Ancient Fibres and the History of Clothing
4 Oct 19 · 7 mins read
Clothes began in Georgia
In September 2009, a team of researchers and experts from the United States, Israel, and the Republic of Georgia examined clay retrieved from the Dzudzuana Cave and discovered something that would rewrite history as they knew it, stretching the history of fabric back much further than many people had every imagined possible.
The Dzudzuana Cave is located in the western region of Georgia, about 200km from the capital city of Tbilisi. Embedded in the clay were flax fibres, invisible now to the naked eye due to disintegration, that were more than 34,000 years old (Upper Paleolithic Age). Flax is a plant with edible grain and is still used to make linen, though the variety used in modern times—Linum usitatissimum—is domesticated, unlike the wild variety used by our ancestors. The fibres found in this cave showed that humans had been industriously creating fibres from plants for much longer than experts had realised.
In this post, we will look at the significance of these archaeological findings in Georgia, and briefly tackle the history of clothing.
The memorable excavation was jointly led by archaeologists and palaeobiologists from Harvard University, the Georgian State Museum, and Hebrew University, with microscopic research done by Eliso Kvavadze of the Institute of Paleobiology, National Museum of Georgia. Their original goal was to analyse tree pollen samples, until Kvavadze saw flax fibres under a microscope. Before this discovery, the oldest evidence of fabric production (in the form of imprints of fibres on clay objects) dated back 28,000 years, discovered in Dolni Vestonice in the Moravia area of Czech Republic (St Clair, 2018, p. 32).
The Dzudzuana fibres provided a unique insight into the human experience 34, 500 years ago. The fibres showed evidence of modification, having been knotted, spun, cut, and even dyed a variety of colours, and proved that early modern humans had been making fabric in a sophisticated manner far earlier than initially thought. The flax fibres were probably used to sew together animal pelts to create clothing, shoes, and basketry to carry items.
Origins of Clothing
In the field of archaeology, items such as fibres and fabric are hard to find because unlike monuments and tools, they don’t last through the centuries. Clothing artefacts can only survive if they were found in habitats that managed to preserve them. For example, in 1947, a Russian archaeologist named S.J. Rundenko was excavating a 5th century Scythian tomb in southern Siberia when he uncovered, among other hidden gems, an almost entirely preserved carpet now known as the “Pazyryk carpet”, which at more than 2,000 years of age is the oldest surviving carpet ever discovered. The contents of the tomb were preserved because it was earlier broken into, allowing in water, which then froze during the winter and re-sealed the tomb in ice for millennia. (Read more about the Pazyryk carpet in this article.)
As clothing disintegrates rapidly, researchers had to find creative ways to figure out when humans began wearing clothes. In 2011, David Reed and his colleagues in the University of Florida used DNA sequencing to calculate when body lice first evolved from human head lice. Body lice lived exclusively in clothing, and through studying lice evolution, Reed and his colleagues found that humans started wearing clothes about 170,000 years ago – in the middle of an Ice Age and some 70,000 years before humans started to migrate north from Africa. Clothing, then, aided our ancestors in fighting the cold and helped them survive the migration into cooler climates.
There were several competing theories as to why humans, unlike other mammals, evolved to become hairless and practically defenceless against cold temperatures. Our core body temperature must remain at around 37 degrees Celsius; if it falls below 35 degrees, hypothermia sets in (St Clair, 2018, p. 25). Death is inevitable if it falls below 21 degrees.
To keep themselves warm and to protect themselves from the elements, our early ancestors must have simply used animal pelts.
But using woven fabric has its distinct advantages, which our ancestors also probably discovered after many years of simply draping fur over their shoulders: fabric can be shaped closer to the body, which insulates the skin better while moving, and woven fabrics are more breathable and easier to dry than fur (St Clair, 2018, p. 26).
Early modern humans lived alongside Neanderthals for about 10,000 years at the end of the last Ice Age, and some scientists believed the former wore fur-trimmed and close-fitting clothing, while the Neanderthals likely did not, leaving them shivering in the cold climate. The Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago.
Fabric and Fashion through the Ages
Early modern humans clothed for function, but clothing for fashion or aesthetics was also evident with the Dzudzuana flax fibres dyed black, turquoise, and even pink. The Neanderthals were also said to have used coloured ochre for body decoration and to colour their clothing.
The fabric from flax used by early modern humans probably did not resemble the lightweight linen of today—as reported by NPR, the experts believed “the fibres they found in the cave were probably braided together, macramé style”—but ancient Egyptians circa 5000 BC managed to hand-weave flax to make a strong, breathable, and absorbent fabric with which to clothe themselves in the hot and humid climate of the desert. The fabric they created was still coarser than modern linen, but very delicate for the time.
Flax held a special place in Egyptian culture, society, and economy (St Clair, 2018, p. 43) and linen was imbued with magical meaning (p. 39). Egyptians used linen to wrap their dead—as can be seen in the excavated tombs of Egyptian mummies—and used it as currency in trade.
Silk is a natural fibre spun by the larvae of the mulberry silkworm to make their cocoons, and its discovery is attributed to the Chinese Empress Leizu around 2650 BC. Legend says a cocoon fell from a mulberry tree into her cup of hot tea, and she saw a shiny thread as she retrieved the cocoon from her cup.
The silkworms were reared in captivity to produce the fibre in a practice called sericulture. The Chinese guarded this secret for centuries to maintain their monopoly, and the silk trade made the Chinese Empire prosperous and built cities along the so-called “Silk Road”.
Romans thought silk grew on trees, and bought it from the Chinese despite its high price. The wearing of silk garments became the fashion trend in Rome. When the Roman Empire fell in 476, it was survived by its eastern arm, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople, which became the first significant centre of silk-weaving in Europe after silkworm eggs were smuggled from China to the west (some say by the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I). (Read more about the Silk Road and the Silk Road explorers.)
From Handmade Items to “Fast Fashion”
The next centuries brought new discoveries and technologies that made an impact on the way we clothed ourselves. In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution brought synthetic dyes, the sewing machine, and mechanised textile production. (Read more about the Industrial Revolution and Victorian era fashion.)
Before the shift to industry, clothes were made by hand at home for personal use, or by skilled artisans who sold the garments in their shops. The introduction of new technology introduced faster ways to create garments and change fashion looks to suit the seasons, making clothes more affordable but at the same time displacing skilled craftsmen and artisans who could not compete with the rapid production line in factories.
The 1880s also saw the invention of a synthetic fibre by Joseph Swan, formed by squeezing nitrocellulose (chemically modified wood fibre) through holes. He did this while searching for a better carbon filament for the lightbulb he was developing, but recognised the man-made fibre’s potential contribution to the textile industry. Hilaire de Chardonnet also used nitrocellulose to develop “Chardonnet silk” or artificial silk. The first commercial rayon (then called viscose rayon) was produced in the UK in 1905, and was followed by nylon (1930s) and polyester (1940s).
The effects of the Industrial Revolution followed us into the modern era. According to the International Labour Organisation, from 1970-1990, jobs in the textile, clothing, and footwear (TCF) industries shifted from Europe and North America to Asia and other parts of the Global South in pursuit of cheap labour and higher profit margins, . There was also a parallel shift in production from the formal to the informal sector, where workers received low wages and had poor working conditions.
Clothing now is cheaper than ever, giving rise to “fast fashion”, a term used by retailers to mean inexpensive designs that move quickly from the catwalk to the stores. In recent years, this practice of cutting the time between design and production (and using a supply chain that may or may not be following ethical labour practices) has received criticism as global production now exceeds 100 billion garments a year, negatively impacting the environment and workers’ rights in the countries where these garments are produced. Many are now advocating for “slow fashion”, finding ways to buy more ethically and champion sustainability.
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