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Woven Textiles: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Textiles are amongst the oldest crafts in the world. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of woven textiles and see how weaving has defined human history for thousands of years.

Woven Textiles

You are a part of history. Did you know that? Unless you're a nudist, in which case you're part of an entirely different history that I really don't want to talk about. Simply by wearing clothes, you are participating in one of the oldest artistic traditions in human history. Textiles, or human-made cloths and fabrics, are an integral part of our history and compose some of the most respected artistic traditions in the world. Our fabrics have protected us from the elements, helped us identify ourselves and others, and provided a constant canvas for artistic expression across human history. Some of the most popular fabrics across the world were woven, created by weaving threads at perpendicular angles. This tradition is still a big part of our world today. So, when you go to pick out your outfit tomorrow, take a second to reflect on your role within this ancient and awesome tradition. Then put some clothes on. Seriously.

Elements of Woven Fabrics

Before we can talk about the fine history of weaving, we need to understand the process. The most basic element of a woven fabric is the yarn; fibers are spun into thread. These threads are then interlaced in a pattern which holds them together and creates the fabric. The vertical threads are called the warp, while the horizontal threads are called the weft. The texture, patterns, and consistency of the fabric depend on how the warp and weft are intertwined. Additional patterns and designs can be added by changing the color of the thread being used as either warp or weft.

Warp and weft
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So, how do we get the warp and weft to interlock? The process of weaving can be laborious and time consuming, but there are many techniques. One of the oldest is finger weaving, in which the warp and weft are woven together by hand. This was a common practice in ancient North America. In fact, many Amerindian nations still practice finger weaving to this day.

The most common forms of weaving, however, require the use of a loom. A loom is a device that holds the warp threads tight so that the weaver can more easily manipulate the weft. Looms are one of those rare inventions developed independently by cultures across the world, although each had their own design. Most were stationary and could get pretty large. However, the ancient people of Central and South America invented something called a backstrap loom, which harnessed the warp threads between the weaver and an anchor like a tree.

19th-century Japanese loom
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History of Weaving

Weaving is practiced around the world, but where did this practice originate? Unfortunately, we'll probably never know for sure. Fabrics do not preserve well, but we can tell that weaving existed because images of textiles appear in ancient art. We know that humans were weaving plants like grasses together into baskets as far back as 23,000 years ago, thanks to archeological finds in Israel. It's assumed that these techniques translated into fabric production using plants. There is possible evidence at a few archeological sites that suggest humans were producing full textiles as well. At the Czech site of Dolni Vestonice, possible imprints of fabrics have been dated at up to 26,000 years old.

Most of our early evidence comes from the Neolithic era, the period after human groups started farming and settling in permanent villages. Some of the earliest human settlements show possible evidence of textiles, perhaps most notably the ancient Turkish site of Catalhoyuk that was occupied at least 9,000 years ago. As these settlements grew more complex, so did their technology. Starting at around 5,000 BCE, we start finding spindles, tools used to spin fibers into yarn. Actually, spindles are common finds in nearly every ancient urban civilization around the world, suggesting that fabric production was a big part of early civilization. Some scholars even believed that round spindles may have inspired the invention of the wheel.

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