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Textiles, the broad term used to encompass the range of material objects created from fiber, cord, fabric and/or string—and manipulated by weaving, tying, sewing, knitting, braiding, and other techniques—have been a part of human culture since prehistoric times. Textiles can be studied to examine not only a peoples’ aesthetic sense and development, but to provide insight about socioeconomic, political, and cultural aspects of their lives.
Prehistoric people all over the world twisted fibers from animals or plants into cordage to bind objects together, knot fishnets, sew skins, and string beads. In many different locations, they looped or interlaced the cordage into fabrics for both utilitarian and decorative purposes. They incorporated designs within the fabric construction or decorated the surface with embroidery or pigments. When worn, these fabrics provided protection from foul weather, insects, and perhaps evil spirits. Cloth also offered wearers many possibilities to express identity and individuality.
Archaeology and linguistics provide evidence of early textile production. Early spinners in many locations developed techniques to make cordage or yarns by twisting animal hair or bundles of fibers from plant stems and leaves. They invented the spindle, a shaped stick with a weight at the larger end, to twist the fibers uniformly and store the spun yarn. Archaeologists seldom find spindle sticks, but often clay or stone weights have survived. Spinners in many countries still hand-spin yarns with a spindle, although some twist long plant fibers into yarn by rolling them on their bare thighs as their ancestors did.
Early people found a number of ways to arrange the spun yarns into fabric. The earliest extant examples, which date from around 6000 BCE came from a cave in present-day Israel at Nahal Hemar and archaeological excavations in Turkey at Catal Huyuk. The fabrics from these and other early sites contain fibers, like flax, from plant stems. Mesopotamian weavers along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers wove flax fabrics on horizontal looms. Wall paintings in tombs and three-dimensional funerary models also show Egyptians controlling stiff flax yarns on a horizontal ground loom. Basically this loom had two wooden beams spaced apart with yarns wrapped back and forth between the two beams, which were held in place by pegs beaten into the ground. This set of yarns is called the warp. The Egyptians interlaced another yarn over and under the tightly stretched warp yarns to produce a woven fabric. This intersecting set of crosswise yarns is called the weft. The width and length of the loom determined the size of the fabric. Plant fibers contain mostly cellulose, which does not dye easily, so Egyptians most often used undyed linens. They showed wealth and prestige by the fineness of the yarns and the whiteness of the fabric.
Early weavers north of the Mediterranean developed a vertical loom by suspending the warp yarns from a horizontal beam held by upright supports on either side. The warp yarns hung down from the beam. To provide order and tension, the weavers tied the lower ends of the warps to clay or stone weights. The weaver then interlaced the weft yarns beginning at the top of this warp-weighted loom. Archaeologists have found loom weights dating as early as Neolithic times in Crete, Greece, Switzerland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. Discovering a row of weights between two postholes provides clear evidence that people wove on vertical looms even when no yarn or fabric remains.
Figurines, wall paintings, pendants, and extant textiles from Egypt to China show the development of other types of looms. Most often the spinners and weavers depicted are women, who could combine these tasks with childcare. Over time in many locations, women produced textiles for domestic use; men became more involved when the cloth had potential for trade. Textiles have been a major trade commodity since ancient times, making a significant contribution to the economy of many areas.
As sheep became domesticated around 4000 BCE, weavers produced fabrics containing wool yarns. Sumerian cuneiform tablets recorded information about sheep breeds. Wool is a protein fiber and is easily dyed, and Mesopotamian figures and wall paintings show colorful fabric patterns. Wool had limited use by pharonic Egyptians, but in the New Kingdom, they wove hieroglyphic designs in linen fabrics. The tomb of Thutmose IV contained examples of this tapestry weaving with weft yarns woven in only where their color is needed. They are tightly packed, obscuring the warp yarns. Later Egyptian Christian Coptic weavers expertly used this discontinuous weft-faced tapestry weave to create pictorial textiles. The Coptic influence is particularly obvious in surviving Syrian, Byzantine, and Persian textiles. Far Eastern weavers also produced tapestry and figured weaves, but they used different fibers.
Spinners in Tibet and China spun fibers from the stems of hemp plants. People also cultivated hemp (Cannabis) in Europe, but whether they used it for cordage or narcotic smoke is undetermined. Wild silkworm grew many places in Europe and Asia, but the moths cut through the cocoons damaging the fine filaments they had spun and leaving very short fibers that made yarn construction difficult. In the production of cultivated silk from Bombyx mori moths, the Chinese killed the moths before they could harm the filaments in the cocoons. They unwound many yards of filament from undamaged cocoons. Raising silkworms and their food source, mulberry leaves, is a very labor-intensive enterprise; the process is called sericulture.
The trade of colorful, patterned silk fabrics expanded westward by the late fifth century BCE, and trade routes developed into the renowned Silk Roads. The Chinese traded their silk fabrics but not their production secrets, although by the sixth century CE weavers in the Byzantine Empire were producing Bombyx mori silk textiles that all of Europe envied. Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, show that lavish patterned fabrics were worn in the court of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.
The other natural fiber that clothed East and West, royalty and peasant, male and female was cotton. Originating in the Indus Valley by the third millennium BCE, cotton is the seed-hair fiber of a bush or tree (Gossypium). Like they did with silk, traders took cotton fabrics westward, and archaeologists have found examples at Egyptian and Mesopotamian sites. A number of classical writers described a plant on which “wool” grew and explained that gardeners chose cotton plants because they have blossoms of two different colors, depending on their maturity. Cotton grows in a variety of colors and is easier to dye than flax. Indian dyers perfected the art of coloring cotton. Beginning earlier than 2000 BCE, they made dyes that were colorfast by using mordants, metallic salts that minimize the fading of dyes by light or laundering. Textile workers in other early civilizations shared the knowledge of mordants, most often using iron and aluminum salts.
A significant trade of dyestuffs occurred along the Silk Roads and many other Old World routes. Coloring wool, silk, and cotton yarns and fabrics made them more valuable economically. Dyers played a major role in textile production, although they and their dye pots often had to exist on the fringes of settlements because the fermentation required for plant dyes as well as the use of urine and dung in the dyeing and printing processes gave off unpleasant odors. Early plant dyes included madder—orange-red to purple, depending on the mordant; indigo—blue; safflower— red or yellow; saffron—yellow; and weld—yellow. Like mulberry trees left from futile efforts at sericulture, madder and indigo plants, once a valuable commodity, now grow wild in many places.
Two animal dyes that produced vibrant reds came from a Mediterranean sea snail and a female shield louse that grew on trees. The Minoans of Crete probably perfected and certainly distributed the production of dye from the sea snails around the Mediterranean, although the Phoenicians are given credit for this dye, which is called Tyrian purple. The most expensive ancient dye, it is the color associated with emperors and royal courts. Kermes, the dye from the shield louse, excelled in dyeing silk and wool. Central and South American dyers also used two similar dyes. They perfected the process of dyeing with the color from a small sac in sea snails and from a louse that lives on cactus plants. The latter, cochineal, replaced kermes and became one of the most valuable New World exports until synthetic dyes began to replace natural dyes in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Historically the dyeing process has not been as simple as dunking a piece of fabric into a pot of dye. Sun-bleaching fabrics to reduce the natural off-white colors required time and space. Dyes and mordants needed preparation, and the multistep dyeing process took days to complete. Dyers were among the earliest chemists, the earliest herbal doctors, and the earliest artists. They colored not only pieces of cloth but also skeins of yarn, which were then woven or braided into colorful patterns.
Many cultures have produced patterned fabrics for centuries by applying a resist in chosen areas to prevent dye absorption. Resists can be wound around yarns or fixed to a fabric. The Indonesian word for patterned fabrics woven of yarns that have been wrapped in sections to prevent dye penetration is ikat. Asian, African, and Guatemalan ikats are internationally fashionable today. Japanese dyers produce a very marketable product called shibori, an expertly patterned tie-dyed cloth. African dyers create large tie-dye designs, popular in T-shirts today. Wax or paste resists paint. When blocked onto a cloth before dyeing, it produces a patterned fabric called by the Indonesian word batik. Indonesians traditionally use wax to make their batiks; Africans use cassava paste while Japanese make a rice paste. In the eighteenth century, resist pastes included chemicals that prevented a dye from fixing to a fabric. Popular indigo-resist prints in colonial America had large floral patterns influenced by the imported Indian calicoes.
A patterned fabric, even a plaid, offers marketable variations. From the earliest times, weavers devised methods of raising sets of warp yarns before inserting a weft yarn between the warps on a loom. When the weaver raised every other warp yarn, inserted a weft yarn across the width of the fabric, raised the alternate set of warps, and laid in another weft yarn, she produced a plain weave. By varying the pattern in which she raised each warp, she made other weave structures such as twills. The earliest hand-operated mechanism for selectively raising warp yarns was a string that encircled alternate warps connecting them to a rod that could pull them up away from the other set of yarns. The term for the string loops controlling the warp yarns is heddles. Over time, improvements to this use of heddles allowed weavers to construct fabrics with complex patterns.
The loom with the most complicated control over warp patterning was developed in the Middle East and Far East, although the Chinese often receive credit for it. The operation of this loom, called a drawloom, required two people: one controlled the frames or harnesses that held the heddles to make a plain-weave base structure and inserted the weft yarns; the other sat above the loom to control the patterning warps. This second person was often a child; child labor has been prevalent worldwide in the textile industry—in homes, workshops, and mills.
Tapestry-woven fabrics, such as cashmere shawls from Kashmir, are very labor intensive and cannot be made by machines. Weaving mechanically-controlled patterns required less time than tapestry weaving and produced a very marketable product, particularly if made of silk. For a thousand years, Chinese, Japanese, Syrian, Byzantine, and Persian workshops produced exotic figured silks on variations of the drawloom. Competition from Palermo, Sicily, and Lucca, Italy, by the thirteenth century introduced fabrics that evolved into the luxurious velvets of the Italian Renaissance from Florence and other Italian city-states. Many of these fabrics are portrayed in fifteenth-century paintings and tapestries.
The Italians dominated figured-silk production through the sixteenth century, when instead of velvets, fashionable silks had patterns created by colored supplementary weft yarns. Under the guidance of Jean-Baptist Colbert, finance minister under Louis XIV, drawloom weaving in Lyon expanded. By the eighteenth century, Lyon’s damasks and brocaded fabrics surpassed Italian production, with some competition from weavers in Spitalfields outside of London. Many Spitalfields textile workers had fled persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France, and the demise of textile production in Palermo, Spain, and Flanders was also the result of worker migration caused by political unrest and religious persecution.
Jacquard attachments on looms, a nineteenth century English invention, revolutionized figured-silk weaving, as well as the production of carpets, imitation Kashmir shawls, coverlets, knits, and machinemade laces. Lyon apartment houses with excessively tall ceilings on the top floors reflect the height and light requirements of these looms. This early computerized system used a series of punched cards that determined which warp yarns were raised to create a pattern. This basic system provides control for looms, lace, and knitting machines today.
Jacquard’s invention also affected the production of lace, first made by hand in the sixteenth century. Like figured silks, bobbin and needle laces reflected conspicuous consumption by the wealthy. The English development of machines to make knits (sixteenth century) and fine net (late eighteenth century) came before more complicated equipment that imitated handmade lace. Leavers lace machines with Jacquard attachments made the best imitations and still do today in England and France. Raschel knitting machines make the least expensive modern laces, which are not as durable as other laces because of their looped construction.
Another fabric became as valuable as lace and patterned- silk cloth during the seventeenth century. Brightly painted and printed cottons from India appealed to Europeans, and various Western trade companies set up the production of these calicoes or chintzes in East India. To obtain a share of the profits being made on the Indian prints, entrepreneurs in England and France began printing imported cotton fabric. The popularity of the imported and domestically printed calicoes forced silk and wool producers to seek legislative restraints on the importation, local production, and use of the prints. After the bans were lifted in the mid-eighteenth century, printers, having perfected the use of mordants, sold many yards of block-printed cottons to a public whose desire had not been abated by the legislation.
Laws passed to govern consumer expenditures, called sumptuary laws, have seldom been effective, especially in regulating printed cottons, lace, and figured silks. Whether to protect local production, as in this case, to maintain social order by limiting consumption based on income, or to limit worldly excesses as determined by religious groups, sumptuary laws often fostered the development of illegal methods for consumers to obtain a product.
Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf of Jouy near Paris was the most successful early calico printer. Fast dyes and well-cut blocks brought his manufactory fame and fortune. He was one of the printers in the latter eighteenth century who experimented with faster methods of printing. The result was printing cloth with an engraved copper plate on which the design was incised into the metal surface. Copperplate printing produced large-scale monochromatic patterns with very fine lines, which were not possible with wood blocks. Ever-seeking to increase production, inventors finally perfected an engraved copper cylinder printing machine through which fabric moved continuously. By the 1820s European and American shops produced printed cottons at price levels all could afford. Inventions by Englishmen John Kay (1733), James Hargreaves (1767), Richard Arkwright (1770s), and Samuel Crompton (1779) greatly increased the production of spun cotton yarn in England. Two Americans also made significant contributions. Eli Whitney’s 1793 cotton gin made large-scale cotton production economically feasible. Samuel Slater, who had worked for Arkwright, partnered with two Providence, Rhode Island, merchants and set up a cotton spinning factory in Pawtucket. This manufactory, now the Slater Mill Historic Site, was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.
The Nineteenth Century and After
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, spinning was no longer the rate-determining step in cloth production. Spinning mills in England and southern New England had thousands of spindles. With the perfection of water-powered looms after 1815 and cylinder printing in the twenties, printed cotton cloth that had been available only to the rich in the previous century sold for as little as ten cents per yard. Hand-production of cloth diminished significantly in western Europe and the United States. Dye technology also kept pace with other advancements, the most significant being the discovery in 1856 by William Perkin of mauve, the first synthetic dye. By the end of the century, most classes of dyes recognized today had been developed. Cylinder-printing technology changed little after the mid-nineteenth century and remained the backbone of the industry until rotary-screen printing took over in the 1990s.
An additional change in the 150 years of printing with dyes also occurred then. Improvements in formulations to print pigments that are insoluble in water increased the amount of pigment printing significantly. In the twenty-first century, rotary screen-printing with pigments is economically and environmentally expedient.
The textile world changed irrevocably around 1910 with the commercial production of a filament regenerated from cellulose that came to be known as rayon. With improvements in the strength of rayon filaments and the introduction of acetate in the mid 1920s, the quest for an inexpensive silk-like fiber was accomplished. In the late 1930s, the accidental discovery of nylon led to the first synthetic fiber, which played a significant role in World War II. Polyester in the early 1950s, followed by wrinkle-resistant finishes on cotton, introduced the “wash-and-wear” era. A succession of new fibers, dyes to color them, and finishes to alter their properties continued to invigorate the textile market. New polymers and finishes offer elasticity, superior strength, antimicrobial properties, ultraviolet-light protection, and flame, soil, water, and impact resistance. The future is bright for consumer products and also new applications in the fields of medicine, electronics, aeronautics, and geotextiles.
Textiles have influenced economics, technology, art, religion, government, customs, and many other human endeavors. The production, design, and use of textiles are also a mirror held up to history.
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