Had we no history to read and no relics to study, if we look about us today we may see many examples of the early stages in development of the textile art. Tribes of people still exist whose civilization has not yet advanced to the age of manufacture by complicated processes or by machinery. The baskets, mats, and blankets woven by aboriginal peoples are recognized as being among the most beautiful produced. The workmanship of primitive peoples is marvelous when handling reeds or rushes. Their colors are natural colors and their forms are copied directly from nature. The gourd, the nest, the spider, the reptile, and other natural forms, furnish shapes and designs. An art which thus keeps close to nature, knowing no other art to copy, is sure to be beautiful. The primitive woman is thoroughly acquainted with her materials and understands their limitations. Add to this the beauty of usefulness and the result is excellent. The food and water baskets of the Pima Indian are graceful in line and shape, and the designs, though simple and often crude, are successful, while for durability the baskets are unsurpassed. (See Figure 3.)
The Indian loom, while one of the simplest in construction, produces, under the skillful touch of the Indian man or woman, a blanket or rug so closely and thickly woven as often to be waterproof. Narrow looms are used to weave wonderful belts, saddle girts, and small cloths, for there is no waste by cutting in the making of the aborigines' costume. The design is carried in the weaver's head, the yarns, carefully dyed beforehand, being skillfully woven to produce intricate geometric figures. There is a strength and honesty about the work which give it a place among artistic productions. The blanket shown in Figure 3 is gray, red, and white, very thick and firm. The small loom, with partly woven blanket, is a model of the larger blanket looms. The baskets are illustrations of wonderful skill. Both blanket and baskets show the characteristic geometric designs produced in accordance with the nature of the material.
Fig. 3. Navajo Blanket. Small Blanket Loom. Apache Olla. Pima Food Basket.
The Islands of the Pacific Ocean furnish another interesting source of primitive textiles. Figure 4 shows Samoan and Hawaiian baskets and fans, and food vessels from the gourd and calabash wood, with carrying nets. The simplicity of form and design is notable. Mats woven by the South Sea Islanders from the Marshall Islands (Figure 5) show some knowledge of numbers in the counting necessary to carry out the design, and very skillful manipulation of the material, which consists of Pandanus leaves slit into strands and woven by the savage without a loom. Tapa, or bark cloth from Hawaii and Samoa, is produced in a curious manner from a species of mulberry tree. The art of making this paper-like cloth is now almost lost, but was formerly much practiced. The bark of the shoots of these trees is carefully peeled off, the outer bark scraped away and the under bark beaten with a grooved mallet until it is very thin and smooth. The surface of the finished cloth shows the marks of the mallet, and is either dyed a solid color or decorated with geometric designs, or with fern leaves or other plant forms, which are dipped in dye and then laid on the surface of the fabric.
Fig. 4. Baskets, Fans, and Gourds with Carrying Nets From Samoa and Hawaiian Islands.
Fig. 5. Primitive Fabrics from Pacific Islands.
A. Mat from Marshall Islands.
B. Tapa Cloth from Hawaii.
C. Tol from Gilbert Islands.
D. Mallet used in beating Tapa.
Whether we have passed through just the stage of civilization in which we find the Eskimo, the American Indian, and the South Sea Islander may be a matter of some doubt, but probably our ancestors, thousands of years ago, carried on their arts and industries in a somewhat similar manner, and the study of these primitive peoples serves to give us the stages in the development of the higher forms of industry. We must, however, bear in mind that few peoples today are entirely unaffected by modern civilization and the commercial spirit which follows in its train. An example of this is the Navajo Indian, an excellent type of primitive man, living and working in his primitive way. His blankets have been one of our best examples of a simple and beautiful art, the art of a people untutored in the modern theories of color and design, the product of the individual influenced by generations of his ancestors, but not by any foreign art. Unfortunately, the modern curiosity hunter has brought the Navajo too much before the public eye; his art has become commercialized, and the demand for his wares has caused him to produce faster than he can produce well. He has borrowed from the white man dyes which he does not know how to use, and he works now for the public rather than for himself. The consequence is that it is difficult to find the true Navajo blanket, the expression of the individual making the best product he can. So it is with other peoples in other parts of the world; and as civilization spreads, it will not be many decades before the primitive man, uninfluenced by modern times and conditions, will be a creature of the past, and his art will be a bygone art.
Before turning to written history, let us sum up the results of our search into the dim past.
At first, among the oldest remains, crude implements for spinning and weaving have been found; then potteries with the imprint of woven material, either basketry or coarse cloth, used in molding or for decoration; next, scraps of cloth, coarse and irregular, but requiring inventiveness and manual skill for its production; and later, woven cloths of greater beauty and fineness. All of these furnish sufficient evidence to prove the existence of spinning and weaving at a very early time, and the gradual development of these arts.
Basketry and mat weaving, since the materials are coarser, probably preceded the making of textile fabrics; but we find beautiful textiles among peoples who, so far as we can ascertain, have not excelled in basketry, neither was development simultaneous in all countries. In Egypt, two thousand years ago, fabrics were made similar in many respects to those produced by the Incas in Peru in the thirteenth century A.D., while those of Peru are far superior in fineness of weave, in design, and color to the manufactures of the American Indian of today. Links in the chain of evolution are often missing, but the progress from the coarse, crude cloth found at the bottom of the Swiss lakes to the finest Egyptian mummy cloths must have been a steady one. Remnants of Egyptian and Peruvian burial cloths are interesting as a step in the development of the use of different fibers, but much more so as showing the skill to which the races had attained in the perfection of weaving, in the use of dyes, and in the combination of colors.
Wall paintings also show that the dress of the ancient Egyptian, though simple in construction, was elaborate in color and design. Hangings of great elegance were used in the houses of the wealthy, and the court of the king was a gorgeous assemblage.