Textile archaeology

Unravelling the story of how our ancestors made fabric
18 January 2021

Interview with 

Margarita Gleba, University College London


Egyptian pyramid


So when did our ancestors first begin to master the art of making things from material? Let’s follow the thread back to the origins of fabric-making with textile history expert Margarita Gleba from University College London, who spoke with Eva Higginbotham...

Margarita - The oldest textile that we know of comes from the Czech Republic site of Pavlov, and consists of tiny imprints of twined fabric. These are not true loom woven textiles, but handmade, twined textiles that existed at the time. And they date to about 27,000 years ago; so quite a long time ago.

Eva - Do we know what those were made of?

Margarita - We do not know exactly what they were made of, because these are imprints; so obviously none of the actual material survives. But, we do know that most of the textiles in these early periods were made from plant fibres. And at this point there were no domesticated plants, such as flax or hemp. And so more than likely these were made from some sort of wild plant material, a lot of tree bast fibers such as lime bast, or oak bast, were used at the time. So more than likely it was one of these materials that was used to make these early textiles.

Eva - How do you make a fibre out of a tree?

Margarita - You have to subject the tree to certain processing techniques. With lime, usually what happens is you cut off a tree of a certain age, depending on whether it's younger or older, it will produce finer, or coarser fibres. And then you soak it in water for a long time. And the layers that produce fibre, which effectively, is part of the plant that gives it stability. It supports it in its standing, they separate from each other and then one can peel them off in layers, and then separate them into finer strips and use them to produce a thread. Of course, there are also lots of plants, even some grasses, sedges, and materials that often were used to make basketry, that could be used effectively in their raw state. So they can be just softened in the hand and used as they are. So they don't require too much processing.

Eva - If the oldest textiles were mostly made of plant fibres, how long do they last? Because you think they would degrade?

Margarita - Yes, indeed we do. And it all depends on the conditions of preservation. So for example, everybody's probably familiar with large amounts of textiles that are found in Egypt. Those are made out of linen, and some of them are 5,000 years old. Some of them are even older. The dry climate of Egypt allows preservation of textiles, that keeps them in almost perfect condition for very long periods of time.

Eva - What were the first textiles used for, as far as we know?

Margarita - So some of these earliest ones probably were not used for any kind of practical purpose. The reason we think that is because, one of the early indications of the use of fibrous materials, are the so-called Venus figurines that come from the Palaeolithic period. This is the old Stone Age, and they date between 27,000 to 20,000 years ago. Many of them have decorations that clearly indicate the use of string. And often these are not garments. They are decorations on the heads, such as head dresses of some sort, or string skirts. Clearly these are not practical. They more likely had to do with expression of identity, and possibly status as well.

Eva - People have been dressing up forever!

Margarita - Exactly.

Eva - So say you found a piece of old textile. How do you figure out what it's made of, if it's made of sheep or goat or bits of tree?

Margarita - These days, we have a lot of scientific techniques at our disposal to identify the raw material. The most common one is microscopy. A common technique these days is scanning electron microscopy, which allows very high magnifications, and very high resolution of the surface topography, or surface characteristics of the fibre. And each fibre has very particular elements that allow us to identify them. So for example, animal fibres have scales on their surface, whereas plant fibres such as flax, nettle, or hemp, have dislocations, or nodes along the surface, cotton fibres look like ribbons. Silk fibers are very, very smooth and long and again, have a very particular look when we look at them under the microscope.

Eva - So seeing as it's been literally tens of thousands of years, since we first developed textiles, we've come a long way.

Margarita - Indeed we have, I think textiles were absolutely fundamental in human development, and development of many civilizations as well. When you think about it, textiles have been the primary material for clothing and a lot of other utilitarian textiles, for the last 10,000 years of human existence. It's the technology that predates ceramic or metal technologies. The only technology that's older than that is the stone technology that goes back millions of years. So in this respect, textiles were among the earliest materials, artificial materials, if you will, that were produced by human beings. When we think of the industrial revolution, it was largely driven by desire to improve textile production, to make it faster, to make it more efficient, to increase the quality of particular types of textiles. Even until a hundred years ago, people were still producing textiles at home. And that took up an incredible amount of time, and skill, and also materials. Even today, a large amount of world GDP consists of textile production. So I think we still can think of textiles as something that is absolutely fundamental to our human existence.


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