OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

March 4, 2004

World's Oldest Profession ???

Keen04.jpg (7155 bytes)

by Laurence T. Keen

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


This paper will take you on a warp speed journey of the world of weaving from the Paleolithic period some 27,000 years ago, to the present.  Alluding to various facets of weaving has always been important to the lexicon of mankind. Over thousands of years of discovery and experimentation, man eventually developed the skills necessary to turn material into cloth for clothing, shelter, propulsion (sails), and more. Until the industrial revolution the weaving of cloth was a part of most every household. The processing of the fibers, the spinning of the yarn and the weaving occupied more of our time than raising food. This paper will give brief history of these processes, and hopefully give you a greater appreciation of the woven world we live in. Weaving is most probably the “World Oldest Profession.


Laurence Keen was born in Colorado in 1946. He graduated from the University of Redlands in 1968 with a B.A. in international business and a minor in art. He also attended Chapman College’s World Campus Afloat 1965-67 on which he was both a student and the schools photographer. He worked on his masters degree in the field of rehabilitation administration from the University of San Francisco.  He has enjoyed careers as a systems analyst, property manager, owner of a sheet metal manufacturing business, Deputy Director for Community Rehabilitation Industries, realtor and most recently a rug weaver.


I want to take you on a warp speed journey of the world of weaving from the Paleolithic period some 27,000 years ago, to the present. We talk about the fabric of society. Alluding to various facets of weaving has always been important to the lexicon of mankind. A rather current classic example is when Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) said: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” The progress of mankind is intertwined with the development of woven cloth. Early man prepared thin bundles of plant material by stretching and twisting them together to produce a string or thread. This coarse fabric, made from grasses and leaves, was the first step toward the development of the textiles, as we know them today. Over thousands of years of discovery and experimentation, man eventually developed the skills necessary to turn this material into cloth for clothing, shelter, propulsion (sails), and more. Ancient samples of cloth survive only as impressions in clay. The same is true of the equipment used in the processing and weaving of the material. Let us start our adventure by looking at the raw materials that man has used over the ages. To even begin the weaving process, one has to find fibers that are long enough and flexible enough to be woven. Mats or baskets made out of strips of bark, reeds or grasses are woven. These raw materials limit both the size and flexibility of a woven object. There is nothing produced by nature that is long enough, strong enough, or flexible enough to be used for weaving cloth without some sort of modification of the filaments.

The making of textiles is older than pottery and perhaps even agriculture and stock-breeding. Until the Industrial Revolution, spinning and weaving took more time than any other activity including food production and pottery making.




Nature has always known how to form complex chains of molecules. Natural macromolecules are proteins (like hair/wool) or cellulose (bast fibers), which are the basis of the fibers from plants and animals. The strength and elasticity of a fiber is determined by the structure of its molecules. Most fibers consist of chainlike macromolecules - polymers. The term 'polymer', Greek for "many parts", refers to very large molecules, called macromolecules, that are multiples of simpler chemical units called monomers. The existence of macromolecules was in doubt until the end of the 19th century when scientists discovered how macromolecules were formed from successions of chemical reactions. For the moment we will stick with natural macromolecules .


Probably the best know ‘hair’ fiber is wool. What makes wool so unique is its scaly corkscrew shaft. The length and diameter of fibers in a sheep’s fleece varies enormously. The largest are the ‘kemps” 100-250 microns (m: one-thousandth of a millimeter). They are so stiff that they cannot be spun by themselves. The next less coarse level are called ‘hairs’ which range from 50-100m. The softest part of the fleece is the ‘wool’ itself. Medium grade wool ranges from 30-60m. The smaller the diameter the finer and softer the wool is. The finest angora measures fewer than 2m. Mankind, over the ages, has used breeding to improve both the quality and quantity of the wool. Now you know that the scratchy wool sweater you keep on your shelf had more than just the wool in it.

How does wool become a fiber for the weaving process? First it has to be taken off the sheep. Originally it was plucked off the sheep when they were molting. Later, sheep were shorn with hand shears and eventually with power shears. The wool must then be cleaned and washed without turning it into felt. Wool becomes felt when it is subjected to moisture, heat, and pressure. When cooled and dried, the scales close and lock the wool into the tough, durable material called felt. Felted wool makes very useful products such as shoes, hats, and vests, but it cannot be spun or woven. After the wool is carefully cleaned it then needs to be brushed or ‘carded’ prior to it being spun. If the wool is carded so that the fibers lie parallel, when it is spun, it produces a relatively hard and long lasting yarn called worsted. The classic men’s wool suit is made out of fine worsted wool. If however, the wool is carded so that the fibers lie in all directions, when it is spun you have a soft yarn that is called woolen. The look and feel of this yarn is soft and stretchy. Before exploring spinning let us look at the next group of filaments, bast fibers.

Bast Fibers

Bast fibers are defined as the strong woody fibers obtained chiefly from the phloem of plants. Their properties are suited for use in cordage, matting, and non-stretch fabrics. The most important bast fibers throughout history are hemp and flax. However, jute, nettle, papyrus and palm have had their place in various cultures. The process that is used to recover the hemp fibers is very similar to flax, which we will talk about in a moment.

Hemp was cultivated and used in ancient China. It was introduced to Europe prior to Christian era. Ropes or cordage for rigging ships and canvas for sails became the most popular uses of hemp because it is strong and holds up well in the harsh environment of a sailing fleet. Hemp was also used in the oakum for calking ships, making paper, oil, and other products. Cannabis sativa (hemp) has also been used through the ages to make cloth. In the 5th century B.C, Herodotus mentions that an untrained eye would have difficulty distinguishing the difference between hemp and flax. There is a current movement to bring back hemp fiber to commercial production. The cloth it makes is soft and longwearing, and hemp grows readily. However, since 1970, there are existing laws that dissuade commercial production.

Linen is the cloth that is made from flax. The reason flax is the most important bast fiber is that evidence of its existence goes back farther than any other textile yet found. There are seven steps in getting flax ready for spinning. First the plants are pulled up by their roots when they reach the desired stage of growth; younger plants are thinner and finer, older ones make coarser and stronger linen. Second stage is to dry them to a certain point. The next step is to rot off the plant material that is binding the bast fibers. If this retting (rotting) process is done slowly in the fields or on rooftops, the flax will be silvery gray. If this process is done in a stream or pond, the resultant flax will come out supple and a golden blond color. “Flaxen hair” is the poetic description that springs from this process. The flax is again is dried. The remaining plant material is broken up in the process called braking. The flax is then beaten free of the plant material in the process called scutching. The scutched flax is then combed in the process called hackling. During the scutching and hackling process the short, broken fibers known as tow come loose from the long strands known as line. The tow and the line are formed into wavy hanks or stricks. These are then ready to be spun. The tow is spun for the lower grades of linen. The expression ‘towhead’ describes one who has short unruly and very blond hair.

Cotton (tree wool)

Cotton is the soft fiber that grows around the seeds of the cotton plant. It is a valuable crop because only about 10% of the raw weight is lost in processing. Once the seed, traces of wax, protein, and any other foreign matter are removed, the remainder is a natural polymer of pure cellulose. This cellulose is arranged in a way that gives cotton unique properties of strength, durability, and absorbency. Each fiber is made up of twenty to thirty layers of cellulose coiled in a neat series of natural springs. When the cotton boll (seed case) is opened the fibers dry into flat, twisted, ribbon-like shapes and become kinked together and interlocked. This interlocked form is ideal for spinning into fine yarn. In 1665 Robert Hooke suggested that cellulose could possibly be softened in a solvent and spun to fibers. It wasn’t until 220 years later, in the 1880’s, that the earliest synthetic fibers were developed. In rapid succession, celluloid, rayon (artificial silk), Bakelite, melamine, paints and varnishes came into being. It is of interest that the push to that lead to the development of celluloid was because the supply of ivory for billiard balls was insufficient to meet the demands of the market place.

Cotton has been used to make very fine lightweight cloth in areas with tropical climates for millennia. Some authorities claim that it was likely that the Egyptians has cotton as early as 12,000 B.C. Even today we still pay a premium to enjoy the luxurious feel of the long staple ‘Egyptian Cotton’. Archeologists have also found evidence of cotton cloth in Mexican caves dating back approximately 7,000 years. Cotton has been grown in India for more than 3,000 years, and it is referred to in the Rig-veda, written in 1,500 B.C. A thousand years later the great Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Indian cotton: “There are trees which grow wild there, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool.”


The romance of silk starts with the mythological story of Princess Si Ling-chi who lived in the mid-3rd millennium. The story is she was walking in her garden while carrying a hot cup of tea when a silk cocoon fell into the cup. To her delight the hot tea dissolved the sericin (the harden gum surrounding the cocoon) and allowed her to unwind the inner thread unbroken. Sericulture (the culture of the silkworm) and the weaving of silk have been practiced in China since that time. The legend dates this back to 2640 B.C. This Empress is credited with not only with encouraging the culture of the silkworm but also developing the procedure of reeling silk from the cocoon and plying (throwing) into the useful thread known as ‘raw silk.’ The raising of the silk worm and the processing of the cocoon into raw silk was a closely guarded secret for some 3,000 years. Death was the penalty for exporting silkworm eggs. However, with a vague description of the silk worm, Aristotle mentions that the island of Kos was the place that silk was ‘first spun’. In the 1st and 2d century A.D. silk fabrics imported to Greece and Rome were sold for fabulous prices.

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes between Asia and Europe connecting Chang-an, China with Antioch, Syria and other points. Silk first appeared in Rome in about 1 AD. The network stopped serving as a shipping route for silk in around 1400 A.D. With extremely rare exceptions, such as Marco Polo, no one traveled down the entire length of the Silk Road. The heydays of the Silk Road correspond with that of the Byzantine Empire.

According to Procopius, in about A.D. 550, two missionaries sent by Emperor Justinian to China, succeeded in smuggling back to Constantinople the eggs of the silkworm and the seeds of the mulberry tree the in a hollow staff. At 35,000 eggs to the ounce and a thirty or so day life cycle, it did not take long for a new industry to flourish. Byzantium became famous for splendid silken textiles and embroideries, used throughout medieval Europe for royal and ecclesiastical costumes and furnishings. In the 8th century, the Moors began to carry the arts of silk culture and weaving across the northern coast of Africa and to Spain and Sicily. In the 12th century, Spain and Sicily were weaving silks of exquisite texture and design.

Many varieties of silk-spinning worms and insects are known, but the silkworm of commerce is the larva of the mulberry silkworm. The silk fiber itself is a fine, horny, translucent, yellowish filament produced by the silkworm. The cocoon is covered with sericin, a protein, which has to be removed before the silk can be unwound. In silk manufacturing, the cocoons are first sorted for color and texture, then they are steamed or placed in warm water to soften the natural gum. They are then unwound. Each cocoon may yield from 2,000 to 3,000 ft (610–915 m) of filament. From 4 to 18 of these filaments are then reeled or twisted together to make a thread strong enough to handle. This is called raw silk. The next step, called throwing. This is preparing the raw silk for the loom by twisting and doubling it to the required strength and thickness. This process also is now mostly done in large mills with specialized machinery. Silk, after throwing, has three forms: singles, tram, and organzine. Singles, which are untwisted, are used for the warp of very delicate fabrics. Tram, two or more singles, twisted and doubled and is used for the weft of various fabrics. Organzine, is made of singles twisted one way, then doubled and twisted in the opposite direction. It is used for the warp of heavy fabrics. For sewing and embroidery thread, more doubles and smoother twists are made. Silk was a high demand item and was one of the staples of international trade prior to industrialization.



We have learned the basics of getting the fibers separated. Next we find out how get them hold together in a useful way. Spinning is defined as the drawing out, twisting, and winding of fibers into a continuous thread or yarn. Most authors agree that the practice of spinning fibers to form thread and yarns has been in existence for over 10,000 years. Archeologists have discovered a variety of projectile points and other implements that need to have been bound to a shaft. These clues indicate that twisted cordage was known even earlier.

By Hand

Initially, twisting or spinning fibers into thread was accomplished without the use of any tools. In this time-consuming method the fibers are held in one hand, and the other hand is used to pinch off a portion of the fiber. The fibers were then twisted by hand between the fingers while simultaneously being pulled out to create longer lengths of thread. Thread made in this manner is referred to as twisted yarn, rather than spun yarn. One of the earliest known examples is on a “Venus” figure carving from 20,000B.C., she is wearing a skirt of twisted string. This artifact can be seen in the Musee de L’Homme in Paris.

First Tools

The oldest actual “tool” used for spinning thread was more than likely a campsite rock. The first spinners were nomadic tribesmen from pre-agrarian societies. First a leader thread would be spun by twisting the fibers between the fingers to a desired length, then tied around a handy rock. The rock could then be rotated to spin the fibers as they are played out between the fingers. Spinning with rocks is still done in remote parts of Asia among some nomadic tribes. Another candidate for the oldest “tool” is a hooked stick. Whereas the rock would be used more like a drop spindle, a stick broken from the branches of a tree would be used to spin the fibers by rolling the stick horizontally along the length of your thigh to put twist into the fibers. The first sticks may have been straight, and were a natural outgrowth of rolling the fiber along the length of their leg to twist the fibers. As with the rock, the time and place of the origin of this spinning tool is unknown as is the ‘which came first’.

Drop Spindle

Eventually, man hit upon a way to combine both the rock and the stick to create a tool that could provide greater twisting momentum for improved ease in spinning the yarn. A whorl, often made of clay, bone or a soft rock, was attached to 

the spindle. The spindle could then be twisted by hand with the weighted end of the shaft suspended on the ground, or rolled along the thigh. It could also be used as a drop spindle, where the whorl could be placed at the top or bottom of the spindle. Some of the oldest whorls found have come from Middle Eastern excavation sites have been dated back to 5,000BC. A variation of this style, the bead-whorl spindle, is considered to be the most widely-used style of spindle throughout history. It is specifically designed to spin fine yarns which require a lot of twist, and was in widespread use throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa where short-staple fibers such as cashmere, cotton and camel were used. These spindles often had slim shafts, a pointed end to reduce friction with the ground, and hooked or pointed tops so that it could be used for either suspended or drop spinning. The bead is usually an inch or less in diameter and made of a dense material like stone or metal so that it rotates quickly to provide a lot of twist. Some styles of bead-whorl spindles place the bead in the center of the spindle, so that the yarn can be spun both above and below the whorl.

There is great amount of discussion among weaving scholars as to whether the first whorls were on the top or on the bottom or whether it was spun to the right “Z” twist or to the left “S” twist. The undeniable fact is that extremely fine yarns were spun with these simple tools. In India for example, the delicate threads for the famed Dacca muslin, yards of which can be rolled and put inside a matchbox, were produced by spinning with needle-thin pieces of bamboo in a coconut shell.

The most common form of dropspindle used today is known a hooked high-whorl spindle. This spindle has the whorl located less than half the length of the spindle, with a hook at the top. There are wall paintings in Egypt from 20th Century B.C. depicting spinners spinning and plying their yarns on hooked high-whorl spindles (Hochberg). The hand spindle was the primary spinning tool used to spin all the threads for clothing and fabrics from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years.

Another early tool used with the drop spindle was called the distaff. This is a stick with a fork or paddle like comb used to hold fibers waiting to be spun. This allowed the spinner to carry about enough un-spun fibers to go about other tasks while spinning. Apparently multi-tasking has been with us for a while. By Medieval times, we have paintings of women holding the distaff under their 

left arm or in a waistband and using their right hand to set the spindle in motion. The term “drop spindle” was not common during that time era – you either spun “on the distaff” or “on the wheel.” In fact, use of the distaff was so common that the term “distaff side” of one’s family indicated relations on the maternal side of the family. Wool and flax were most commonly spun with distaff and drop spindle, even after spinning wheels became the popular tool of choice for spinning shorter-stapled wool and flax tow.

Spindles and spinning are integral part of the mythology and folklore of most cultures. Plato likens the axis of the universe to the shaft of a spindle with the starry heavens as the whorl end of his Republic. The Bible mentions spindles and spinning. Spider Woman, a Goddess in Navaho culture, taught them the art of spinning. Arachne challenged the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and was turned into a spider in Greek mythology. Spiders still weave their webs today. In Germanic and Teutonic cultures the three Fates spin, measure and cut the threads of life for us mortals. Even our modern fairy tales mention spinning, as in Rumplestilskin, Sleeping Beauty, and East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Spinning Wheel

The spinning wheel, the tool most commonly associated with the art of spinning, was not introduced to Europe until in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance. In her book Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines discusses written evidence of the presence of spinning wheels in Persia in 1257; and linguistic evidence that suggests they came to Persia from India. The earliest known artwork depicting a spinning wheel comes from China around 1270 and describes a “wheel” with long bamboo spokes. These Chinese wheels, as well as the Indian style wheel, known as a charkha, were not the rimed wheels that we are familiar with. They consisted of a string running zigzag fashion through holes in the tips of the spokes. This in turn supported the drive band. The drive band was connected to a spindle turned on its side where the whorl might be, and powered by a hand crank. The spinner would turn the hand crank with one hand and spin off of the end of the spindle with the other hand – thus the term “spindle wheel.” While these rimless spindle wheels were in use in Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Italy and Switzerland, they did not reach Europe until the late 13th century. By 1298 there was a law in Speyer (now Germany) that forbade the use of wheel-spun warp thread. Spindle wheels spin fibers with less gravity and twist which creates a softer yarn. The softer yard does not hold up to the warp tension as well as strong-spun warp threads. Baines notes: “The need for such a regulation surely indicates that spinning on the wheel was an established method by that time.”

Devices similar to spinning wheels with a conventional rim are pictured in windows of several French cathedrals dating back to the 13th century in Amiens and Chartes. These were areas known for their woolen goods in the medieval times. The pictures appear to show wheels being used as bobbin winders for finished yarns, as opposed to wheels for spinning yarns. The use of a spinning wheel to spin wool seems to have developed in France and Flanders (Baines). There is an illustrated manuscript of Gregory IX, early 14th Century Britain, showing a woman carding, combing, and spinning wool on a wheel.

With the exception of the small charkha wheels used in India, spindle wheels were often called “great wheels.” Smaller wheels, like the ones that are made today, were developed late in the medieval period to allow spinners easier handling of the longer staple fibers like linen and combed wools. Baines speculates that the silk reeling and throwing mills of 13th century Italy may have inspired the development of these wheels, as flyers were used to load spun yarn onto bobbins. The first published discussion of these machines does not appear until 1607, yet there is documentation that the technology for these reeling machines was brought from Lucca to Bologna in 1272, and to Florence and Venice in the mid 14th century. Apparently the weaving Guilds made every attempt at keeping the existence of these reeling machines a secret. (Baines)

The earliest known record of a flyer wheel appears in the form of a picture from southern Germany, dated from 1475-1480, and shows flax spinning. Other pictures from the Low Countries dating from the early 1500s show small flyer wheels being used to spin wool. Leonardo da Vinci himself even worked on the mechanics of creating a flyer wheel, as evidenced in his notes of 1490, but he did not invent the flyer wheel itself. (Baines) Just as with the spindle wheels, these flyer wheels were turned with a hand crank. The foot treadle present on most modern spinning wheels was an even later addition, but there seems to be little agreement as to their era of origin. In her book A Weaver’s Garden, Rita Buchannan refers to “the development of the flyer and the treadle-driven wheel in the 15th and 16th centuries.” However, Patricia Baines states “There still seems to be no definite evidence (for foot treadles) before the 17th century.”

In Europe from the 14th to the 16th century, the distaff and spindle were gradually superseded by the spinning wheel. This consisted of a spindle set in a frame and revolved by a driving belt passing over a wheel. The great wheel, or wool wheel, (Americans call it the Ozark walking wheel) was spun by hand revolving the spindle by a pulley, which spun the thread. The wheel was then stopped and revolved in the opposite direction winding the spun yarn back on the spindle.

The flax, or Saxony wheel had a more elaborate mechanism operated by a treadle. It drew, twisted, and wound the yarn with a continuous motion well suited to flax, wool, or cotton.

In England improvements of the loom in the 18th century, increased the demand for yarn and stimulated inventions that revolutionized spinning. John Wyatt suggested the use of rollers to draw the yarn. The process was patented in 1738 by his partner, Lewis Paul. In 1765, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a frame capable of spinning from 8 to 11 threads at once. These softly twisted yarns were not suitable for use as warp threads. In 1769, Richard Arkwright brought out his water frame, which by means of successive pairs of rollers, each revolving faster than the preceding pair, attenuated the yarn and twisted and wound it on bobbins in a continuous action. Operated at first by horse or mule power, later by water power, and still later by steam, spinning rapidly became a factory enterprise. In 1779, Samuel Crompton, by combining the best features of the spinning jenny and of water frame, designed the mule spinning frame, forerunner of the modern self-acting mule. Because of its intermittent action, the mule is used for fine or delicate yarns. In 1828 John Thorp developed the ring frame. It worked well for the mass production of coarser yarns drawing, twisting and winding thread in one rapid continuous operation.

Looms and Weaving


The definition of weaving is the art of interlacing, at right angles, two or more sets of yarn or other material to form a fabric. The definition of a loom is a frame or machine for interlacing at right angles two or more sets of threads or yarns to form a cloth. Stone Age Man's early experiments with string and thread lead to the first woven textiles. Threads and strings of different sizes were knotted and laced together to make useful articles. This finger weaving is still used by weavers for certain purposes even today. The process is slow and the weaving is inconsistent. During the Neolithic Era man created looms and developed great skill in weaving cloth. Every household produced cloth for their own needs. The weaving of cloth remained an activity associated with the family unit for thousands of years.

Simply, a loom needs to hold the warp (vertical) threads snugly yet allow the weavers to insert the weft (horizontal) threads. The most primitive loom styles are the horizontal ground, warp weighted, and the vertical beam loom.

Horizontal ground loom

Apparently the horizontal ground loom was developed around 7th century B.C. by the Bedouins and is still used today by their descendants in the Near East. However, the earliest depiction of a ground-loom was found on a dish in the early 4th millennium B.C grave of a woman at Badari in Egypt.

The horizontal ground loom is a simple arrangement of sticks and poles driven into the ground. The weaver measures out the length and width needed for weaving the cloth and drives the sticks firmly into the ground. The warp (vertical) threads are wound onto the sticks and tied in place. The tension of the warp is fixed at this time. The weaver works the weft (horizontal) threads, by hand, through the stretched out warp while sitting on the ground.

The Chinese foot loom and the backstrap loom are portable variants of the ground loom design. The Chinese foot loom uses ones foot as the tensioning device. With the backstrap loom the weaver adjusts the tension by leaning back on the loom’s harness.

The warp-weighted loom

The depiction a warp weighted loom was carved on a famous rock in northern Italy in the Late Bronze Age, 1200-600 B.C. Representations of this style of loom are found on pottery, in drawings and in castings through out the ages, but most important is the great abundance of weights that have survived over time. The wooded frames and tools as well as the fabric have disappeared, but the location of the weights in digs allow archeologists to reconstruct weaving workrooms in the distant past. The loom itself is comprised of a rectangular shape frame, with beam on top. The warp, (vertical threads of the loom), was tied to the top pole. At the bottom of the frame, the warp threads are tied together in groups to maintain their order and are tensioned by securing them to clay or stone weights. On this type of loom, the cloth is woven from the top towards the bottom. Fine bobbin lace is a form of warp-weighted weaving in miniature.

Vertical Beam Loom

The vertical beam loom was developed in Syria around 2400 BC. This type of loom is unique in several ways. The construction of this looms allowed warp 

thread to be wound on the top beam and the finished cloth to be wound on the bottom beam. The reason this is special is, that unlike any of the previous looms we have mentioned, the weaving length of the piece is not fixed. Second the warp tension can be adjusted as needed. Probably the most important is that the working area for the weaver can be maintained in an optimal position as the piece progresses. A weaver using this type of loom weaves from the bottom up beating the weft in with a downward stroke. This style of loom is still popular today for the weaving of rugs and tapestries.

Treadles Heddles n’ Sheds

Now that the weavers had the basic loom, and the tensioning of the warp problem somewhat resolved, they needed an easy way to get the weft through the warp. “Darning” which is threading the weft over and under each warp each time was a bit arduous. Man discovered that by putting a stick in warp so that every second thread passed over it they could push, pull, or twist it to make an opening or shed, where the weft could easily pass. The problem then became how to get the second or counter shed. Its action has to be discontinuous as not to negate the work of the first shed bar. The solution was to provide the second group with individual holders or heddles to lift the warp. String was then used to tie the alternating warp threads to the heddle bar. As ancient as this solution is, weavers use the same technique today. The classical Navajo rug weaver uses a vertical beam loom with the heddle-bar method for making a shed.

It did not take long for the heddle-bar to evolve into a weaving frame. During the Shang Period (1766 to 1122 BC) in China, the treadle and frame loom system were developed. Weaving frames are rectangular shaped structures that hold the heddles. The treadle is a foot or hand operated lever that is connected to a weaving frame by a mechanical system. The weaving frames (harnesses) are moved up and down creating an opening in the warp threads through which the weaver passes the weft.

The development of the treadle and frame system freed the weaver of the task of picking each warp (vertical) thread by hand. As a result, a weaver could produce large quantities of cloth in a relatively short time. The early treadle and frame loom system is the basis of modern shed looms widely used by both hand weavers and industrial weavers.


Moving on

The principle of the division of labor and the resulting specialization of skills 

can be found in many human activities from very early times. The task of weaving began its migration away from the family unit and into specialized work places. For example, there are records of its application to manufacturing in ancient Greece. By the 11th century many of the weaving patterns we use today had been invented. By 1400 A.D., the very large and complicated Draw Loom was widely used. The early Draw Looms required 2 people to operate, the weaver and the draw boy. Since each heddle was raised by hand the loom produced cloth with amazingly intricate patterns. The specializing of work during the Middle Ages helped the Craft Guild system to develop. A weaving Guild was a group of people organized under a Guild Master involved in producing cloth.

These early Guild workshops were home-based business, but the Guild Master owned all the raw materials, machines, and tools needed to weave the cloth. The Guild Master was an expert weaver and demanded high standards for the finished cloth sold under his name. This way the Guild system was able to set prices and control the business practices of weavers. It also severely limited the number of weavers who could become Masters.

Guilds became so specialized and protective that the dying of certain colors were allowed only by certain Guilds. The Guild Workshops of the Middle Ages were the foundation for textile production in the Industrial Revolution and the labor unions of the future.

Textile Machinery

Some of the most controversial inventions of all times have been associated with the textile industry. An invention’s introduction and use often led to riots or passages of law, which prohibited their introduction. The Guilds feared new inventions would take away jobs from their members and that they would loose their influence.

Weft yarn was thrown by hand from one side of the loom through an opened shed to the other. In 1733, John Kay patented the flying shuttle. His invention would drastically change the world by making cloth less expensive. He would never see invention in use. He died destitute in 1764. In 1779, English workmen were led by Ned Lud to break up spinning frames because they feared for their jobs. Years later, during the second decade of the 19th Century, when other textile workers rioted and broke up more labor-saving machinery, these disturbances were known as "Luddite riots." The men who took part in them were known as "Luddites."

The history of inventions in the textile industry illustrates how improvement in one area would spur the development in another. When Cartwright perfected his power loom, the English became desperate for large supplies of raw cotton. Until the early 1790s, the production of cotton in the South of the United States languished because one slave could only clean a pound of cotton a day. Catherine Greene’s moral and financial support encouraged Eli Whitney to develop his cotton engine in 1792. His cotton gin cleaned seeds from the short staple cotton at the 

rate of 50 lb a day. Though his invention was patented, the design was almost universally copied without his benefiting from royalties. Six years later, in 1798, he developed a way to make muskets with interchangeable parts, with that he became wealthy and known as the father of mass production. In the 1850’s, Isaac Singer invented first major consumer appliance. It was the sewing machine that really drove the demand for the ever increasing amount of textiles.

The Industrial Revolution

Cloth weaving became a mechanized industry with the development of steam and water powered looms. The invention of the fly shuttle in 1733 and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom in 1785 dramatically increased the volume of cloth production and forced technological advancement in the spinning industry to supply larger amount of yarns. The development of the Jacquard type loom in the early 1800’s replaced the two-man draw loom. This revolutionary machine used a mechanism to allow individual warp threads to be moved up and down according to the pattern on the cards. This system is often cited as the basis of modern computer science. Cloth woven on this type of loom can have very intricate patterns. The technological innovations in cloth production made during the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the role of the weaver.

Large volumes of inexpensive cloth were now readily available. Weaving had grown into a manufacturing industry. Textile workers were among the founders of the modern labor movements. Today most of our textile needs are supplied by commercially woven cloth.


The process of fiber preparation, spinning, and weaving seems to have occurred rather simultaneously with mankind’s development. If I had chosen to analyze the weaving processes and techniques I could track migrations of peoples and the movement of ideas through civilizations. Instead, I hope you have enjoyed the overview of how our most used natural fibers are obtained, spun, and woven.

The impact that the Industrial Revolution had on weaving forever changed how man spent his major resource, time. Instead of individual families spending days and hours to make enough cloth to make a shirt, the new machines could weave hundreds of yards a day.

The realm of man made fibers is unique, and another story. Their filaments are continuous, their properties contrived at the chemist lab for a specific purpose.

We have new fibers for space suits, others that are wound to make rock tanks, yet others for bulletproof vests, or light weigh sails. There are amazingly strong glass and carbon fibers. There are insulating fabrics like asbestos to high tech ones made out of silica that can withstand thousands of degrees of heat. Polar Fleece is the very successful product made from recycled (PET) plastic bottles. This unique wool-like wonder product has resulted in a $3 billion a year market. The list goes on and on. Is this another revolution in textiles? Perhaps. My concern is even if these new products are wonderful; most consume non-renewable resources in their manufacture.

I leave you with this thought. When you climb in to your king size bed tonight and snuggle between the sheets, you can go to sleep knowing there is about 119 miles of thread surrounding you if the thread count is 280. It is 170 miles if your cocoon has the more luxurious 400 thread count.

What a different world it would be no one l had learned to weave.



Baines, Patricia.  Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning.  McMinnville: Robin & Russ Handweavers.

Barber, E.J.W.    Prehistoric Textiles.Princeton    University Press. 1991

Buchannan, Rita.  A Weaver’s Garden.  New York: Dover Publications, 1999 ed.

Hochberg, Bette.  Handspindles.  Santa Cruz: Bette & Bernard Hochberg.  6th printing. 1993

Vester, Paula.  Textile History.  Stone Mountain: World In A Spin.  1995.

Internet Sources

All Fiber Arts

Drop spindles


Quotes, Origin of

Spinning, A History

Spinning, A History and Evolution of
, L.S.nic (2000). A History and Evolution of Spinning

Textile History, Austrian information site

Warpweighted loom

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