Textile Industry History

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

Learn about the processes involved in producing fabrics and cloth, discover technological advances that contributed to the industrialization of the textile industry, and explore the rich history of textiles from ancient civilization to the present.

A Basic Human Necessity

There are a lot of people who protest wearing leather, but it would be unimaginable living without cloth and other kinds of fabrics. Well, unless you're a nudist. But even if you do boycott clothing, you're likely find textiles in one form or another in the average household. Textiles fill an essential role in human civilization. It is one of the primary human needs, along with food, water and shelter, to seek the comfort and warmth provided by textiles.

We come in contact with textiles in the form of the woven fabrics in the clothing we wear everyday. While textiles are used most apparently to make apparel, there are also many other applications and uses for woven fabrics. Textiles also include carpets, towels, upholstery for furniture, fabric for shoes and industrial materials like parachutes, balloons, and water hoses. Some protective materials are also considered textiles, like fibers used in some auto glass, high-strength filament in helmets, and some building materials like asbestos, insulation, and canvas.

The textile industry consists of the complex process of producing fabrics: from planting and harvesting raw materials to refining yarn and thread, from weaving cloth and distributing the final product to consumers.

Early History

Humans have made and worn textiles since prehistoric times. Archaeologists and anthropologists suppose that prehistoric peoples produced and wove clothing based on evidence from archaeological digs. They have uncovered statues depicting clothed figures, fragments of fibers that could have been cloth, and bone fragments that could have been used as needles.

Textile production formed an important function in ancient Egypt in both religion and commerce. Developments in agriculture contributed to the advancement of the textile industry and Ancient Egyptian scrolls and pyramid murals depict the growing, harvesting, and weaving of flax into linen. It was used to make clothes, rope, and death shrouds.

Weaving in Ancient Egypt
Weaving in Egypt

Hemp was also a staple in ancient textiles. It has been found in Greek and Roman civilizations, as well as across Europe. Sheep's wool was a favorite textile in Europe and silk spun from the cocoons of moths (known as silkworms) was a commodity across Asia.

Making Thread and Yarn

The Brothers Grimm hand down to us the unforgettable image of spinning thread in the story of Sleeping Beauty. The scene where she pricks her finger on the spinning wheel survives today as a memory of a bygone era. Stories like this provide us with access to an art of textile production long since passed.

The illustration from Grimm's fairy tales shows the princess admiring the old woman's spindle, with the distaff (long staff) in her left hand. The distaff and spindle was an early modern alternative to a spinning wheel. Raw fibers were collected on the end of a long staff, spun with thumb and forefinger into a thread, and then twisted around the spindle.

Sleeping Beauty admiring the spindle
sleeping beauty

The inventions of the Spinning Jenny (1764) and the Spinning Mule (1775) introduced the first of many developments to the textile industry that led the way to its modernization. Today, thread is made in factories using massive machines that automate the multi-stage process.

Spinning Mule illustration circa 1835
spinning mule

Weaving

Cloth is produced by weaving long threads into a criss-crossed pattern. The shuttle holding the yarn is passed back and forth through the horizontal weft and the vertical warp, which is held taut upright by the heddle. Hand-operated floor looms are still used today by artisans.

japanese weaving

The 17th and 18th centuries brought advances in weaving that radically transformed the weaver's craft. Before the invention of the flying shuttle in 1733, weavers had to reach the thread through the warp, a physical action that was hard on the arms and back. The flying shuttle transformed this action into a swift motion of the wrists, which in turn sped up the weaving process.

The introduction of the power loom (1785) and jacquard loom (1801) automated the production of woven fabric. The power loom sped the production of cloth while the jacquard loom made it possible to program woven patterns using simple punch cards.

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