Sources on the history of textiles

The importance of quality textiles - Incroyables et merveilleuses, Paris, 1810-1818 / Horace Vernet ; texte par Roger-Armand Weigert (S950.a.9.629)

The importance of quality textiles – Incroyables et merveilleuses, Paris, 1810-1818 / Horace Vernet ; texte par Roger-Armand Weigert (S950.a.9.629)

We have previously written about the importance of fashion in the University Library’s collections, and the way they reflect changing tastes throughout cultures and historical periods. The Library’s collections also reflect the importance of a variety of textiles throughout history. While textiles used for clothing have changed dramatically since felt made from animal furs was the primary material, at the same time there are benefits to using traditional materials, as Prince Charles recently highlighted when campaigning for the use of wool: a versatile, sustainable, renewable and natural fibre. This blog post will explore the changing use of textiles as reflected in the UL’s collections including flax (linen), silk, cotton and wool.

Flax (linen) textiles have been discovered that were thousands of years old; linen was sometimes used as currency in ancient Egypt and in Germany. There are many parts of the world that grow flax, and Ireland is well known for still producing one of the highest quality fabrics since the linen industry started. Recent items in the UL’s collection about the European linen industry include: Flax to fabric : the story of Irish linen by Brenda Collins (1996.10.239), Europäische Leinenregionen im Wandel : institutionelle Weichenstellungen in Schlesien und Irland (1750-1850) by Marcel Boldorf (249.c.208.69) and Au temps des grands liniers, les Mahieu d’Armentières, 1832-1938 by Jean-Marie Wiscart (568:2.c.201.1).

Silk originally came from China, and legend dates the discovery, introduction and production back to the Empress Leizu in 2602 BC. Over time silk fabrics became the basis of commercial exchanges with the same value as currency, and opening trade routes (in the second century BC) in the west of China which gradually became the Silk Road. The German traveller, geographer and scientist Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (1833–1905) made seven expeditions to China and coined the German term for the Silk Road: “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” in his 1877 publication China : Ergebnisse eigener Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien (LE.1.25). This extensive transcontinental network was an early form of globalisation. Though silk was exported to foreign countries in great amounts in the form of silk fabrics, sericulture remained a carefully guarded secret that was protected under penalty of death.

Bonnart : personnages de qualité, 1680-1715 / texte par Roger-Armand Weigert (S950.a.9.626)

Bonnart : personnages de qualité, 1680-1715 / texte par Roger-Armand Weigert (S950.a.9.626)

Cotton use dates back at least seven thousand years and the discovery of the oldest extant piece of cotton was made in a Mexican cave. It is still the most widely used natural material in clothing today due to its soft and breathable characteristics. The technological innovation that was Whitney’s cotton gin enabled increased levels of production and thus use of cotton, and by the end of the 19th century, guides to the cultivation, exploitation and marketing of cotton were published, such as Cotton: its uses, varieties… by C. P. Brooks (B.51.13) and Cotton gins : how to erect and work them  by E.Y. Connell, published in Barbados in 1909 by the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies (RCS.L.7.A2.60).

Wool has been used since the prehistoric era, when woolly skins from wild sheep were used for protection.  The oldest known European wool textile, dating from about 1500 BC, was preserved in a Danish bog. As well as clothing, wool was also made into felt and used for structures such as yurts, as described in Rannesrednevekovye i︠u︡rtoobraznye zhilishcha Vostochnoĭ Evropy by V.S. Fl’orov (1999.11.714). There are different legends about the origins of felt-making in different parts of the world. One story is of St. Clement and St. Christopher who packed their sandals with wool to prevent blisters while fleeing from persecution. Because of the movement and sweat on their feet, the wool turned into felt. Even before shears were invented, wool would have been harvested using a comb or just plucked out by hand. Lavenham in Suffolk is considered to be the best example of a medieval wool town in England (Lavenham : medieval Suffolk wool town1999.8.6628). Due to the use of synthetic fibres for clothes and carpets, there has been a huge decline in the use of wool: 50 Jahre Chemiefaserstoffe : einige historische und kritische Betrachtungen über die Entwicklung der Produktion sowie über die Verwendung und Eigenschaften von Chemiefaserstoffen by Hermann Klare (L911:3.c.34.309)

Over the years, different textiles have signified differing social status in a variety of cultures, including Sweden, Syria and at European courts.  See:

  • Från kläde till silkesflor: Textilprover från 1700-talets svenska fabriker (S950.a.201.4312)
  • Textiles de Palmyre découverts par le Service des antiquités du Haut-commissariat de la République française dans la nécropole de Palmyre by R. Pfister (S406:7.b.9.1-3)
  • Fastes de cour et cérémonies royales : le costume de cour en Europe, 1650-1800 (2009.12.159).

The study of textiles in a socio-historical context is currently a growth area and we will ensure that we look out for interesting titles in this area in the future.

Joanne Koehler


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