creation. Many cultures have myths surrounding the origins of feltmaking. Among the ancient Sumerians the discovery of felting was attributed to Urnamman, a famous Sumerian war hero. In the story of Saint Clement and Saint Christopher we are told that men fleeing persecution stuffed wool into their sandals to protect their feet. At the end of their journey, all the movement, sweat and heat created felt.
The oldest archeological evidence for felting hails from Turkey. In wall paintings dated from 8500 to 5,000 year ago show evidence of felt applique. A tomb in Southern Siberia contained felted fiber found with a nomadic tribal elder dating from 7,000 years ago.
The earliest evidence we have of woven wool garments dates to two to three thousand years ago (Smith M.S., Barbara; Mark Aseltine, Gerald Kennedy DVM (1997). Beginning Shepherd's Manual, Second Edition. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. ISBN 0-8138-2799-X.).
Wooly sheep were introduced into Europe from the Near East around 6,000 years ago and the earliest known woolen fabric (dating to around 3,500 years ago) was found preserved in a Danish Bog. In this example below, only the arms and legs of the bog body were preserved but the legs were covered in a woven wool textile.
But in order to weave wool or any other protein fiber for that matter, one must first remove it from the animal. Prior to the invention of shears, wool was literally plucked off the animals. Some folks still do this with Angora rabbits and sheep. It's a time consuming process to be sure but there are no cut ends, which lends a full staple fiber.
Then the fiber must be spun to create yarn or thread. The earliest spinning of fibers consisted of rolling fibers down the thigh with the hand and creating thread, yarn or cordage. There is even evidence of a string skirt from the Upper Paleolithic 20,000 years ago! Clearly this technique was happening with all kinds of fibers for a very long time.
For the past 9000 years or so, spindles of some form or other have been used. Spindles and spindle whorls have been found in archaeological sites all over the world. The spindle whorls tend to preserve better as they are usually made of stone, ceramic or shell, materials more permanent than wood which usually makes up the spindle staffs. Here are a selection of spindle whorls from sites around the world.
Spindles were used for thousands of years for fiber production and are still used today for craft production of fiber. Distaffs, which held unspun fibers in preparation for spinning, are not much used today but we have plenty of evidence of their past uses.
Spinning wheels appeared in Asia in the 11th century and gradually replaced spindles and distaffs for spinning greater quantities of fiber much quicker. By the Industrial Revolution, new machines such as the Spinning Jenny and the Spinning Frame displaced the wheel.
The earliest clear depictions of the spinning wheel come from Baghdad and China.
From there its use spread throughout the Old World.
Once spun, the next logical step was weaving. Humans have and continue to weave, all kinds of materials for all kinds of purposes. Woven thatch makes a great roof for a structure, woven reeds make great baskets and can even be made waterproof. But it is woven fibers made for clothing which we are really interested in here.
There is some evidence weaving may go all the way back to the Paleolithic Era (some 2.6 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago). There have been indistinct textile impressions found at the Dolní Věstonice site in modern day Czech Republic. This site dates to around 26,000 years ago. "The site is unique in that it has been a particularly abundant source of prehistoric artifacts (especially art) dating from the Gravettian period, which spanned roughly 27,000 to 20,000 B.C. In addition to the abundance of art, this site also includes carved representations of men, women, and animals, along with personal ornaments, human burials and enigmatic engravings." (Formicola, V., Pontrandolif, A., and Svoboda, J. 2001: The Upper Paleolithic Triple Burial of Dolni Vestonice: Pathology and Funerary Behavior. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 115:372-374.)
So we see from all these dates and all this evidence that fiber work really reaches all the way back to our origins as a species. Is it any wonder that it factors so completely into the mythologies human cultures created? In our next lesson, we'll look at color. The origins of dyes and the beginnings of colorwork. We'll also learn about the arrival of knitting on the scene of fiber work and art.