Cathedral of St. John the Divine Blog

History of Textiles REBECCA MERRILL APRIL 3, 2017

Textile manufacturing, along with pottery and metalwork, is one of the foundational human industries. Clothing appeared somewhere between 100,000 and 500,00 years ago; possible sewing needles have been found dating back 40,000 years. Spinning, weaving, dying and the many other textile techniques spread quickly, though it is impossible to pinpoint the origin of most developments. Trade in cloth was of great importance in the ancient world-the famed Silk Road being one of the major trade routes—and tapestries were in use in Hellenistic times, and perhaps before.

Tapestries as we think of them today are a product of the Middle Ages in Europe. In the centuries just before the industrial revolution, the production of tapestries was one of the most important luxury businesses, employing tens of thousands.Tapestries were beautiful, portable art commissioned to the client's specifications, featuring iconography from the Bible and Greek mythology, as well as depicting the pursuits of the nobility, particularly hunting. They added warmth to the stone of castles, churches and great houses (where they often hung right next to each other around a room, as close as wallpaper panels) and could be used as curtains to cover doorways or provide privacy in bedchambers. Their portability added significantly to their popularity, since royalty and the aristocracy moved frequently between residences, and churches and cathedrals hung tapestries on special occasions.

The High Renaissance began an era of rapid changes in fashion, in both tapestry and clothing. The very concept of "fashion" as frequent, deliberate change to stimulate social life and business was new in European society. The resulting cornucopia of textiles fills museums and private collections today, providing historians with a rich trove of information, and offering delight to the casual viewer. As most clothing and other textiles are mass-produced now, the hand-made textiles of previous eras are particularly precious. They reveal the social and cultural interests of their time, the availability or scarcity of certain materials, the evolution of technique, and the skill and vision of individual artists and craftsmen. But with age comes decay, and textiles are more fragile than many human artifacts, vulnerable to humidity, light, mold, smoke, candle wax and insects, as well as the many substances spilled on them. Gravity also does its work, opening up small gaps in the fabric. Many textiles were not taken proper care of while in use and/or were stored inadequately. All of these circumstances present conservators with distinct problems.


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