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Under its widest acceptation the word “textile” means every kind of stuff, no matter its material, wrought in the loom. Whether, therefore, the threads are spun from the produce of the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom; whether of sheep’s wool, goats’ hair, camels’ wool, or camels’ hair; whether of flax, hemp, mallow, or the filaments drawn out of the leaves of plants of the lily and asphodel tribes of flowers, or the fibrous coating about pods, or cotton; whether of gold, silver, or of any other metal; the webs from all such materials are textiles. Unlike these are other appliances for garment-making in many countries; and of such materials not the least curious, if not odd to our ideas, is paper, which is so much employed for the purpose by the Japanese. A careful reference to a map of the world will show us the materials which from the earliest ages the inhabitants of the world had at hand, in every clime, for making articles of dress.
In all the colder regions the well-furred skins of several families of beasts could, by the ready help of a thorn for a needle and of the animal’s own sinews for thread, be fashioned after a manner into various kinds of clothing.
Sheep, in a primitive period, were bred for raiment perhaps as much as for food. At first, the locks of wool torn away from the animal’s back by brambles were gathered: afterwards shearing was thought of and followed in some countries, while in others the wool was not cut off but plucked by the hand away from the living creature. Obtained by either method the fleeces were spun generally by women from the distaff. This very ancient daily work was followed by women among our Anglo-saxon ancestors of all ranks of life, from the king’s daughter downwards. Spinning from a distaff is even now common in many countries on the continent, particularly so all through Italy. Long ago the name of spindle-tree was given in England to the Euonymus plant, on account of the good spindles which its wood affords: and the term “spinster” as meaning every unmarried woman even of the gentlest blood is derived from the same occupation. Every now and then from the graves in which women of the British and succeeding epochs were buried, are picked up the elaborately ornamented leaden whorls which were fastened at the lower end of their spindles to give them a due weight and steadiness.
A curious instance of the use of woollen stuff not woven but plaited, among the older stock of the Britons, was very lately brought to light while cutting through an early Celtic grave-hill or barrow in Yorkshire: the dead body had been wrapped, as was shown by the few unrotted shreds still cleaving to its bones, in a woollen shroud of coarse and loose fabric wrought by the plaiting process without a loom.
As time passed by it brought the loom, fashioned after its simplest form, to the far west, and its use became general throughout the British islands. The art of dyeing soon followed; and so beautiful were the tints which our Britons knew how to give to their wools that strangers wondered at and were jealous of their splendour. A strict rule limited the colour of the official dress assigned to each of the three ranks into which the
bardic order was distinguished to one simple unbroken shade: spotless white, symbolic of sunlight and holiness, for the druid or priest; sky-blue, emblem of peace, for the bard or poet; and green, the livery of the wood and field, for the teacher of the supposed qualities of herbs and leech-craft. Postulants, again, asking leave to be admitted into either rank were recognized by the robe barred with stripes of white, blue, and green, which they had to wear during the term of their initiation. With regard to the bulk of the people, we learn from Dion Cassius (born A. D. 155) that the garments worn by them were of a texture wrought in a square pattern of several colours; and, speaking of Boadicea, the same writer tells us that she usually had on, under her cloak, a motley tunic chequered all over with many colours. This garment we are fairly warranted in deeming to have been a native stuff, woven of worsted after a pattern in tints and design like one or other of the present Scotch plaids. Pliny, who seems to have gathered a great deal of his natural history from scraps of hearsay, most likely included these ancient sorts of British textiles with those from Gaul, when he tells us that to weave with a good number of threads, so as to work the cloths called polymita, was first taught in Alexandria; to divide by checks, in Gaul.
The native botanical home of cotton is in the east. India almost everywhere throughout her wide-spread countries arrayed, as she still arrays, herself in cotton, gathered from a plant of the mallow family which has its wild growth there; and in the same vegetable produce the lower orders of people dwelling still further to the east also clothed themselves.
Hemp, a plant of the nettle tribe and called by botanists “cannabis sativa,” was of old well known in the far north of Germany and throughout the ancient Scandinavia. More than two thousand years ago we find it thus spoken of by Herodotus: “Hemp grows in the country of the Scythians, which, except in the thickness and height of the stalk, very much resembles flax; in the qualities mentioned, however, the hemp is much superior.
It grows in a wild state, and is also cultivated. The Thracians make clothing of it very like linen cloth; nor could any person, without being very well acquainted with the substance, say whether this clothing is made of hemp or flax.” From “cannabis,” its name in Latin, we have taken our word “canvas,” to mean any texture woven of hempen thread.
Although flax is to be found growing wild in many parts of Great Britain, it is very doubtful whether for many ages our British forefathers were aware of the use of this plant for clothing purposes: they would otherwise have left behind them some shred of linen in one or other of their many graves. Following, as they did, the usage of being buried in the best of the garments they were accustomed to, or most loved when alive, their bodies would have been found dressed in some small article of linen texture, had they ever worn it.
We must go to the valley of the Nile if we wish to learn the earliest history of the finest flaxen textiles. Time out of mind the Egyptians were famous as well for the growth of flax as for the beautiful linen which they wove out of it, and which became to them a most profitable, because so widely sought for, article of commerce. Their own word “byssus” for the plant itself became among the Greeks, and afterwards among the Latin nations, the term for linens wrought in Egyptian looms. Long before the oldest book in the world was written, the tillers of the ground all over Egypt had been heedful in sowing flax, and anxious about its harvest. It was one of their staple crops, and hence was it that, in punishment of Pharaoh, the hail plague which at the bidding of Moses fell from heaven destroyed throughout the land the flax just as it was getting ripe. Flax grew also upon the banks of the Jordan, and in Judæa generally; and the women of the country, like Rahab, carefully dried it when pulled, and stacked it for future hackling upon the roofs of their houses. Nevertheless, it was from Egypt, as Solomon hints, that the Jews had to draw their fine linen. At a later period,
among the woes foretold to Egypt, the prophet Isaiah warns her that “they shall be confounded who wrought in combing and weaving fine linen.”
How far the reputation of Egyptian workmanship in the craft of the loom had spread abroad is shown us by the way in which, besides sacred, heathenish antiquity has spoken of it. Herodotus says, “Amasis king of Egypt gave to the Minerva of Lindus a linen corslet well worthy of inspection:” and further on, speaking of another corslet which Amasis had sent the Lacedæmonians, he observes that it was of linen and had a vast number of figures of animals inwoven into its fabric, and was likewise embroidered with gold and tree-wool. This last was especially to be admired because each of the twists, although of fine texture, contained within it 360 threads, all of them clearly visible.
But we have material as well as written proofs at hand to show the excellence of old Egyptian work in linen. During late years many mummies have been brought to this country from Egypt, and the narrow bandages with which they were found to have been so admirably and, according even to our modern requirements of chirurgical fitness, so artistically swathed have been unwrapped. These bandages are often so fine in their texture as fully to verify the praises of old bestowed upon the beauty of the Egyptian loom-work. We learn from Sir Gardiner Wilkinson that “the finest piece of mummy-cloth, sent to England by Mr. Salt, and now in the British museum, of linen, appears to be made of yarns of nearly 100 hanks in the pound, with 140 threads in an inch in the warp and about 64 in the woof.” Another piece of linen, which the same distinguished traveller obtained at Thebes, has 152 threads in the warp and 71 in the woof.
Although from all antiquity upwards, till within some few years back, the unbroken belief had been that such mummy-clothing was undoubtedly made of linen woven out of pure unmixed flax, some writers led, or rather misled, by a few stray words in Herodotus (speaking of the corslet of Amasis, quoted just now)
took that historian to mean wool, and argued that Egyptian textiles wrought a thousand years before were mixed with cotton. While the question was agitated, specimens of mummy-cloth were submitted to the judgment of several persons in the weaving trade deemed most competent to speak upon the matter. Helped only by the fingers’ feel and the naked eye, some among them agreed that such textures were really woven of cotton. This opinion was but shortlived. Other individuals, more philosophical, went to work on a better path. In the first place they clearly learned, through the microscope, the exact and never-varying physical structure of both these vegetable substances. They found cotton to be in its fibre a transparent tube without joints, flattened so that its inward surfaces are in contact along its axis and also twisted spirally round its axis; flax on the contrary is a transparent tube, jointed like a cane and not flattened or twisted spirally. Examined in the same way, old samples of byssus or mummy-bandages from Egypt in every instance were ascertained to be of fine unmixed flaxen linen.