Textiles are integral to our lives today, making up the clothes we wear and the curtains we hang in our homes. So it is only natural that they have an extensive history that stretches back to ancient civilizations and goes through to modern times. With numerous technological developments and cultural breakthroughs inspired by textiles, they are indeed an essential part of human history. That is not surprising, considering how humans have worked hard to create them over the years. This ‘history of textiles’ article will give you a glimpse into how materials have developed throughout human history and discuss some of their many uses then and today.
History of Textiles- Overview
The first known humans to wear clothing were the hominin homo heidelbergensis, who lived during the prehistoric Pleistocene era. Researchers have placed the origin of cave paintings between 100,000 to 500,000 years ago when they first saw primitive clothing. Needlepoint embroidery has been traced back to the area now comprising Siberia, South Africa, Slovenia, Russia, China, Spain, and France, some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Over 30,000 years ago, caves in Georgia yielded some of the oldest examples of dyed fibers. Net gauges, spindle needles, and weaving sticks, among other textile-related items, date back to at least 5000 BCE.
How It All Started
The Ancient world saw a wide spread of fabrics and textiles. That said, the ancient cultures of India, Egypt, China, sub-Saharan Africa, Eurasia, South America, and North and East Africa all engaged in textile production. Before the Middle Ages, the two most common kinds. A broadcloth beam distinguished these onto which was woven a cloth covering. With a two-beam loom, the entire width of the loom was draped or fastened into place. Cloth manufacture increased in India and the Ancient Near East during the Bronze Age (around the present-day Middle East). The famed Silk Road Trade Route was used by Europeans to transport textile knowledge and resources from China to Egypt and finally to Rome. The Iron Age was a successful stepping stone to the later Medieval era. Women and men wore woven wool tunics, skirts, breeches, and gowns with leather belts. Thanks to the leather shoes, the feet were also safe from the weather.
During the Middle Ages
The widespread use of dyes and prints during the Middle Ages propelled the production of clothes and textiles to the forefront of the economy. During the early Middle Ages in Europe (about 400-1100 A.D), regional differences in fabric availability and function dictated sartorial preferences. Tunics, belts, exposed trousers, or leggings were examples of the functional clothing worn by the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Visigoths. On the other hand, Romanized people continued to wear long tunics and other forms of Roman-influenced clothing. Among the aristocratic classes, silk and other exotic cloths quickly gained favor. Clothing colors, patterns, and embroidered ornaments were status symbols for the upper classes. In the feudal era, the ordinary people and the lower classes wore undyed, simple, locally woven wool clothing.
High Medieval Period
There was a shift in how wool was processed and dyed throughout the High Medieval Period. Crusaders brought back knowledge of exquisite textiles, Egyptian cotton, and silks, but the lower classes wore the same traditional, basic clothes as previously. Royalty and aristocracy found this a welcome alternative to the traditional Italian woven brocade, Ottoman ikat, or Chinese silks they favored. As the political and cultural climates in the Near East and Europe shifted in the 1400s, so did the fashions of the time. Early tailoring forms, such as laces, buttons, and curved seams, allowed for more variety in clothing design.
The Age of Reason: The Renaissance and the Enlightenment
More and more individuals wore colored and ornate garments from the 1400s to the 1700s, which contributed to a rise in the prominence of fashion throughout this period. Despite its continued popularity, wool’s rise to economic prominence made it an essential contributor to England’s economy. Dyed wool from England was sold across Europe and came in various vibrant colors like reds, golds, blues, and greens. This was also a prosperous time for silk weavers, as many European nations started making their silk instead of importing it from China or the Ottoman Empire. The aristocracy wasn’t the only social group to start donning expensive materials around this time. The fashions of Spain greatly influenced the rest of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Black became the standard for formalwear, and bobbin lace was the textile technique of choice. Interesting to note is that shirts and collars of the time sported ruffs, revealing a ruffle at the nape of the wearer’s neck. The fashions of the time in England and Spain differed from those in France and Italy.
During the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, cloth and textiles were not only a source of wealth in Europe. Much of Mughal India’s international trade and around 95% of British imports from the region consisted of muslin and other specialty cotton-based fabrics. Because of its great value, India sent textiles to the Americas and the Far East in the 1700s. Native North Americans sewed their garments out of animal skins and natural plant fibers before European colonization. The soft, warm fur of the beaver was highly sought after by merchants in the early European period.
Colonization and the Industrial Revolution
Full dress indicated clothing for an official occasion, while undress indicated casual dress. Exquisite silks and embroidery make up the entirety of the attire for both sexes. Women wore panniers and outfits made of printed chintzes, cotton, and muslins, while males wore coats, waistcoats, and breeches. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century ushered in the era of automated, factory-made textiles. Fabric manufacturing became more mechanized with the invention of waterwheels and steam-engine powered machinery. Speeds of production were substantially increased with the introduction of textile factories and the assembly line system, even if the latter was initially implemented manually.
Additionally, the sewing machine was invented during this period, greatly facilitating manufacturing. Improvements in maritime infrastructure, including steamships, canals, and railroads, lowered production costs and expanded market access. Consumers could purchase items from further away as an alternative to more expensive local options. It was primarily due to the textile and garment industry that women could quit their traditional roles as housewives and enter the workforce.
During the 20th Century
The fabric and textile industries also underwent dramatic shifts in the 20th and 21st centuries. Clothes were produced using synthetic fibers quicker and cheaper than natural fibers. Some synthetic fibers have improved strength, elasticity, and durability over their predecessors. Different stain and flake resistance, antibacterial, and antimicrobial finishes are just some of the alterations that may be woven and knitted into textiles with the help of modern machinery. Superior dye technology also facilitates coloring materials that were previously impossible to color. Some contentious concerns have recently arisen in the textile business. Consumers are understandably concerned about businesses that engage in unfair or unsustainable activities regarding the environment or their employees. Bangladesh, China, India, and other East Asian countries raise billions of dollars in garment exports, which is where most countries get their clothing.
History of Textiles in Other Parts of the Wolrd
This article would be incomplete if we did not explore the history of textiles in various parts of the world.
History of Textiles- Africa
In general, African textiles showcase a wide range of aesthetics. Although Yoruba, ase-oke, and adire are not as well-known as the likes of adinkra and kente, they are just as stunning as the more prominent examples. Pieces of fabric were the most valuable commodity in ancient Africa because they served as a medium of exchange. In the past, a woman’s wrapper fabric could be made from a certain number of strips of uniform length since the width of cloth strips was regulated across Africa. After that, this would be the standard measure of worth. Clothes were a practical medium of exchange since they were widely used, could withstand repeated washings, and could be easily divisible. African weavers, dyers, and other textile artisans collaborate to produce a stunning and varied collection of textiles.
History of Textiles- China
China has a long and illustrious history in the textile industry, and today its products are among the most sought after worldwide. Fabric plays a vital role in intricate ceremonies and other symbolic expressions of culture and is frequently linked to the concept of prosperity. China’s textile history goes back to the Han Dynasty, and the earliest surviving samples are thousands of years old (206 BCE – 222 CE). Technically advanced as they are, Han textiles may represent the pinnacle of a long history of improvement in silk farming and weaving techniques that dates back to prehistoric times. Silkworms were initially cultivated in China, forming a cocoon of silk after feasting on mulberry tree leaves. Silk from these cocoons was unwound and spun into thread, eventually becoming the basis for the exquisite Chinese textiles for which the country is renowned. The trade route that connected China to the Western world was given its name because silk was one of the most valuable goods transported along it.
Under the Ch’ing Dynasty, Chinese textiles maintained their renowned excellence. The materials of the later stages of the Qing dynasty, particularly the K’ang-Hsi and Chien Lung eras (1662-1795), display a wide range of creative techniques, from painted tapestry weave and applique to embroidery methods, including satin stitch, couching, and needlepoint. The rich religious and secular culture of China, from Confucianism to Taoism and Buddhism, is reflected in the visual vocabulary of Chinese textiles. The mountain peak (representing earth) rises over the diagonal stripes (representing heaven) on the lower border of the embroidered gauze altar cloth, originally a summer robe, to illustrate the Confucian universe. On a different altar cloth, a white elephant stood for power, knowledge, and foresight. Lucky artifacts from throughout the cosmos were strapped to his back.
History of Textiles- India
India’s textile industry has a long and illustrious history, dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3500 BCE). Angora, silk, wool, and cotton are just a few materials the Indian textile industry is famous for producing. Though the textile industry played a significant role in ancient and medieval India’s economic development, the modern Indian textile industry was not founded until the early 19th century, thanks to the efforts of British enterprises.
Undoubtedly, India’s textile market is fascinating. An individual spinning wheel in a house in the middle of the 1800s was the industry’s first step up from the ground. The textile industry in India had a significant upswing when this wheel was used in conjunction with human muscle. For millennia, people have been making and trading textiles, and now it’s one of the country’s most vital sectors of the economy. Indian textiles have come a long way in the last 150 years. The industry primarily focused on cotton and dhurries before rapidly expanding into other materials and techniques with the help of machinery, improved manufacturing skills, and new processing technologies.
The textile trade has played a significant role in the development of India’s economy, culture, and society. Because of this, progress in the industry as a whole has been phenomenal. Between 1750 and 1850 saw the beginning of significant upheaval in India’s textile industry.
The Bottom Line
Textiles have been woven and sewn since antiquity, with early examples including simple loincloths to full-length burial garments. In ancient times, they prized textiles for their appearance and practical uses, with rich colors indicating high status in the same way jewelry and other personal adornments do today. It’s easy to see why textiles have been so popular throughout history, as they not only make up the clothes we wear and the things we use in our everyday lives but also make up some of the most famous works of art from around the world.