There is archaeological evidence of the early production of textiles from as far back as the 5 millennium BCE. These are obviously very rare and can only provide a simple snapshot of local production and use of fibres. The first fibres to be woven were bast fibres – from the fibrous parts of trees and plant stems. These included linseed plant (flax) as well as stinging nettles, lime or wisteria. Early examples of weaving were to create containers or baskets.
In September 1991, the body of ‘Otzi’ the ice man was found in the Ötztal Alps, between Italy and Austria. He lived and died between 3,400 and 3,100 BCE and was probably killed by being shot by an arrow that was still lodged in his left shoulder. His body was quickly covered in snow that preserved his body in a process of natural mummification. He has been extensively studied and he was wearing clothes made from animal skins with a cloak of woven grass to provide waterproofing. His shoes were made from bearskin and dear hide with internal netting made from tree bark. His feet were wrapped in grass to act in the same was a socks. He also carried two birch bark baskets with berries and fungi that may have been used as emetics to rid himself of parasites. There is extensive research and writing on him and it is really interesting to get an intact ‘time traveller’ who provides a lot of answers and of course even more questions on how humans lived and died five and a half thousand years ago.
The ancient salt mines near the Austrian town of Hallstatt have yielded a wealth of cloth samples from the 15 Century BCE onward. These had three huge shafts that drilled down up to 170 metres ( nearly 550 feet) with galleries that branched out on all sides. The salt and the very low temperature combined to preserve a great deal of both animal skin fabrics and textiles. Some of the artifacts are still intact and so can be seen to provide, bags for the salt for example. Most of the textiles are of wool, with very little linen (flax). The woven wool is of single ply with the plied wool only being used as sewing thread or to reinforce borders and edges.
Image cortesy of New Tess fabric store in Milan.
The main type of weave is the standard format with one over, one under in one row that then becomes one under, one over on the next row. This indicates that the fabric was created on a basic loom. There are however, some twill fabrics found in the mine. To create this type of weave, you need a loom that has more than one heddle rod. This is the rod that separates the warp fibres, up and down for the shuttle to move through. A twill fabric is one where the weft fibre passes under or over more than one warp fibre. It has an easily recognised diagonal effect – like that of denim jeans. It can also be used to create diamond or zig zag patterns on the cloth.
There are no complete garments preserved in the mine, and most of the cloth remains will possibly have been from rags taken there as makeshift bonding or strips, carrier slings, handle reinforcements or or maybe for personal hygiene. There is also evidence of the fabric being dyed – that will probably be next week’s post.