Why Textile History Matters

Unless you are among a distinct minority of nudists, you probably wear clothes every day. Clothing protects us from the sun, wind, rain, cold, and sometimes, judgmental glances at highbrow social gatherings.

While today's clothing serves as much more than utilitarian purposes, you may not often think about the rich insights that can be found in studying textile history. A great deal of symbology appears in motif and use of color, as well as choice of the fiber itself. It allows us to see the blending of utility and art. 

Clothing and textiles are one of the most outwardly expressive ways in which we share our societal values, on our sleeve so to speak, on a daily basis. Therefore, textiles have the ability to give researchers a window into the mind of people and cultures, past or present. It is also a type of work frequently associated with the the gendered role expectations of women. “The necessary compatibility of female labor with child care and breastfeeding led to women primarily engaging in repetitive, safe, and easily interrupted tasks.” (Barber, Women’s Work, 29-30.) Since women were primarily the workers of textiles throughout history, insights into this trade give us a glimpse into the lives of a huge portion of the population; a portion often invisible amongst the male-dominated stories of stone artifacts or history books. Men most often became a part of the textile fabrication process only after the industry became a part of a larger trade exchange network.

Textile production is and was an incredibly time consuming process. First, one had to grow and harvest fiber plants, or cultivate and collect fiber from silk worms, or wooly animals like sheep and alpacas. Then, this fiber had to be washed, beaten or carded, combed and spun. If the threads were meant to be colored, dyes had to be acquired, either through cultivation, wild gathering, or trading. Then, hundreds to thousands of meters of thread needed to be woven, cut, and sewn into just a single garment. Sometimes, lavish designs were embroidered , or card woven bands were used to trim sleeves.

From this very simplistic look at the process, we can already infer some of the kinds of information we can glean about how communities lived. In order to grow plants or keep livestock, people had to live in sedentary communities of relatively large size. In order to have production exceed the amount that just one family would need, there would have had to be specialized workers; meaning “I weave all the time, you make pots and pans all the time, lets swap”. If one needed to acquire a particular dye that was not indigenous to their region, we could assume they obtained it by trade, and were involved in an interaction sphere with members of other communities. Use of color and design can tell us much about self expression, social identity, religious belief or status, customs, trade, or the natural resources that were available in the area at the time.

The whole process was passed down to succeeding generations. Depending on the scale of production, we can assume that the knowledge was passed down through a family, or learned as an apprentice or at a trade school.

Exchange of these garments, especially the ones it was even more costly to produce, could be imagined as economic resources. Expensive, elegant garments or furnishings became so valued in some places, they were seen as a kind of currency. Some fabrics, such as Icelandic vaðmál, were so regulated in quality, that medieval manuscripts and law texts have their production standards and value preserved to this day.

Artistic expression was not limited to fashion and garments. We have a multitude of examples of expertly woven rugs and tapestries. Even the tools used to process fiber can be a craft themselves. Some of these examples include carved distaffs (a long spindle or paddle used to hold a cloud of fiber while the spinner draws from it), engraved spindle whorls (a small stone or clay weight fixed to the end of a rod used for spinning), polished whale bone weft beaters, intricately carved knitting needle boxes (that were also presented with marriage proposals), and hand painted lace bobbins, among others.

From a personal perspective, when I craft with fiber, I feel connected to a vast history that can be celebrated as a commonality of almost all humans across space, and one that reaches back far in time.

It brings us closer as a global community to learn about, not only the lives and minds of our ancestors, but also the universality of innovation that we all share.

Like any scientific field, our studies help us to learn the expanse of what we don't know. We are fueled by curiosity, and a deep desire to understand the reasonings and perspectives that lived in the minds of ancestral humans. It brings us closer as a global community to learn about, not only the lives and minds of our ancestors, but also the universality of innovation that we all share. The contributions of all the communities we identify with have brought us to where we are today. Our ideas shape the future and it may work to our benefit to cultivate appreciation for old things long forgotten.

Minoan woman picking saffron, from a fresco on the island of Thera

Minoan woman picking saffron, from a fresco on the island of Thera