A Brief History of Clothing From the Stone Age to the Bronze Age
It is almost impossible to date the time when humans developed the concept of clothing. Garments are obviously perishable. Furs, hides, leather, and early attempts at weaving cloth would be long lost, disintegrated into the dust of time. Bone beads and needles have some lasting power but imagine finding a needle in the immense haystack of the world!
Ice age humans wore furs for warmth. The concept of making them pliable and wearable necessitated the invention of tanning. Not long ago, primitive cultures of the north chewed hides to make them supple. Tanning, the immersion of hide in a solution of water and willow or oak bark, creating tannic acid, produces a workable material out of animal hide.
One of the oldest archeological clues relating to something that resembles a garment is a string skirt depicted on a small figurine that is 25,000 years old. The little triangular skirt is skimpy and in no way able to provide warmth.
Paleolithic humans (Old Stone Age humans) were hunters and gatherers. They followed animal herds and gathered seasonal plants in order to feed themselves. It is difficult for nomadic people to accumulate goods; everything they had needed to be portable.
When the ancient nomads ran into another group, it was an opportunity to trade in ideas, news, goods, and technology. It has been suggested that making yourself look interesting from first glance would make travelers welcome. In order to create this friendly atmosphere, early humans would want their hosts to admire them, not fear them. They would have wanted to look cool.
Earliest Evidence of Clothing
Mark Stoneking, a geneticist, has postulated that genetic studies of body lice show that some type of clothing may have been worn as early as 107,000 years ago. Furs or hides provided warmth during several ice ages.
Stone scraping tools that may have been used to clean hides have been dated to 100,000 BC.
The oldest eyed needle in the archeological record was discovered in 1983. Sibudu Cave, north of Durban South Africa was shone through carbon dating, to have been inhabited from 77,000 to 38,000 BC. There, archeologists found a bone eyed needle dating to about 61,000 BC that showed wear resembling bone needles used to pierce animal hide. Small beads were also found at that side.
Evidence shows that by 26,000 - 20,000 BC eyed needles (as well as beads made of shell, bone, and teeth) were common in Eastern Europe. The remains of a young man from that time period, found near the border of Italy and France show that he wore a kind of cap or hairnet strung with four rows of shell beads.
Long before people settled down or developed agriculture, they created art! Tiny figurines of obese women were discovered in Eastern and Southern Europe. One of these figures, the Lespugue Venus, wears a string skirt. The triangular skirt hangs from a hip band and would certainly not provide either warmth or modesty (as we know it). Elizabeth Wayland Barber suggests that the 25,000 year old string skirt signified a woman ready to "marry," a woman who had reached childbearing age. Those little string skirts continued on for thousands of years and can still be seen in peasant costumes of Eastern Europe.
Felt is a kind of nonwoven fabric made from wool. Sumerian legend has it that felt was invented by Urnamman of Lagash, a warrior known for his bravery, compassion, and ingenuity.
The remains of a piece of felt have been found in Turkey and dated to 6500 BC. (That's 8500 years ago).
The production of felt is a fairly simple practice that has regained popularity with modern crafters. Neolithic people of Central Asia and the Near East used wool to make felt. The wool is combed, wet, then laid out on mats. The mat can be rolled tightly and beaten with a heavy stick, causing the strands of wool to cling too one another. This creates a warm,durable, pliable material that can be cut and pieced together to make tents, rugs, or garments.
Mongolian felt making in the old style
The first evolutionary step toward the idea of weaving cloth was the production of baskets, nets, and string. The earliest evidence of string used as a garment appears, as stated earlier, on a Venus figurine that is 25,000 years old.
The weaving of cloth is a difficult and time consuming process. Deterioration is common and the problem of locating ancient cloth is obviously difficult. When people began to settle into small communities between 10,000 - 7,000 BC they left more evidence of their lives than nomadic people. Nomadic people had less stuff due to the difficulty of transport. Settled people accumulate goods. They have the time and space to develop new technology, to collect and dry fibrous plants, and eventually, to domesticate sheep. Yet, incredibly, the history of weaving predates agriculture.
An article in Science Daily reports that archeological excavations at several sites in Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic produced several imprints in clay objects that show an early use of flax (the plant used to make linen). The imprints of flax fibers are 28,000 years old.
Flax fibers from the Republic of Georgia show evidence of being knotted and dyed in bright colors and are 34,000 years old!
BBC News has reported finds from several sites in the Republic of Georgia that appear to be woven cloth that is 27,000 years old. Professor Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois discovered 90 fragments in clay impressions that show humans wove cloth much earlier than previously thought. The people who produced this cloth lived long before the advent of agriculture.
The oldest piece of actual woven fabric (as opposed to impressions) is 7,000 - 9,000 years old. Found in Turkey near the headwaters of the Tigris River, the tiny piece of cloth was wrapped around the handle of a tool made of antler, perhaps to improve grip.
Weaving Warp and Weft
Weaving Textiles for Clothing
Large pieces of fabric need to be produced on a large loom. Settlements offered the opportunity to create large pieces of woven fabric. But here again archeological evidence is scanty. Wood frames are subject to deterioration. But clay loom weights (as well as pots and other artifacts) were discovered in the remains of a village in the Tisza Valley in Hungary. Dated to 5500 BC (that's 7500 years ago) the weights were located near post holes that once supported a vertical, warp weighted loom. Those Neolithic people were able to produce fabric that was 4 - 5 feet wide.
Several sites in Switzerland have given us tools from people who lived in dwellings built on pilings in lakes. Items that fell into the water were preserved by the alkaline quality of the water. (Alkalinity preserves plant fibers) Five thousand years ago, these people produced baskets, textiles, and bags. Objects found include hacking boards with tiny thorns set into neat rows. (A hacking board is used to separate threads of the warp, or vertical threads into sets) Small pieces of textiles show strips, rectangles, and braided fringe. The complicated pattern work suggests that people were highly skilled at weaving so had been doing it for a long time.
Fabric impressions in clay found in Jarmo in Iraqi Kurdistan show a fine and neatly woven fabric in two different styles of weaving, a craft obviously practiced for some time by 7,000 BC.
Ancient Weaving and Early Textile Industry
Many examples of textiles appear in art work from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Crete. Egyptian tomb reliefs show women working together at large looms. Statues and reliefs from Sumeria depict people wearing skirts made of tufted materials in 3100 BC.
Written evidence in cuniform from 1750 BC in Turkey have left a record of a textile trade. Ancient letters written between a wife and her traveling husband speak of their textile business. While the husband traveled and traded, the wife gathered and supplied woven wool fabric and oversaw garment workshops at home. Documents describe one workshop of 25 workers, another with eighty- seven workers.
In 1600 BC (that's 3,600 years ago) people in Crete produced quite sophisticated textiles. One clay figurine depicts a woman in a flounced dress with tight sleeves and a tight waistband that resembles women's garments of the late 19th century! (A similar clay statue appears on the lower right. The pictured dress does not feature flounces but shows a sophisticated style and print, and certainly resembles garments of a much later time period) By this time, women wore elaborate head dresses, brightly colored belts, and both draped and fitted garments.
As textile technology advanced, clothing became a sign of status. Royalty and the higher classes wore finer and more decorative clothing with elaborate embellishments.
Linen in Ancient Egypt
The flax plant has grown wild from North Africa to Central and Eastern Europe for tens of thousands of years. It can be dried, wet, and combed to produce fibers used for weaving linen. Tough, durable yet lightweight linen has been in cultivation for a long time. Neolithic people learned it's properties early on and developed methods for its use while it was still a wild plant. But the Ancient Egyptians took linen production to a new level.
By 3000BC (5,000 years ago) the Ancient Egyptians were weaving linen so fine that it could be pulled through a ring. Tomb reliefs depict women wearing dresses made of linen so fine that it was transparent.
The Egyptians were a clean people and loved the purity of linen. It can be easily laundered and becomes softer with use. The Egyptians did not use wool.
Pleated garments were popular. The oldest preserved pleated linen garment has been dated to 3100 BC. The beautiful features of Ancient Egyptian clothing show up on tomb reliefs for thousands of years and can still be seen in clothing worn today.
For Further Reading
- Women's Work the First 20,000 Years (Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times) by Elizabeth Wayland Barber; WW Norton and Company; New York, NY; 1994
- Costume and Fashion A Concise History by James Laver; Thames and Hudson Inc; New York, NY; 1995, Fourth Edition 2002
- Threading Time - A Cultural History of Threadwork by Dolores Bausum; ebook
- Prehistoric Textiles by E. J. W. Barber
- Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Persian Costume by Mary J. Houston
- The Book of Looms: A History of the Hand Loom From Ancient Times to the Present by Eric Broudy
- World Textiles: A Concise History by Mary Schoeser
© 2014 Dolores Monet