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7 Historical Facts About Weaving

Frances Metcalfe lives in rural France. In between house renovation she writes about all types of observations.

Let's explore the ancient history of weaving!

Let's explore the ancient history of weaving!

1. 34,00-Year-Old Fabric

Georgia, 34,00 years ago, and man was sewing clothes not so different to how people around the world still do so today.

Flax has been found by archaeologists in a cave at Dzudzuana in the Caucasus sifting through the minutest of soil samples and is the oldest known evidence of man interested in fabric fashion items.

The wild flax grew nearby and would have been used for garments and sewing hides together. Woven baskets and ties for bags aided our hunter-gatherer ancestors to carry their belongings from one place to another with comparative ease.

Sadly whole cloths have not survived. Flax disintegrates easily, and tiny fibrous fragments are all that remain as proof our ancient brethren wore clothes. Nevertheless, under the watchful microscopic eye, it was possible to see the twist in the strands, evidence that rope was fashioned and some were also dyed.

Colouring the thread indicates a culture interested in beautiful things. Not content with the plain and unadorned people invested time and consideration in the aesthetic. If you had threads of varying hues, would you not also arrange them into a pattern, even if it were only stripes? I know I would, so why not our 34,000-year-old predecessors?

2. Earliest Known Loom

We can only speculate about our ancestors arranging dyed flax into pleasing patterns. There is no actual proof of it being woven on a loom 34000 years ago.

But we now have proof of 8,000-year-old weaving in China in Kuahuqiao in Zhejiang province with the discovery of a loom uncovered along with vessels used in cooking, a dug-out canoe and cultivated rice. Because the site was boggy it preserved many items of the local people's day-to-day living.

3. The Chinese Loom Large in a Miniature Neolithic world

Archaeological discoveries have led us to believe the Chinese were trailblazers in the world of weaving. South of Kuahuqaio is another important site, at Chengdu in the province of Sichuan. And it's remarkable for more than one reason. For, as in the case of buses, not one loom came along, but four of them. In another twist, the looms were not full-sized but miniature versions.

The discovery, which presented itself in a chambered tomb was exceptionally rich in detail. We know the name of the woman whose tomb it was. According to the jade seal at the entrance, she was called Wan Dinu and there are tiny figurines 'working' the looms inside the tomb, just like a child's toy set designed to fit inside a doll's house. Thirteen little painted figures 25 centimeters tall, four men, are in charge of the weaving process, aided by nine women assistants. Each of the weavers has been assigned a name, so it may well be that the miniature figures had been real-life artisans.

It's believed these tiny looms are a representation of pattern looms, used in the production of silk fabrics, since two coloured silk threads, red and brown, were found attached to the wood.

Map of Chengdu, China

Map of Chengdu, China

4. The Parrot Fish's Extraordinary Teeth

How many of us would guess teeth can be woven? Very unlikely, most of us would say. But who should swim into the realm of denticular peculiarity but the parrot fish?

As with sharks, parrot fish have sets of constantly renewing teeth—teeth with remarkable properties enabling the fish to chew up coral without breaking its pearly whites.

Under the microscope, scientists observed that the enamel, just a few microns in diameter, had been woven using the familiar warp and weft design to form a dense mesh of immense strength. 530 tons per square inch of pressure in fact. Just right for pulverising the hardest of rocks.

Underwater cameras have captured this attractive little fish bobbing about chewing up coral as if it's chomping on an apple. If you've ever had the misfortune to knock against these colourful organisms you'll remember how painfully sharp and unforgiving they are. For the parrot fish, they're dinner. The pestled detritus floats down contributing to the ocean floor.

Next time you walk barefoot on some white sandy beach worthy of a perfect desert island paradise, think of those rows of incredible teeth grinding on the rocks lining the sea bed to produce that idyllic location.

5. Egypt Claims the Most Ancient Tapestry

Famous for its pharaohs, Egypt has its fair share of tombs, and in one of them, fragments of the oldest known linen tapestry came to light.

Compared to Tutankhamun, King Thutmose IV may be an unfamiliar name but his claim to fame, small though it may be, lies in the discovery of this ancient craft in his burial place.

One piece is covered in hieroglyphs while the other two depict the names of other pharaohs within the customary cartouche. Five colours, red, green, blue, yellow and brown, lend the tapestries the familiar colouration we associate with Egyptian wall paintings. Scarabs and lotus flowers are featured, symbolising life after death and the pharaoh's immortality.

Even the loom upon which the tapestry was woven has been immortalised on the wall but in reality, Thutmose's reign wasn't so long-lived, lasting only nine years, from c.1419 – 1410 BC.

This ancient Egyptian loom was probably worked by the women of the harem.

This ancient Egyptian loom was probably worked by the women of the harem.

6. Wonderful Weaver Birds

Weaver birds, also known as weaver finches, are celebrated for constructing their complex tangled nests, suspended elegantly from boughs.

The males build the nests to lure females. The more elaborate the structure, the more impressed a potential mate will be and nests can contain up to 1000 grass stems.

To create these beautiful dangling intricacies the weaver bird begins by knotting a single strand using its beak and claw. As with any weaving we might do, the weaver bird threads from one direction and then from the opposite until the nest is complete. Various plant materials are used but if bits of string, scraps of paper or a spider's web are to hand, they may also be incorporated into the architectural design.

There are many types of weaver birds, well over one hundred. Bearing in mind there is safety in number some weaver birds cluster their nests together. One sort even constructs one large residence called an 'apartment block' comprising a single entrance with individual 'flatlets' within the condominium.

Humans may have extremely fine motor skills, but I'd know who I'd favour in a nest-building competition pitched against the weaverbird!

7. Legendary Weaving Stories

Weaving is a thread, you might say, which runs through many mythological tales. All are shocking in their way, some more than others.

One popular story regularly read to children, is that of Sleeping Beauty, created in its modern form by the brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, drawing on a similar tale from the 1300s. Literally spinning a yarn, a beautiful princess's christening is ruined by a cruel curse from a spurned godmother, predicting the princess will die when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel. The curse is commuted to 100 years of sleep by another of Sleeping Beauty's godmothers. Inevitably the ill-fated time arrives and the princess jabs herself on the wheel of misfortune and the king orders his daughter to be put to bed on gold and silver sheets to sleep her 100 years away. The story winds on happily when her saviour prince wakes the princess with a kiss after the designated century of slumber.

In another fairy tale, Rapunzel, the eponymous heroine has been incarcerated in a tower without an entrance. She is given a piece of silk by a prince to weave into a ladder so he can climb up to her. Despite setbacks, the two eventually get together and live happily ever after.

Moving on into darker Hellenic territory, we come across the story of Arachne. She is mortal and a talented weaver who makes the mistake of believing her art is more exquisite and flawless than the god Athena's. Unsurprisingly, Athena does not take kindly to Arachne's insolent claim and challenges her to a weaving competition. Arachne's weaving outshines that of Athena who is unable to contain her rage at being outdone by her rival and turns her into a spider.

But the most disturbing legend of all is that of a young woman as told by Ovid in his Terrors of Philomena. King Pandion of Athens has two daughters, Procne and Philomena. Procne has married Tereus, the king of Thrace and misses her sister who is living back in Athens. Tereus agrees to escort Philomena to Thrace but during the journey he rapes her. Refusing to keep her silence about the terrible sexual assault, Tereus cuts out Philomena's tongue so she cannot speak of it and abandons her in a cabin. But Philomena weaves a tapestry depicting the rape and has it sent to her sister.

Bloodthirsty revenge is wreaked upon Tereus. With Philomena's help, Procne kills her son by Tereus, and together they butcher his body then boil him up and feed him to the unsuspecting king. Whether it involved weaving or not it would be hard to uncover a more disquieting account of human behaviour.

Prince Florimond Awakens Sleeping Beauty

Prince Florimond Awakens Sleeping Beauty

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on October 24, 2019:

Onkar Nath Ram - thank you for your comments.

Onkar Nath Ram on October 24, 2019:

Informations about ancient weaving

More fruitfull for all who are associated with traditional /non traditional weaving works.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on December 31, 2017:

Frances, What a brilliant piece you've created. Enjoyed this very much.