Weaving: A (brief) History

Oldest known textile in the world

Oldest known textile in the world

In 2016, researchers identified the oldest known textile in the world. A 6,200-year-old fabric from Huaca, Peru was found dyed with Indigo and made from cotton. Indigo itself is a notoriously complex colour to produce - even now - and demonstrates the Andean people’s technologically advanced society. Much of these advances in textile innovation were originally attributed to the Europeans after their conquests West however the dyeing, spinning and weaving techniques developed by the South Americans was truly transformative of textiles today with researchers attributing future trends to this ancient civilization; including the wardrobe staple - blue denim jeans!

The exact date of the first weaving looms has never been conclusively established but it is believed to be between the 6th-5th millennium BC which places this first cotton textile right in this period. Using preserved textiles found in archaeological digs, it has been established that the first form of weaving was band-weaving. Because of the nomadic lifestyle that people lived in this period they were able to make long strips of fabric while traveling on horse back by attaching one end to their belts and weaving with their fingers. These strips would be sewn together and used to make larger pieces of cloth that would be wrapped around the body like kilts.

Minoan man with bandwoven kilt.

Minoan man with bandwoven kilt.

Large, heavy looms, closer to what is used today, were not first developed when people settled down to living in permanent housing. While the majority of looms, even to this day, are made from wood there are components that are not and therefore not so perishable. Original looms used clay weights and bone instruments that are able to stand the test of time and be roughly dated now. In warmer climates are the world - Syria, Iraq, Iran - these would be horizontal and used in the courtyard. In the cooler climates - Greece, Italy they would be vertical and able to be used in the home.

Weaving, and the loom, were at the center of the family. Women would commune and weave fabric for their loved ones, and would teach their children the skill as well. It was only much, much later that weaving would move out of the home and become an industry.

Jumping forward a few millennia, the first foot powered looms came into being with evidence found dating from 298AD in an area of modern Turkey. It wasn’t until closer to 700AD that Islamic parts of the Middle East pushed for greater amounts of fabric to be woven as demand for covering from head to foot became a requirement. By the 1100s the Europeans, in particular the Moorish Spanish developed stronger looms lifted from the floor. These allowed the weaver to use their hands to throw the shuttle and their feet to change the heddles making the process faster than it had ever been.

Modern Floor Loom

Modern Floor Loom

Through the 1300 and 1400s war, famine and plague ravaged most of Europe over the next few centuries and moved the loom out of the home and into communal buildings. Previously textiles had been made for personal use in each family or sold at fairs and it was in this time that guilds were established . This changed weaving into a coordinated process and with that came industry and the trade of woven textiles.

The next major developments in weaving didn’t come for few centuries when in 1733 John Kay developed and patented the ‘flying shuttle’. This transformed the industry and kickstarted the industrial revolution. It was so important because it allowed for wider pieces to be woven and at a much faster rate. This created a booming textile industry in Britain and was adopted all around the world. Along with the Cotton Gin, developed by Eli Whitney, in 1793 that speeded up cotton production, the textile industry was transformed. Innovation happened very quickly with the designing of the automated loom in 1784 by Edmund Cartwright. By 1850 there were 260,000 power looms in operation in England centered mostly in Lancashire and the Pennines. In Germany weaving was concentrated in the Wupper Valley, Ruhr Region and Upper Silesia, in Spain it was concentrated in Catalonia while in the United States it was in New England. The Industrial Revolution was underpinned by cheap labour, textile manufacturing innovation and steam power. This lead to an economic boom.

However while the automation of textile production and the Industrial Revolution as a whole transformed the world, there was always going to be winners and losers. While there was suddenly much greater opportunity for women to work in the mills, the reduced need for skilled handweavers lead to many job losses, reduced wages as well as the rise of child workers.

Despite the decline of British textile manufacturing from the 1960s to the present day, continued fine tuning and innovation occurred over the next century when in 1984 George Draper and Son made the first fully automated self-feeding shuttle loom.

Now in the present there are shuttle-less and completely computerised looms used all around the world. However handweaving, not dissimilar to what was being using before the 18th century, is still commonly practiced and has had a resurgence in recent years with a return to craft. Britain, while declining on mass manufacture of textiles as production has moved east to China and India predominantly, is still known for quality and craftsmanship. Therefore major fashion houses, such as Burberry and Chanel, still produce some of their fabrics in the UK at specialised mills for cashmere and wool.