At the time when the most ancient records were written, textiles were being woven in parts of the Orient which in intricacy of design, richness of material, and splendor of color have perhaps never been surpassed. Silk, wool, cotton, and linen were all in use. Quotations from the Bible, from the Greek writers, Herodotus and Homer, and from the Roman Pliny show that, four or five centuries before the time of Christ, the countries of Arabia, Syria, Persia, and Palestine excelled in weaving beautiful materials. Still more ancient records of India and China tell of wonderful fabrics made in these countries. Purple and gold was a sign of royalty and nobility. The purple dye was laboriously obtained from a shell fish, first discovered on the shores of Tyre. The gold beaten into very thin,plates was then cut into strips which were either woven flat or wound about threads of some fiber.
"The joyful mother plies her learned hands And works all o'er the trabea golden bands; Draws the thin strips to all their length of gold To make the metal meaner threads enfold."
When woven separately or with silk, these produced the most gorgeous fabrics.
These various products of the loom furnished one of the chief articles of commerce of the Phoenicians and also of the extensive trade of the interior of the Orient.
Homer, about 900 B.C., tells of the elaborate embroidery executed by Helen of Troy. The designs at this time were not simple and conventional, but portrayed historic events, the scenes of battle or legends. When Pericles was beautifying Athens, men and women whose names have long since perished were providing magnificent fabrics to embellish the walls and floors of the wonderful buildings. Gradually these arts spread into Western Europe, where for a long time simple spinning and weaving had been carried on. Of these early tapestries and beautiful materials we have only written descriptions or pictures, but these are vivid enough to give us a conception of what they must have been. The Roman conqueror brought to Rome silks, linens, woolens, cloth of gold and silver, decorated with precious stones, and tapestries, which, judging from the descriptions, must have excelled anything we can imagine in luxury and richness.
It is said that "the wife of the Emperor Honorius died sometime about the year 400, and when her grave was opened in 1544, the golden tissues in which her body had been shrouded were taken out and melted, amounting in weight to thirty-six pounds." 1
In Rome, show and luxury caused many arts to decline. This was true also of the textile art, since decline of taste is shown in extravagance of dress and house furnishings as in other ways.
Gradually Italy began to produce her own fabrics.
1 Rock. Textile Fabrics.
Spain received the art from the Moors, and in time all Europe was making priceless tapestries. This European tapestry showed the influence of Greece and Rome and also of the Orient. Art was pressed into the service of the church, and just as tapestries had previously portrayed wars, the stories of the gods, the powers of nature and mythology, they now pictured the stories of the Bible. Beautiful brocades, velvets, and silks of various kinds were made in Sicily. Naples, Florence, and Venice were all famous for their weavers. Heraldry provided designs for silks, especially at the time of the Crusades. Lucca and Genoa became famous for velvets and cloth of gold. Guilds were formed to carry on the trades, and the silk guilds and wool guilds of Italy were a prominent factor in the cities for hundreds of years.
The Renaissance in the thirteenth century gave great impetus to all part, and from then until the seventeenth century there was marvelous development in tapestry weaving. Tapestries as woven pictures are the highest expression of the weaver's art, and require the skill of both an artist and a trained workman. Tapestry weaving differs from ordinary weaving in that the warp or lengthwise threads are stretched on a frame, then the weft or cross threads are woven in by hand, not in a continuous thread from side to side, but each small part of the design is woven in separately as a different color is required. Tapestry might be called embroidery on warp threads and because of the nature of the process any design may be produced. The art of tapestry weaving was known to the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Peruvians, and other nations with a high state of civilization at an early period. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the Flemish and French produced many beautiful tapestries. Arras, a village in Northern France, became so famous that the term Arras came to be used very generally for all tapestries. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the work in France was greatly aided by the active support of the throne. Louis XIV, through his minister Colbert, reorganized the Gobelin workshop which had existed in Paris since 1607, and made it, in 1662, an establishment manufacturing for the crown alone. Since the finances of the industry had been quite precarious, this was a great step in making the Gobelin the permanent establishment it has been since that time. A similar royal factory was established at Beauvais in 1664. These two factories during the seventeenth century produced some of the most wonderful examples of textile art known in modern history. Those who wish to go more fully into this chapter of textile history are referred to the bibliography for books dealing with this subject. It is significant to note that this art developed along with architecture, sculpture, and painting. Like them it has had its great periods and its declines, the greatest decline being in the eighteenth century. Since then the heights have not again been reached.
Fig. 6. Bobbin used in making Gobelin Tapestry.
Reproduction in black and white gives little idea of the real beauty of tapestry, but this specimen from the Flemish (Figure 7, frontispiece) gives some suggestion of the intricateness and the general character of some of the greatest woven masterpieces.
Fig. 7. Flemish Tapestry, early Sixteenth Century.
Before leaving the textiles of the twelfth to the eighteenth century, we must turn again to the Orient, for there was and still is carried on in Persia, Turkey, and other parts of Western Asia an industry which is, in many ways, the wonder of all times. Oriental rugs, which are so prized because of their marvelous construction, their wearing qualities, and their great beauty, are the products, not of a few great artists, but of hundreds of humble Oriental workers, in their wild mountain homes. The best of these rugs are not surpassed anywhere for beauty of color and design, while the silkiness of the wool or the fineness of the silk used produces the texture of finest velvet. Perhaps because the colors are softened by age, the oldest rugs are among the finest; but many wonderful pieces, some of them modern, have been brought into European and American markets of late years. Efforts are continually being made to imitate these rugs in modern manufacture, but the secrets of dyeing and color combination, the individuality and excellence of design learned through centuries of experience in the Orient, are not to be duplicated in a day, and the strength of hand-tied knots in each thread of the pile of an Oriental rug is not to be found in the pile of a machine-made carpet. Here again, for a more complete study, there are books full of interest and charm.
Chinese and Japanese textile art has not changed as rapidly as the European art. For centuries beautiful silks and embroideries have been produced by these countries with a character quite distinctly their own. The Oriental peoples have not become intermingled as have the Occidental. They have had a religion which is retrogressive rather than progressive, and until the invasion of Western civilization there was little change in customs, art, or dress. These peoples have exercised a wonderful manual skill in all their industries, but they have not invented. India for hundreds of years has produced muslins, the wonder of the world in fineness, but, except when foreign influence has been exerted, her methods are as crude as they were a thousand years ago.