The story of how fabric came into being starts not with wool but with plant fibres. This may seem surprising as the first clothes were undoubtedly made from animal skins and it seems like a small leap technologically to assume that those skins would be transformed by other means into fabrics.

To begin our history we need to reach back into the Palaeolithic period (Old Stone Age), at this time the human (Homo sapiens) population in Europe was small, scattered and nomadic. This creates the first problem for archaeologists as the evidence for these people is not easy to find, more often than not the only evidence we can find is from caves where these people would habitually stay for relatively short periods of time. Stone tools provide the immediate evidence of human occupation from the Palaeolithic. Often the style of these tools defines an era within the Stone Age, hence we refer to, for example, “Solutrian” or “Gravettian” based around the finds of these complex and sometimes beautifully formed tools. Stone remains relatively untouched when left in the earth for long periods, this is not the case with animal or vegetable remains which brings us to the second problem for textiles historians, that of survival.

It takes a special set of circumstances for animal or vegetable materials to be preserved over a period of time. Certain materials survive better in acidic surroundings, others in alkaline. Textiles have also in rare cases been frozen, the Ice Man and Pazyryk burials, or desiccated, Peruvian and Chinese cliff mummies. Some textiles become preserved through a secondary use such as packing or caulking and evidence of later textiles has been found attached to jewellery when, rather grotesquely, the juices from a decaying body containing minerals have reacted with the metal jewellery to preserve the fibres attached to it. Mention should also be made that although archaeology is not a new science it is only fairly recently that practices have allowed us to find even small traces of textiles and to analyse and preserve them. Much evidence of textiles may have been overlooked or may have rapidly decayed on contact with air, not to mention the archaeological sites all over the world which have been looted for treasure in the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond. It is therefore surprising that we have any evidence at all for textiles before written history began, however we not only have textiles finds dating back thousands of years, but also other clues as to the existence and usage of fibres as fabric.
Back to the Palaeolithic period, by 34,000 years ago, as the Neanderthals were declining, mankind had discovered that twisting fibres together made them stronger. Today this is easily seen when walking in the countryside you find some cast off wool attached to a fence. Just as it is the fleece comes apart like cotton wool, but twisted around your finger a few times the fibres become very strong and it is virtually impossible to pull them apart with strength. This characteristic of flimsy fibres to make strong cord would greatly increase a Palaeolithic hunters chances’ of survival as he could make strong threads to hold his clothes together for warmth and also he could produce nets and snares for small game. Between 29,000 and 34,000 years ago however finds of fibres in clay from Pavlov in the Czech Republic and Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia show that fibre had surpassed simple survival needs and flax was being not only spun but dyed and elaborately knotted to form nets. Wood basts (inner fibrous bark) and nettle are also found to make cordage at this point. Finds of minutely perforated seashells in neat rows in burials would also suggest that they were either strung together like a necklace or sewn onto the clothes as decoration. Finds of fine needles substantiate the idea of sewn on adornment. It is thought that fibres were spun and plied by the use of a straight stick possibly rolled along a thigh, rather than with a spindle as there are no finds of textile production artefacts from this period.

Moving on 10,000 years, still in the Palaeolithic, Mammoth is still on the menu for hunters. Indirectly other curious finds show the uses of fibre cordage. The Venus figurines from the Gravettian period are curious over exaggerated female representations. In themselves quite remarkable and enigmatic these figures show a transition from using cordage as facilitator for clothing, i.e. stitching, to being the clothing itself. Figures from Kostenki in Russia show twisted or woven bands making a halter, the Venus from Lespugue wears a skirt of hanging cords. Up until the middle of the last century, the tradition survived in South Central and Eastern Europe of wearing a cord skirt as a symbol of betrothal and fertility, often made of an ancient knotless netting technique called sprang, the belts of the corded skirt often portrayed diamond patterns and were coloured red, all of which are potent indicators of a mature female.  Many Venus statuettes show elaborate hats, hair style, or possibly hairnet such as the Venus of Brassempouy.

The Middle East seems to be the melting pot for new ideas and technologies during prehistory and we can track cultural changes which take place as they move out of the Middle East and into Europe. This diaspora takes a long time as the population is still small and migratory throughout the Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age). Thus it may take several hundred years for new ideas from cultural centres such as Jericho and Catal Huyuk to reach the North and West of Europe. Not to mention that the Mesolithic heralds the retreat of the last Ice Age when Britain was finally recolonised after the ice and subsequently becomes the Islands it is today. We have no evidence that textile technology changes too much during the Middle Stone Age, although archaeological evidence shows that material culture progresses with the use of microliths, small stone tools, often mounted together on a shaft to make a blade. We do have evidence of more complex basketry techniques and basketry seems to go hand in hand with textile production. It is at the end of this period that people in the Middle East started to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and become sedentary. It is long debated whether people settled down to domesticate plants and animals or whether the domestication forced settlement upon them. However what we do know is both permanent settlement and domestication start to occur around the same time in the Middle East and these ideas spread out like ripples on a pond. This technological advance is known as the Neolithic or New Stone Age and it reaches Britain around 6,500 years ago.

It is at this point that sheep make an appearance in European textiles history. Wool and fleece may not have been represented previously in the archaeological record only because of preservation issues however it is more likely that although sheepskin may have been worn, wool was not often used as a textile fibre. The reason for this is because the fleece from the wild Mouflon is not suitable for using as a spun fibre. The fleece of this animal consists of kempy fibres with a very short underwool. For this reason it is also not ideal for felting and the domestication of the animal was probably based around its value as food, both for meat and milk, with the selective breeding for fleece as a secondary concern. The domestication started in the Middle East and it is this domesticated animal, probably  Soay, which becomes the first source of wool fibres in Britain. Fleece was not cut from the animal in an annual shearing, rather it was plucked out, the Soay has an added advantage of having an annual moult where the discarded fleece could be collected easily.

From around 3,500 BC we can see the appearance of specific textiles tools and equipment in the archaeological record in Britain. Excavations in the early 20th century at the Trundle, a causewayed enclosure site in West Sussex, found a chalk spindle whorl contemporary with the site. Admittedly the tools could have been used in the production of textiles from plant fibres however combining the surviving tool evidence with that of sheep bones would suggest that the tools were probably used on both animal and vegetable material. It is also very difficult for archaeologists to distinguish sheep from goat remains, certain tell tale signs on a few bones are the only differences and if these bones should be missing from an assemblage then the only conclusion which could be drawn is that the animal is sheep or goat. This is significant as goat hair was also spun to produce textiles.

By 2,500 BC textile technology around the Mediterranean is producing exceptionally fine fabrics. Linens from the Egyptian tombs are showing fine spinning and weaving with as much as 100 thread counts per cm and sleeved semi tailored clothing is in evidence. Pictorial evidence from Minoan Crete shows clothes with bright, elaborate patterns which would have been produced either in the weaving process, embroidered or perhaps appliquéd later. Weaving had certainly reached Britain by this time, and more spindle whorls appear in the archaeological record. We know that weaving had taken place in Britain, not by textiles finds, rather with finds of loom weights. The type of loom which was used to produce fabrics at this time was a Warp Weighted loom. As the name suggests this loom works by tensioning the warp using weights hung from the bottom. Loom weights can be made of clay and either dried or fired, in some areas natural stone was used as the weights with grooves cut into the stone for easy warp attachment or holes bored through the stone. In Shetland the common name for a warp weighted loom is a Stainey loom (Stoney loom) as traditionally stones were used as weights. One early example of a fired clay loom weight from this date has been found at Easington on the mouth of the Humber, thought to be one of the earliest loom weight finds in Britain.

The use of a loom meant that different types of fabrics could be developed and not only do we see plain (tabby) weave but also we see twill and brocaded fabrics. Dogtooth and herringbone make an appearance along with stripes and plaids. Different sorts of fringes are seen on fabric remains.

From the Bronze Age and Iron Age we have a wealth of fabric remains from Danish Bogs. The tannin in the bog preserves animal and vegetable remains beautifully therefore we not only have “Bog Bodies” but complete Bronze Age outfits too. The remains of Egtved girl from Denmark, dated 1370 BC were clothed in a short tunic style top and a string skirt reminiscent of the string apron from the Palaeolithic venus figurines. From jewellery remains in Britain we can assume that similar clothes were being produced and worn. From Huldermose in Denmark the preserved body of a woman was found wearing a colourful woollen plaid scarf and skirt. The skirt was of simple tubular construction fastened around the waist by a leather cord. She was also clothed in lambskin shawls. Near to the site where this body was found another item of clothing dating to the same time was found. This is a peplos dress. A long tube of fabric which is fastened at the shoulders with brooches, this item of clothing is common for women throughout Europe presumably from the Neolithic period right up until the Dark Ages. Men appear to have had leg wraps rather than trousers at first until the mid to late Iron Age.

The arrival of the Roman culture in Britain brought not only Mediterranean textiles and a vast trade network to Britain but also a new type of loom. It is thought that 2 beam looms, similar in appearance to tapestry looms, were introduced at this time and used for a relatively short period (up to 400 years). Woollen cloaks from Britain were highly prized throughout the Roman Empire, they became renowned for being lightweight, warm and waterproof and they were given a higher price than all other woollens in an edict of Dioclesian in the 4th Century. The Romans improved on sheep fleece selective breeding and it is thought that they introduced a short horned white faced sheep into Britain, this then crossbred with the Soay to produce new varieties, it is thought that the Cotswold is the direct descendant of those Roman introductions. Ultimately the Romans wanted to have flocks of primarily white sheep so that the fleece can be dyed any colour easily. When Roman support for the province of Brittannia withdrew in the 450’s AD the warp weighted loom became prevalent once again.

During the Dark Ages the trade links with the Mediterranean may have diminished however new trade opened up with Scandinavia and the coming of the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and the Vikings. It is thought that most families would produce woollen fabric for their own use, with only the finest and most time consuming fabrics being sold or traded over distance. It is a common mistake to think that Dark Age people clothed themselves in coarse sack like fabrics. As children would be brought up learning to spin and weave they would become quite skilled, even in early adulthood and home-made woollen fabrics could be quite fine, as much as 60 thread counts per square cm. The fleeces available to Dark Age spinner and weavers benefited from earlier Roman introductions and may have included Soay, Jacobs, Icelandic and Cotswold breeds amongst others. Archaeozooligists have established that although some Bronze Age breeds were still being farmed in the Dark Ages the bones of these animals are larger than their ancestors and have deduced that some selective breeding had taken place through time. We still use the Anglo Saxon word “sceap” for these animals the “sc” is pronounced as “sh”.

Different breeds of sheep produce fleeces with different characteristics. Coarse wools may be used to produce rugs for example and finer wools to produce different grades of cloth. The length of individual fibres in a fleece is known as the staple. The Icelandic sheep has a fine underwool called the thel and a coarser overwool called the tog. The thel would be used to make fine cloth which could easily be worn next to the skin and the tog was used in worsted production. Worsted wool, named after the town where production became a primary business, became a major part of the British economy for a few hundred years from the Dark Ages onwards. Worsted is the name for preparing and spinning fibres in a particular way. A long, fine, staple is needed and the fibres are made to lie parallel to each other and are spun to produce a fine yarn. The worsted cloth was often refered to as “stuff”.

The Dark Ages also herald the precursor of knitting and crochet. Nalebinding, literally translated from Danish means needle knotting. This is a way of making a fabric from yarn using a single ordinary holed needle. Unlike with knitting or crochet, nalebinding uses short lengths of yarn which are knotted together using different techniques to give differing stitches. It works in much the same way as crochet for increasing or decreasing, you are able to use the technique to make shell patterns and button or lacing holes. A nalebinded sock from the Viking Age was found during excavations in York. Although this item was made using a very simple stitch, the resultant fabric works very well as a sock because of its’ natural elastic qualities.

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066 a new Norman French influence spread throughout Britain. For cloth production this saw the introduction of a horizontal loom and a slight shift in that weaving was thought to be primarily the domain of women until the horizontal loom whereby male weavers and weaving guilds were introduced. The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings and related events was thought to have been worked in Britain, it is in fact an embroidery rather than a tapestry. At this time English embroidery was highly prized and was second to none in its quality and craftsmanship.

By the 1200’s yet more mechanisation was introduced to cloth production in the form of water powered fulling mills. Fulling was used to finish the cloth after weaving. This involved beating and scouring the cloth to close up the weave and to clean out any impurities from the yarn. The cloth would be soaked in stale urine and kneaded by hand or foot until fulling mills became available. In Scotland this was known as waulking and in the Western Isles of Scotland songs have been preserved which were sung to keep a rhythm for this activity. There is however an absence of these mills in areas where worsted cloth was produced. As worsted was so finely woven it did not require such rigorous finishing.

The trade in wool became so important to the English economy that the Lord Speaker had a bale of wool as a seat in the House of Lords. This was to remember how the weath of the country had been gained.  The covered bale has been used since the 1300’s although the original was damaged in the Second World War and was repaired using wool from all the modern commonwealth countries.

As towns and cities began to develop, the production of woollen cloth continued as a cottage industry. People who worked on the land often produced cloth for their own use, as well as possibly producing cloth as a tithe or part rent to the land owner. The guild system regulated all aspects of trade and manufacture. Only guild merchants were permitted to buy and sell therefore the system of “putting out” was created. The weaver would have to buy his yarn from the merchant who then bought the finished cloth from the weaver to be sold on. At every transaction the merchant is taking a cut! Following the 100 years war and the Black Death in 1346 there was a shortage in available workforce and the putting out system stopped in favour of a factory system, where all processes involved in the making of cloth, happened in centralised workplaces. It is also around this time when a new innovation in spinning appears in Britain.

Until the 1300’s all spinning was done with drop spindles, in exactly the same way as it had been done for thousands of years. The use of a wheel is thought to have developed in China and the technology gradually dispersed along the Silk Road. The first spinning wheels are of a type known as a great wheel. The wheel is turned by hand whilst the other hand controls the fibres which are spun and taken up onto a bobbin. This allows a much longer yarn to be spun without interruption as a drop spindle has to be stopped and yarn wound on to the spindle regularly. The uptake of yarn onto the bobbin was done by way of a long thin rod or a spike attributing to the story of sleeping beauty pricking her finger on a spinning wheel. The addition of a treadle to the spinning wheel was not thought to have occurred until the mid 1500’s.

Knitting is thought to have come to Europe through the Moorish influence in Spain. Records show a fabric used for stockings being created on multiple needles. The craft reached Britain in the 1300’s and became instantly popular requiring very little equipment to produce practical clothing. Whole families would be involved in knitting clothing and amongst coastal villages traditions of family patterns developed. As knitted clothing was so insulating and light it was favoured by fishermen. The family patterns which developed could help identify the bodies of those who were washed up on shore having been killed at sea by storms or fateful accident. In Shetland a bog body “Gunnister man” dating to the 17th Century was found with knitted stockings, caps, gloves, purse and an openwork knitted square. The purse in particular was knitted in what we now know as Fair Isle and was very complex knitting but not as fine as the later Shetland knitted shawls, said to be favoured by Queen Victoria.

Later in the medieval period English broadcloth became popular, this cloth is produced by bringing out the nap. After fulling, the surface of the cloth is brushed to produce a dense velvety appearance. This became very fashionable as well as being practical in an age where the cut and style of clothes came to represent a persons’ wealth and position in society. However the drawback of this cloth is that it required more than one weaver. Until the introduction of broadcloth most weaving was done on a loom wide enough for one weaver to comfortably pass the shuttle back and forth through the warp. This obviously restricts the width of the cloth. The loom used for broadcloth was too large for one weaver to perform this task so another weaver had to help to get the shuttle all the way through the warp. This made broadcloth very expensive to make.

Little changes in textiles technology from mid 15th century until the industrial revolution. The introduction of cotton as a resource and the canal network for inland transportation of bulk materials was setting the scene for a major change in textiles production in Britain. In 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle which ran on a track across the warp allowing one weaver to send the shuttle easily across a very broad warp. This made weaving very much quicker and lead to a shortage of spun yarns to use in weaving. The shortage of yarns was addressed by Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves and Samuel Compton with the invention of spinning machines culminating in the Spinning Mule or Spinning Jenny in 1779. This machine was commonly used in factories up until the early 20th Century.

The first cloth production factories started with Edmund Cartwright in 1785. His first mill was burned to the ground in what was thought to be arson. Skilled hand weavers who were still working from home saw their livelihoods threatened by the creation of these factories which could be manned by an unskilled cheap labour force and produce many times the output of the cottage industry. Unfortunately for the artisan weavers history saw the rise of factory cloth production with only specialist weaving done by artisans at home. A small revival of textile production as an art form was helped along by the likes of William Morris in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Crochet is a relatively new textile craft to be practiced. Crochet is named after the French word for hook and no mention of this craft or the method appears until the mid 19th century. Some fabrics categorised as crochet were in fact nalebinding which is produced using short lengths of yarn rather than working from whole balls as in crochet. It has been thought that crochet evolved after the popularisation and availability of cotton became widespread. It was used in Ireland as a form of famine relief, villagers being encouraged to make crochet lace for sale as a way of raising money to buy food after the Potato Famine (1845 – 1849).
Today woollen yarn and textiles production is still practiced although it is seen as a specialised craft rather than an everyday necessity.