Fiber Twist Direction as Evidence of Cultural Identity

The Woven Road

The Woven Road

Twist is defined as a means of winding strands of fiber so they hold together in a secure way. In podcast Episode 6, we touched on the topic of how the directionality of twist in fiber threads can convey meaning, superstition, and even a sense of identity. 

In the North and Southeastern regions of the US, the fibers themselves are generally poorly preserved, but there is another way of observing the preferred methods of twisting thread and cordage.  We find evidence of this baked into shards of clay pottery recovered from archaeological sites where hunter-gatherer communities once lived.

These clay artifacts have other attributes that also tell us about past human life ways. The nature of the material used to make the clay mixture could consist of mostly coarse sand or shell fragments, and can suggest where it was made and what the vessel might have been used for.  There are many different stylistic variations in vessel shape and size. Some vessels had an egg-like bottom shape, and easily rested in a small hole dug into the earth.  There were many ways in which these vessels were decorated. Some were adorned with incised lines or round impressions from a sharpened stick.  Earlier clay vessels were sometimes impressed with woven netting, leaving behind a cross-hatched like design.

These preferences for fiber twist directionality are linked to social histories, and it is possible to map them regionally. In this way, when archaeologists find pottery remains with various types of imprinted twist designs, we can observe interactions between neighboring communities.

One type of decoration is produced by wrapping a string of twisted cord around a stick and pressing it onto a still-wet vessel. The cordage was produced using various types of processed plant fibers and twisting them in alternate directions so they bound around themselves and created a strong piece of cord.

While these design elements were once thought to be a simple aesthetic decoration, it is now believed that they represent much more. These preferences for fiber twist directionality are linked to social histories, and it is possible to map them regionally. In this way, when archaeologists find pottery remains with various types of imprinted twist designs, we can observe interactions between neighboring communities. Over time, it is possible to see a potential migration of a group of people, or a migration of an idea, as other people began to learn and adapt to new ways of doing things.  During times of conflict, women were sometimes captured and became a part of a new community.  They brought with them different traditions, and this facilitated another means of exchanging new ideas.

This element of cultural tradition is not limited to the Eastern United States. Historically, people around the world from Europe, to South America and beyond have created textile traditions utilizing this basic concept of spinning fibers in different directions.

-Meadow