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Constructed Textiles: Definition & History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

We wear clothing every day. But have you ever really looked at your favorite sweater and wondered how was it made? In this lesson, we will explore some types and history of constructed textiles.

What Are Constructed Textiles?

Clothing and blankets are two examples of textiles we use in everyday life, and both are examples of constructed textiles. Basically, a constructed textile is a textile made by processes that involve connecting threads to form a larger fabric. These processes often involve specific tools and techniques.

You can make constructed textiles in many ways, and examples of them have been found dating to prehistoric times. Let's learn about several kinds and their history.

Knitting and Crocheting

Familiar processes of making constructed textiles include knitting, which uses needles, and crocheting, which uses hooks, to work with one or more continuous yarns, looping them together to form things like socks and sweaters.

Example of simple knitting with the use of two needles
Knitting with needles

Some scholars think knitting developed as ancient coastal cultures created fishing nets, and it might have spread as a result of seafaring peoples from Arabia trading with people from cultures in Mesopotamia and through Anatolia to places like Italy. Knitting then expanded from the Mediterranean region into Europe. Whatever the exact origins, some early surviving examples of knitted socks date from around the year 400. Knitting was done with two long needles or, later, with simple knitting frames, wooden frames with pegs on which yarn could be wrapped and looped. In medieval times, knitting guilds developed to meet an increasing demand for knitted goods.

Crocheting came a bit later and became the textile method we know today around the 16th century. No one knows for sure how it developed, and there are multiple theories, but some scholars think it might trace to earlier needlework methods found in Asia, especially in places like China and Tibet. Again, trade routes played a role in the spread of crocheting to other countries. Examples of crocheted textiles and related work have been found in Northern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula as well as Scandanavia.

Example of crochet work and a crochet hook
Example of crochet work with a crochet hook

Weaving

Another method of constructing textiles is weaving, in which horizontal and vertical threads are interlaced at right angles to form fabric. Weaving is done on a piece of equipment called a loom.

Hopi man weaving a rug using a handloom, circa 1900
Hopi man weaving

Woven textiles were made in places as diverse as ancient Egypt and Peru, and for thousands of years, people around the world used simple handlooms to weave textiles. Over time, different cultures developed intricate, unique weaving patterns. In Europe during the Middle Ages, specialized workplaces and groups called guilds developed for handweaving large works like wall-sized tapestries. Then, during the 18th century, the invention of large steam- and water-driven looms resulted in great numbers of textiles being produced in large factories.

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