The study of the techniques and production of textiles has been largely ignored by the archaeological community until quite recently. There still remains a vast field of problems, both with regard to the way in which different textiles were made, and to the material and tools used in the process. In spite of the importance of textiles to the general household, farmers and townsmen, trade, and past and present economy, there is an extraordinary lack of general information concerning historical and economic matters in this field. This is especially the case with regard to early history.
The scarceness of information on this subject is partly due to the lack of sources. Although textiles are a very important part of everyday life they are extremely perishable compared to such items as bronze axes or gold torcs. The material which the archaeologist is able to exhume is greatly dependent upon climate, soil and the details of deposition. In Europe really well preserved textiles are the exception rather than the rule; this is in contrast to the treasures from the graves of Egypt and the Near East. Nevertheless the early history of textiles in Europe does have some highlights including the well preserved textiles and clothing from the oak coffins of the Danish Bronze age. In this chapter I will discuss the evidence we have for early textile production starting with methods and materials. I feel this is important to provide a sufficient background to the theory that fulachta fiadh were used as centres for textile production.
The history of material
‘Textile’ comes from the Latin ‘texere’ meaning to weave. When our first ancestors began hunting animals and keeping their hides for clothes the first ‘material’ was born. Even though “food, clothes and housing are the most important needs of a man” (Jørgensen 1992) textile production is a craft that took a long time developing. It seems that the first material that was used was of a vegetative nature. In 1962, digging into level VI at the Turkish site of Catal Hüyük archaeologists uncovered the carbonised remains of a variety of textiles. The date was set at the beginning of the 6th millennium BC. It took some time for the remains to be analysed as they were in quite bad condition. It was finally established that the remains were flax - and the material linen (Barber 1992). As we move into the Neolithic, flax turns up again, the Swiss ‘lake dwellings’ dated to c. 3000BC provide our earliest substantial piece of material. Excellently made fragments of linen cloth were uncovered. They were of a very high quality and contained various patterns and elaborately fringed areas. Small quantities of spun thread were also found dotted around the site thus suggesting that the production of cloth was quite developed (Barber 1992). More Neolithic cloth turns up in Egypt. It was found in the 5th Millennium layer of a site in the Faiyum. A piece of coarse linen was found in a small cooking pot. (Barber 1992). Linen is an excellent material but not as good as wool for warmth and durability so why was wool not used before this?
The sheep was domesticated by 9000BC in N.E. Iraq and by 3000BC at the latest there are firm indications that its coat was being converted into wool felt or woven fabric. In Britain the earliest finds of sheep bones date to the early Neolithic (from c 3700BC), but the first extant wool textiles are those from the oak coffin at Rylston, E. Yorkshire. The wild ancestor of domestic sheep has “a short hairy, outer coat composed of bristly fibres knows as kemps which obscure an even sorter, fine woolly undercoat” (Ryder 1981). The coat of the first domesticated sheep must have been the same as that of the wild ancestor and quite unsuitable for material. After domestication the woolly undercoat became denser, and many of the kemps in the outer coat were replaced by long-stapled wool. Eventually, probably as a result of direct selection by man, there evolved a uniform fleece of generalised medium wool. The earlier short, hairy and coarse coat would not have been suitable for spinning like the later woolly fleece. It is not until the bronze age that these changes take place. Until shears came into use in the iron age the wool was obtained by from the sheep by simply pulling the hair off. Wool was probably spun directly from the fleece with little or no preparation. It then needs to be combed to straighten the fibres in perpetration for spinning. Bone combs have survived from prehistoric times and some were probably used for this purpose.
It is not until the Bronze Age that we begin to get substantial evidence for textile production. It comes from the graves of the ‘mound people’ in Denmark where each grave contains significant textile remains. The waterlogging of the sites made for excellent preservation of the costumes and gave us a real insight to fashion in Bronze Age Europe. The clothes recovered include cloaks, hats, hair-nets, tunics, belts and skirts. They are all made of woven woollen fabric and some if not all of the material was fulled (Glob 1974). It also seems that the costumes were woven on a loom (Broholm & Hald 1948). Similar material also turns up in Ireland at Armoy in Co.Antrim. Here a horsehair belt and woven woollen bag were uncovered in a bog. This represents a major development in the technology of textile production. The techniques used in making these costumes i.e. loom weaving is still practised all over the world today and has remained more or less unchanged. We learn then, that the knowledge of textile production had reached its height in the Bronze age - around the same time that fulachta fiadh start appearing in the landscape.
What are fulachta fiadh? |
Arguments for cooking |
Arguments for bathing/saunas |
Arguments for textile centres/laundries |
A compendium of excavted fulachta fiadh | The study of textiles in archaeology | Bibliography |
The washing experiment | The dyeing experiment | The fulling experiment | Results and concluding thoughts |