A Very Short History of Cloth Part I



Welcome to our Very Short History of Cloth. We emphasise 'short' as the origin of cloth is a vast subject that can easily fill a three-year degree course. With this in mind, please do not view our brevity too harshly. Further reading suggestions will appear at the end of this piece. 


Clothes meet at least three requirements for us humans.

Not only do they shield us from the environment; they protect our modesty and allow us to decorate ourselves. But what are the origins of our clothes we wear today? Not just our bespoke or made-to-measure suits but our weekend wear: our jeans, cords, shirts, warm jackets, shoes – everything! 

The wearing of clothes is an exclusively human characteristic. What we lacked in fur, we made up in home economics skills utilising the materials around the cave. Scholars are not entirely in agreement as to when this came about, but the belief is humans started wearing vegetation and animal skins somewhere between 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. For those who feel 400,000 years might be a too generous a margin to work with may take comfort from the following findings. About 170,000 years ago, genetic analysis suggests the reason for the head louse moving south to the body (thus becoming body lice) was the result of early man wearing clothes. 


The migration south for the louse

When we look at the development of clothes, we look at technology too. The two are inextricably linked. The first significant advancement in this field is one that is used today: the needle. Sewing needles have been found in Siberia and South Africa dating from an incredible 50,000 and 15,000 years respectively. Made from animal bone, these needles would be carefully crafted and be sharp enough to stitch together and embroider animal skins.  

Despite some evidence of spun and dyed vegetation found in caves in Georgia dating 30,000 years old (earliest examples of linen), any major developments in clothes production went on hold. Nomadic lifestyles and fear of being eaten are not generally considered to be contributory factors for improving one's wardrobe. 


Approx' 17,000 year old needles found in a cave in Gourdan-Polignan, France

Later when evolution settled on the one human species, homo sapiens, and we became more settled (literally) we seized the moment and got on with the business of improving our lot. Cultures across the world each developed the materials around them to meet their needs. And this was certainly the case with cloth and clothing. 

The first actual human created textile...

... is thought to be felt which was made using wool. Hot water was added to layers of animal hair which were then shaken vigorously and compressed. This caused the fibres to hook and weave together to make a single piece of fabric. Both nomadic and sedentary cultures utilised this process.

Meanwhile, across the class divide in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (The Cradle of Civilisation) wealthier classes demanded a material they could wear in the hot climates. The result was linen. In ancient Egypt, linen symbolised wealth and purity and was used to for mummification and burial shrouds. Meanwhile, over in Mesopotamia linen was reserved for the higher classes. The reason for its lofty elevation is down to production methods of the time: it was challenging to work with the thread as flax, the plant where linen derives is not elastic and breaks easily during weaving. 

How was linen made?

As with most academic enquiry that scrutinises the deep and distant past evidence is, at best, scant, so scholars look to other artefacts for information. One such medium which offers a valuable insight comes from a vase, or an oil flask to be precise (Terracotta lekythos) dating from 550BC. Preserved at The Met’ Museum in NYC it depicts two women weaving at an upright loom. In the illustration the warp threads, which run vertically to a bar at the top, are tied together with weights at the bottom, which hold them taut. The woman on the right runs the shuttle containing the weaving thread across the middle of the warp. This process, along with the two-beam loom, would dominate cloth production well into the Middle Ages (5th to 15th Centuries).


Photo of Terracotta lekythos (oil flask) courtesy of The Met NYC

As for how the cloth was used, draping was the mode du jour in ancient Egypt with material being held together with knots and belts. There was little need for sewing which was generally confined to side seams. This simple but effective look very much took off around the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. Over in the Far East cultures favoured more fitted, sewn garments based on – what we know today as – coats, tunics and trousers. 

Staying East, in China, the earliest evidence of silk production was found at sites in Xia, Shanxi. The Yangshao culture, it is argued, was the first to grow silkworms domestically to produce silk. Academics believe this occurred sometime between 5000 to 3000BC. Fragments of primitive looms were found at sites of Hemudu culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, dating from 4000 BC and actual scraps of silk were found in a Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang in Huzhou, Zhejiang, dating back to 2700 BC. So important was silk, it would have a rather long road (5000 miles give or take) named after it connecting our friends in Egypt and Mesopotamia with Chang'an (today's Xi'an) in China.


The Silk Road Super Highway

By the BC / AD crossover (Iron Age) most cultures had adopted a version of the tunic which varied in design depending on where you were in the world. In colder climates it was longer, to one’s mid-thigh or knees and made of heavier wool or felt (Germanic); in warmer climes, shorter and made with linen or cotton (Greek).

Skipping forward a few hundred years into the Middle Ages saw the widespread introduction of colour and pattern. The Byzantines exported woven and richly embroidered patterned cloth for wealthier customers, plus, they had developed resist-dyeing which produced elaborately patterned cloth. While the rich were embracing an early form of fashion, the lower classes clothes would err on practicality over spectacle. Clothes were often made with homespun wool, be un-dyed with small amounts of embroidery or trimming. 

This brings us to the end of Part I. In our next instalment we will be continuing with the Middle Ages, through to the Renaissance and on to the modern day. 

Further Reading

Live ScienceHumans Got Lice When We Clothed Our Naked, Hairless Bodies
Britannica: Dress Clothing & The Weaving Process
Boyd & Brewer: Medieval Clothing & Textiles
History of Clothing