Thursday, June 05, 2008

A spot of history.

Everyone seemed to think I was terribly clever to think of using a chopstick as a shuttle, but really, through most of weaving's history, the shuttles really were sticks wrapped with yarn or fabric. Check it out:

This is a copy of a painting on a Greek vase from about 500BCE. You can see they're using what's called a warp-weighted loom, and the shuttle is, yup, a stick wrapped with thread. It was this picture - and the chopsticks I use in my hair - that made me think to use one. I'm not that clever; I just read a lot.

To entertain y'all, I looked up some dates about spinning, since it's far more ancient and widespread than knitting is. The problem is the same with dating knitting, only moreso; no one saved their everyday clothes for posterity, and weather and circumstance cause textiles of all kinds, and many of the tools used to make them, to rot into the ground. But still. There's some interesting stuff.

The oldest spindles I could find a record of, specifically, were these, from Egypt, dating back to about 1550BCE. They spun and wove linen, of course (their religion stated that sheep were 'unclean'), so there was no need to wait for the domestication of any wool animals, or the breeding of animals that bear spinnable wool. Everyone's fairly certain spinning goes back a lot further, but those are some of the oldest spindles recovered so far. I think the tool at the bottom is some kind of bobbin or niddy-noddy; no one can agree on it.

Of course, you don't really need a spindle or anything else to spin, depending on what you plan to do with the string you produce. It's thought that basket weavers far back into the stone age would twist bits of fiber together and use them to secure their materials before the weaving started to stablize them.

Then there are the string skirts. This one is from Denmark, from about 1300BCE. I suspect it could be produced without a spindle or anything except maybe a simple stick to wind twisted fibers onto. It is made of wool. This one is from the bronze age, but there are statuettes going all the way back to over 20,000 years ago, depicting women wearing these string skirts. (The Willendorf Venus is probably the most famous of these.) Textile experts claim that some of the carvings imply that the strings they're made from are spun - frayed ends on the skirt fringe.

I betcha spinning is WAY older than weaving.


historicstitcher said...

I'd be a fool to take that bet!

Or would I?

I recall, back when I was working on a Chippewa archaeological site ages ago, that it was the other way around. There was no evidence whatsoever of spinning, but there were woven rushes.

Which is more intuitive? As a child I figured out how to weave branches and weeds long before I figured out that there were fibers to be had inside those same weeds that could be spun into a smaller diameter.

My intuition would suggest that weaving came first, with found materials. The experience of weaving would lead to the desire for smaller diameter materials and experimentation with weaving strips of bark and finer fibers from plants. Spinning could have resulted from the need to agglomerate finer fibers. Finer fibers would lead to finer weaving that could be used for clothing, and we're right back to Egypt.

Most arguments for spinning before weaving are based on clothing. The "proof" that if they could weave they would be wearing it is misleading, and in my opinion, fallible. Weaving of baskets, rushes, and such could very well have preceeded spinning, and been in existence coincident with the string skirts. Just because they weren't wearing woven cloth doesn't mean they didn't know how...She could have been carrying a woven basket while wearing her string skirt, or living under a tent woven with reeds.

Spinning is, indeed, a very basic activity, but spinning a fine thread and weaving it into a fine fabric are not the beginning of the craft. If we ignore the preliminary stages we can make all kinds of random assumptions.

Then again - maybe mine are all random assumptions, too.

Alwen said...

I'm guessing the bottom thing is some kind of a shuttle, as it looks like an exaggerated version of the wooden netting shuttle next to my ruler:

If you look at Rita's instructions for filling a steel netting needle (boy, we make that word work hard, don't we?)

basically you make a figure 8 on one side, then the other. You could get a heck of a lot on one with such deep end grooves. I wonder if I can get my brother to make me one modelled on that Egyptian one . . .

Roxie said...

There is an Egyptian tomb painting of a woman standing on a box, swinging a spindle from each hand. I bet she was worth her weight in wheat! Talk about a gifted spinster.

Amy Lane said...

Very cool! I love the stone aged implements...

And between you and the historicstitcher, I'm just totally jazzed on history.