Have you ever stopped to wonder how the clothes you’re wearing right now, that much-loved t-shirt or new pair of jeans, were made? Most of us don’t consider the intricacies of the textile industry, but the history of clothing and cloth production spins a rich and colourful tale that should be in everyone's repertoire. With that in mind, we’re taking it back to basics by shedding some light on the history of weaving and textiles – just to give you a little something to mull over the next time you load up your Scrubba wash bag with your favourite outfits.
To understand the practice of weaving and its role in the thriving textile industry, we need to follow the threads of this ancient art all the way back to prehistory ...
To given an incredibly brief - and slightly dry - summary that in no way does the revolutionary process justice, the art of weaving involves entwining a set of vertical threads, the ‘wrap’, with a set of horizontal threads, the ‘weft’. The practice itself seems to be almost ingrained in human nature, because even before the process of weaving was implemented its underlying principles were applied in the creation of everyday necessities like shelters and baskets. These crafts relied upon the interlacing of small materials, such as twigs and leaves, to form stable objects. Once ancient humans discovered how to entwine plant fibres to create thread some 20 or 30 thousand years ago, these basic weaving principles were put to extensive use and elaborate and highly practical items were manufactured through the art of finger weaving, a skill still widely practised today.
Weaving itself is one of the oldest surviving practices in the world, with a history rooted in the Neolithic period (c. 9000-4000 BCE). It was at this time that the creation of woven fabrics exploded, with every household producing cloth for personal use. Weaving became an indispensable skill for Neolithic people and was consequently closely connected to the family unit, a tradition that would endure for millennia.
Spinning and weaving in the Middle Ages:
The art of weaving was slowly perfected and refined over thousands of years, eventually leading to highly specialised cloth produced by skilled practitioners. It is no surprise that the production of this cloth, demanding higher levels of skill, coincided with the gradual movement of weaving away from the household and into the workplace. By the Middle Ages, a well-developed supply chain consisting of dyers, spinners, weavers, fullers, drapers, and tailors had been implemented to support the booming textile and weaving industry that was fast becoming one of the most lucrative trades across Europe. The city of Coventry was made particularly wealthy through the explosive weaving trade. Such was the city's fame that the saying, ‘true blue’, is alleged to have descended from the longer phrase, ‘as true as Coventry blue’, in reference to the city’s knack for producing blue dyes that didn’t run and thus remained ‘true’.
At this time, weaving in Europe continued to take place at the loom that had dominated the weaving process for millennia, although a number of improvements, imported from China and other global empires, were gradually introduced to expedite the process. For instance, in the 11th-century the introduction of horizontal, foot-operated looms enabled an easier, much more efficient weaving process. Furthermore, the spinning wheel, likely originating in India sometime between 500 and 1000 CE and eventually imported to Europe from the Middle East, replaced the earlier method of hand spinning. Far more than a mere staple of the fairy tale tradition, the spinning wheel continued to be improved until it was able to greatly expedite the process of turning fibres into yarn in preparation for weaving. The resulting yarn shortage underscored the necessity of mechanising the process, paving the way for the explosive advancements that were to occur throughout the Industrial Revolution.
Weaving in the Industrial Revolution:
In 1774, a heavy tax on cotton thread and cloth made in Britain was repealed, likely sparked by a number of revolutionary developments within the trade. The inventions that sparked these developments included the Flying Shuttle (1733), which allowed wider cloth to be woven at a faster speed than previously possible, the Spinning Jenny (1765), which increased the number of threads a single machine could spin from six to eighty, and the Water Frame (1769), which used water as a source of power while producing a better thread than the Spinning Jenny. Crompton’s Spinning Mule, developed in 1779, built upon these ideas by combining the most positive aspects of the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame to produce the best spinning results of the age. By the 1790s, steam engines were being widely utilised in cotton factories to further improve textile production by reducing dependency on water, largely negating previous issues of water scarcity as a result.
These advances coincided with the spread of chemical bleaches and dyes, enabling bleaching, dyeing and printing to take place in the same location. Finally, with the invention of Robert’s Power Loom in 1812, all stages of cotton making were consolidated and able to occur in the one factory.
The advances were such that the wealth of the textile industry rose rapidly throughout the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. As a result, it quickly became the main industry of the Industrial Revolution regarding employment and invested capital, and was even the first to use modern production methods.
Weaving and the textiles industry today:
Today, weaving has been almost exclusively commercialised, although many communities and individuals around the world continue to weave by hand, either for fun, for cultural identification, or out of necessity. Automatic power operated looms now dominate the trade, greatly improving and streamlining this important aspect of the textile industry.
Although the practice of weaving has moved almost entirely out of the public eye, it remains a crucial step in the long supply chain embedded within the global fashion industry. With a history that dates back some 30 000 years, weaving is truly one of the oldest extant skills practised by humans on a global scale, and it is this impressive credential that renders it so deserving of a little acknowledgement the next time you reach for your favourite outfit!