In attempting to learn something of the beginnings of weaving and spinning, we are carried back to the earliest written records, and here we find descriptions of an industry already well developed. For the earliest beginnings we must search farther into the dim past, where we have only dusty relics to instruct us; and even then we find that the birth of our industry is lost in past ages. As man first began to emerge from a state more animal than human, and felt a need for something more than the food and shelter provided by nature, he doubtless began to devise implements, clothing, and habitations of some sort; and while the skins of animals and the bark and leaves of trees first supplied his needs, slowly he developed the ability to make use of the reeds and grasses about him, and then the wool, flax, and other fibers that nature provided, and to combine these twigs and fibers into baskets, mats, and cloth. Whether the earliest need was for shelter, for decoration, or to express modesty, we know that decoration soon followed the early textile industry, and through the ages this art and industry have developed side by side. Though information be scattered and evidences slight, they are sufficient to throw light thousands of years into the past.
It has been the custom among primitive peoples to bury with their dead various tools, weapons, and clothing which they considered man might need in whatever journey he was to take in the life to follow. Thousands of years later the graves of these prehistoric men have been opened, and the tools which they buried have come to light, giving much information concerning the occupations of the times. Among these tools are spindles, shuttles, crude looms, combs, and other implements used in spinning and weaving. In some localities, because of peculiar conditions of climate or soil, not only have stone and wooden implements been preserved, but pottery, basketry, and even textile fabrics have been found.
In the tombs of ancient Egypt, where bodies were, wrapped in cloth and then embalmed, we have examples of textile fabrics four thousand years old. These are mostly linen, rather coarse in weave, but decorated with color in stripes and with crude representations of living creatures. The Egyptians worshiped plants, animals, and material things, and they portrayed these in their designs. Some of the fabrics are embroidered, but more commonly the designs are woven in. Figure I shows the character of Egyptian design when more fully developed in the early Christian era.
Fig. 1. Egyptian Linen. Sixth to Seventh Century A. D.
On the coast of Peru, where the dry saline sands are excellent preservatives, there have recently been opened graves containing relics of great interest. The Incas, a powerful race of Peruvians, had carried the textile art to a high degree of perfection in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and they buried with their dead many fabrics of linen, cotton, and wool, embroidered, intricate in design, and ornamented with precious metals. A valuable collection of Peruvian textiles is in the Natural History Museum in New York, the most perfect piece being a poncho of wool, very silky in its fineness. Its surface is divided into squares, each filled with simple, geometric designs of animal and plant form. This poncho was buried in a stone box, and has come out apparently as perfect in color and texture as it went in. Nets showing different weaves and meshes, elaborate head dresses, tassels, and ornaments of various sorts, as well as patchwork in gorgeous colors, are among the collections in this museum, and also in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The looms used by the Peruvians were very simple, as were those used by the Egyptians. Some of the former have been found in the graves with partly finished cloth in them, while the latter are pictured on the walls of temple or tomb. The colors and the designs are quite similar in Egyptian and Peruvian relics, although one industry existed some hundreds of years B.C. and the other about 1300 A.D.
Fig. 2. Peruvian Fabric.
Figure 2 shows a remnant of a Peruvian fabric with characteristic design and fringe.
In parts of Switzerland, during the Bronze Age, men built their homes on piles driven into the bottoms of lakes. When these houses decayed and fell into the lake, or were partly destroyed by fire, tools and fabrics fell also, and gradually covered by a layer of peat have been preserved there for thousands of years. Sometimes several layers have been found, separated by layers of mud, illustrating different periods of history. The materials found in these lakes are very fragmentary, but serve to show that the lake dwellers knew how to spin and weave and had crude implements to work with.
Aside from these and other remains of early textile art itself, we are able to learn much from the associated arts of the same periods. We find decoration on potteries, made by the imprint of the woven cloth or basketry used for holding the vessel in shape, sometimes probably molded there merely for decoration. Sometimes the decoration shows designs clearly developed for use in weaving, but not necessarily produced in this way. The Mound Builders of this country furnish us with examples of this sort. Basketry is an art practiced by many primitive peoples and is closely related to cloth weaving, since the decorations and some of the weaves are the same in both. Architecture, too, shows the influence of textile art, some of the designs used in decoration of stone showing clearly their textile origin. Evidently the two arts developed side by side for ages, the woven fabrics serving to embellish the architecture, or making a real part of the structure, when used for partitions and walls. Pictorial decoration on architecture and on pottery, stones, and tools frequently portrays the arts and industries of the times. Weaving, spinning, dyeing, and preparation of fibers are all shown in a manner crude, but distinct nevertheless. We find such decoration abundant in Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and other countries.
All of these sources furnish us with unquestionable evidences of an art and an industry existing long before written records were left. New evidences of this past life are brought to light from time to time in many parts of the globe, adding their proof that spinning and weaving were commonly practiced among our prehistoric ancestors.