What not to weave?

We need textiles every day of our life - for clothing, carpets, curtains, towels in the household, for decoration and so on. Because textiles - and especially clothes - are so visible, they have great power of expression and symbolic value. We wear different clothes on different occasions and for different audiences – such as a wedding dress or a priest’s vestments - and even our everyday clothes express something, such as, style, personality social status and sexual preferences.

Even though our clothes in this way are important personal belongings we usually don’t make our own clothes but get them from shops. They have been made by people we don’t know using very advanced machinery. In ancient times the power of expression of textiles and clothing was the same then as it is now but people usually made them in their own homes. The fabrics could be very sophisticated but the technology used to make them was actually quite simple. Textile production, however, was not just a matter of technology; it was also strongly regulated by social codes and cultural preferences.

More than 5000 years ago in southern Mesopotamia, present day Iraq, the people of the first high cultures had invented advanced textile production. At that time people did not write on paper or papyrus, but impressed cuneiform wedges into clay - a material that is readily accessible and cheap. One such clay letter, which today is in the Louvre Museum in Paris, was written by a boy named Iddin-sin to his mother Zinu. Iddin-sin might be boarding at a scribal school, but his mother still provided him with the clothes he was to wear. The letter reads:

From Iddin-Sin to Zinu. May the gods Shamash, Marduk and Ilabrat let you live forever for my sake. The quality of the clothing of the other people here is increasing each year. You, on the other hand, make my clothes worse and worse. Indeed, you have persisted in making my clothes poorer and more scanty. You have been being stingy with the wool, even though it is being used up as bread in our house (i.e. even though there is a lot of it in the house) and have made me poor clothes. Adad-iddinam’s son, whose father is my father’s servant always gets two new sets of clothes, but you fuss about making me just a single one. And this in spite of the fact that I am your real son and he is just adopted! His mother loves him, but you clearly do not love me!

This letter is almost 3800 years old, but it is clear that being properly dressed was as much a concern as it is today. The text also shows that clothing was made at home from scratch. Zinu had the wool in the house and she had to spin it, weave it, dye it and tailor it before Iddin-Sin could get his clothes, and this could take up to 3 months for regular quality clothes, and even more than a whole year if she were making so-called ‘royal clothes.’ Before tailoring, the woven fabric underwent different treatments, for instance fulling, which is a process of steaming and beating the fabric to felt it to a higher or lower degree. There was also raising the nap, which is brushing the surface of the cloth with a thistle, thereby pulling out fibre ends to make a soft surface. Men often performed these finishing treatments, whereas women usually did the spinning and weaving.

Zinu probably bought the wool at the market brought there by the shepherds. There were no shears in the Bronze Age, those had to wait for the invention of iron.  Instead they used knives to half-cut, half-pull the wool off the sheep’s back. At the time Iddin-Sin wrote the letter they used two types of loom in Mesopotamia: the ‘ground loom’, where the threads are spread out between two beams fastened horizontally on the ground, and the ‘vertical two-beam loom’ or ‘tapestry loom’ where the threads are spread out between two beams placed vertically. These threads that are fastened on the loom are called the ‘warp’. Weaving is the process of putting another thread, called the weft, over and under the warp threads. You can do this in different ways, thus creating patterns. As a general rule most looms can make most types of patterns, but some looms are more fit for some tasks, and the ‘vertical two-beam loom’ is very good for weaving colourful picture patterns, i.e. tapestry. They used a lot of tapestries and carpets in Mesopotamia, because their houses were made of mud-brick, and the textiles could protect the fragile surface. It became a tradition to have woven images on the walls in Mesopotamia, and in the royal palaces they often carved images in stones instead of textile so although the tapestries and carpets from the Bronze and Iron Age have rotted away, one can still get an idea of the kinds of images the tapestries showed. In the British Museum there is a large collection of such stone reliefs and a threshold stone depicting a carpet, even including the fringes.

It is perhaps not surprising that Iddin-Sin wrote to his mother, and not his father about getting some better clothes. In ancient Mesopotamia spinning and weaving was usually done by women. And even though there are some notable exceptions, this tradition was so strong that spinning eventually came to be considered a female virtue and the spindle a symbol of femininity. In a Hittite incantation against impotency from the middle of the second millennium B.C. a key part of the ritual involves taking a spindle, a mirror, and women's clothing from the impotent man and giving him the symbols of masculinity – the bow and arrow. Such symbolic acts were supposed to remove the ‘femininity’ of the man. The association of the feminine with the spindle and textile production in general is also found in the Bible, for instance in the Book of Proverbs where the virtuous woman, in addition to being diligent and kind, holds the spindle and distaff and weaves carpets and cloth. Something similar is also seen in ancient Greece, and a classical myth is about a girl named Arachne, which means spider. She challenged the goddess Athene to a weaving contest. Arachne was very talented and she knew it. This made her very presumptuous and she dared to weave a tapestry with provocative pictures of the gods having sex. This angered the virgin goddess Athene and when everyone agreed that Arachne’s work was better than hers she got so furious that she drove Arachne to commit suicide. After her death Athene turned Arachne into a spider and condemned her to weave webs for eternity.

Another well known story is about Penelope, the virtuous wife of Odysseus, who waited 10 years for her husband. When all believed that Odysseus was dead, men from near and far gathered to court to marry her. She made an agreement with her suitors to remarry as soon as she had completed the tapestry she was working on. She wove on it every day, and each night she unravelled the work she had done during the day.

Vase paintings showing Penelope in front of her loom portray her with a somewhat different loom from the two types already mentioned. It was similar to the vertical two-beam loom in that it was vertical, but instead of a beam at the bottom, it had weights tied to the threads. The weights can be seen behind Penelope and her son Telemachos on the vase painting. This type of loom was used from Archaic Greece to the early Roman Empire, but after the 2nd century AD the vertical two-beam loom had largely replaced this type of loom. In the Medieval period in Europe a more complex and efficient loom was introduced from China. In the 18th century weaving and spinning were among the first manual processes to be mechanised, and textile production played a crucial part in the industrialisation. Today, large parts of textile production has been out-sourced to parts of the world where labour is cheap; usually only luxury and very special textiles are produced in this part of the world. Weaving and spinning in private homes with the ancient tools could be found in some parts of Europe until the last century, but today only very specialised fabrics are produced at home/using ancient techniques, such as veils and sashes in France or the colourful kilim carpets of Turkey. These carpets are still today made on the vertical two-beam loom, which has an unbroken tradition of more than 4000 years, making it one of the oldest specialised technologies in use today.