Brief history of weaving

Leandro Bassano - Penelope

itItaliano (Italian)

translation by Chiara Cordoni

Weaving is among the most ancient and widespread techniques in the world and one of its peculiarities, in addition to having a practical utility, is that it has represented a means of artistic expression for all civilizations – in ancient times, fabrics were a way of spreading symbols and images, by all means a language, and in time they started identifying the single characteristics of people, culture and social status.

It is impossible to tell with certainty when weaving started, mostly because it is fragile and it is easily deteriorated. Some theories state that the observation of bird nests suggested the idea of interlacing and consequently the invention of weaving, because weaving is essentially interweaving thanks to which fabric is created. Technically it is the art of creating fabric through a combination of warp and weft. The lengthwise or longitudinal warp yarns are held stationary in tension on a frame or loom while the transverse weft is drawn through and inserted over-and-under the warp.

The oldest textile finds are fragments found in the tombs of ancient Egypt that have been preserved thanks to the dry climate and sand. Of similar workmanship, very fine linen, are the fabrics discovered in Peru, also among the oldest archaeological remains. The importance of the textile tradition in ancient Egypt is also confirmed by the discovery of the representation of a loom on a terracotta plate, dating back to 4400 B.C., and by a horizontal loom on the ground that first appeared around 3000 B.C.

Archaeological evidence points to a general diffusion of weaving and spinning that suggests a knowledge of natural and vegetable fibers; the Egyptians were distinguished by their ability to spin and then weave linen, Indians and Peruvians created the first cotton fabrics, Mesopotamia produced wool fabrics, the Chinese were the first to produce silk since the first centuries of the third millennium BC.

The rich production of artefacts is echoed by the symbolic importance of weaving; hence the birth of myths and gods protecting weaving and, more generally, of a creative force that governs the world. In Egypt Neith was worshiped, weaver goddess and symbol of the eternal feminine and nature; Athena, Greek goddess protector of feminine works who punished Arachne for having challenged her in the art of weaving; the Germans turned to Freya, Frigg and Hulda. It is impossible not to mention Penelope who, as Homer writes in the Odyssey, weaved during the day and then unraveled her work at night waiting for the return of her beloved Ulysses.

One of the problems that man had to face at the dawn of weaving was how to stretch the threads of the warp to allow the insertion of the weft; the problem was solved by stretching the threads between a tree and the weaver’s body or between pegs planted on the ground at a certain distance between them, this method is still used in Latin America.

Around the 16th century B.C. a vertical loom with two rollers supported by a rectangular wooden frame appeared in Egypt, the weaver sat in front and the work proceeded in the lower part of the frame. The loom with the warp held in tension by stone and terracotta weights dates back to the 12th century BC. In this vertical loom, used in Greece, the fabric was formed in the upper part and, with the help of rods, useful for lifting and lowering different warp threads, it greatly increased the possibilities of creating different decorative motifs.

Before the Christian era weaving was mostly done on vertical looms with the use of needles, this technique allowed the reproduction of any kind of design, real tapestries that were set aside with the advent of the bobbin around the second and third centuries. The loom will no longer use a needle for weaving, this technique will return over a thousand years later, when the Gobelins technique appeared in Flanders and Paris.

The first horizontal frame appeared in the East, perhaps with the intent to overcome the decorative limits and mostly the length imposed by the simplified structure of the vertical frames in use up to that moment; the warp was, in fact, held in tension by weights but the length was not adjustable. The great turning point came with the invention of the beam, two rollers placed at the front and rear of the frame, on the rear beam the warp of the desired length was wound, on the front one the fabric created progressively flowed.

The handmade loom, as we know it today, made its appearance in Europe in the 13th century and was also equipped with devices, heddles, which raised and lowered the warp threads by means of pedals or levers to facilitate the passage of weft giving rise to increasingly complex decorations and color effects. The number of heddles was variable and their use definitively supplanted the rods of the primordial looms. For many centuries the arrangement of the weaving tools did not change, horizontal looms with several heddles were used for fabrics, while tapestries and carpets continued to prefer the vertical loom.

As the industrial revolution approached, the logic of production and use of manufactured goods changed, the new requirements also involved weaving which, born as a family-run business, was now forced to respond to large-scale production demands. The new socio-cultural context calls for a simplification and speeding-up of weaving operations by trying to mechanize the action of the loom.

After several attempts, started around the second half of 1700, E. Cartwright patented, in 1786, the first mechanically driven chassis, driven by a steam engine, which formed the basis of industrial production. Nevertheless, the processing of textured fabrics (fabrics characterized by a design that is not printed but is obtained with complex warp and weft weaves) remained very complicated.

The solution arrived in 1804 with the French entrepreneur J. M Jacquard: he built a weaving machine to be applied to the loom, which allowed the automatic movement of the single warp threads by means of a perforated card. The Jacquard loom is probably the most important invention in the textile sector, besides allowing the processing and production of very complex fabrics, it reduces the need for manpower because it replaces the drawlooms or heddles,  originally the weaver had to be assisted by a helper, who had to manually move the heddles. Despite being very innovative, the new loom was not well received; on the contrary, its spread was long opposed by the weavers themselves for fear of losing their jobs, and the Council of the City of Lyon even ordered its destruction.

By 1812 there were already 11,000 Jacquard looms in operation in France; ten years later, it was widespread in most of the world: England, Italy, Germany, America and even China.

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