READING THE HISTORY OF CLOTHING by Emily Wiebe
The history of clothing and textiles stretches back hundreds of thousands of years. The journey was a long and arduous one marked by many shifts throughout the centuries. Interesting historical work can be done by simply studying the textiles of cultures, from the clothing of early cavemen to that of the Romans, the later Europeans and right up to the present day.
Early clothing was made from leather which was most likely sewn together. Evidence of possible sewing needles has been found as early as 38,000 BCE. The earliest textiles were made from plant fibers and were most likely a type of felt. An archeological example of this is dyed flax fibers found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia dated to 34,000 BCE. Felting, though the first fabric, is not so popular today. It is used predominantly for arts and crafts, blankets, shoe insoles and insulation.
By far the most common textile used today is woven fabric. Evidence of weaving exists from around 35,000 BCE where impressions of woven textiles, nets, and baskets were found in hard clay. Weaving techniques improved over the years as the looms were made faster and more effective. Nearly endless patterns, strengths, and comfort levels can now be achieved in woven textiles thanks to modern technology. Woven fabrics make up most of the clothing we wear today.
If you think your grandmother is old-fashioned for knitting you a Christmas sweater, she is actually much more antiquated than you think. Knitting has its roots in 6,500 BCE where an early form of single-needle knitting called Nålebinding was invented. Your Christmas sweater is a part of the long history of textiles.
Woolen textiles arrived later than those made of flax, hemp, and cotton – around 400 BCE – since sheep needed to be selectively bred in order to achieve the wooly covering rather than the hair-like one they originally grew. But once sheep were bred for wooliness, wool became the most popular fiber for textiles because of its warmth and versatility. Both the rich and poor used wool in their clothing because it could be both robust and fine. In fact, wool was so popular that many European economies in the middle ages, Renaissance, and Restoration were built upon the wool trade and industry. For example, at one time the head of the House of Lords in England sat on a chair stuffed with wool- called a “Woolsack” – which was symbolic of the importance of the wool trade to the English economy.
The clothing and textiles of a culture tell an important story about that culture, giving the present-day historian an insight into the religious beliefs, artistic leanings, surrounding plant and animal life, terrain, climate, economics, gender stereotypes, and day to day affairs of the people who wore and made them. For example, the loose, single loom-width draped, pinned, and belted dress of the Romans point to the expensiveness of fabric; they didn’t want to waste fabric by cutting and sewing. The sheer, mostly linen clothing of the Egyptians may reflect the Egyptians’ response to the hot climate of Egypt and the resources available to them – flax rather than wool or silk. The later gendered quality of most cultural clothing points to the eventual shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle of survival to a more settled agrarian one where time could be spent on building social systems rather than simply providing a cover against the elements.
The fibers, textiles, and clothing of a culture are an endless resource for inquiry into a culture’s past and a good way to reflect upon one’s own culture: what does your clothing say about you and your culture? Are the sourcing methods sustainable, ethical, and practical? Does the clothing speak to your moral values? Does it show what you think is artistically valuable? These are only a few questions to ponder.