One of the reasons I love knitting so much is because of the history involved – the idea that I was part of a long tradition of working with fibre. I trained as an archaeologist, which probably explains a lot… and, given that, it’s not surprising that I fell for spinning in such a big way, because it’s by far a more ancient craft. (I’m still resisting the lure of weaving. So far.)
Textiles don’t often leave direct traces in the archaeological record, especially the further back you go, but there are plenty of indirect ones. And they go way back.
About 23,000 years ago someone carved a figure of a woman. She is one of quite a few that have been discovered – they are known as Venus figurines – but this particular one is wearing a skirt, as are some of the others. Or rather, she wears a panel of strings hanging from a hip band. In detail, even the twists in the strings can be seen.
And then there’s the hairnet (or headdress or whatever it is) of the Venus de Brassempouy:
There’s evidence, too, for more utilitarian textiles. When the famous painted caves at Lascaux were being explored, fragments of a cord or rope were found embedded in some clay closely associated with the 17,000-year-old paintings. The discoverer, André Glory, thought the cord might have been used as a guide for the artists in the darkness of the cave. It had probably been made from plant fibre, and wasn’t a simple, primitive strand. It was a three-ply cord, spun S-wise and with a Z-direction twist, and each ply was itself a two-ply cord (opposite twisting like this is what stops a cord from coming apart, something which workers with fibre in the remote past evidently knew well).
I’m convinced that making thread or cord or yarn – whatever you want to call it – from fibre goes a lot further back than we presently assume. There’s an archaeological saying: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It’s really easy to make a simple cord, and you don’t need anything that would leave the slightest trace.
Try it with fleece, which is probably easily available if you’re a spinner; in my house, there is fleece everywhere (before domestication, plant fibres were probably more accessible).
Take a little raw fleece and pull it out, teasing it gently into a longer piece. Roll it on your thigh with one hand, and use the other to draw it out until you have a much longer piece, but one which still holds together – just. Then put some twist in, rolling and drawing it out once more. Split the long strand in half in the middle so you have two shorter pieces. Use your left hand to keep the two strands separate while you roll them together on your thigh with your right hand. Gradually feed the fibres in, allowing the twist to run up, double it and – boom, boom – a cord. A cord which won’t disintegrate when pulled, hopefully.
(That was a bit of a distraction, but I do find it difficult to resist the call of wool!)
Adding weights and spindles and distaffs makes the whole process much easier, much faster and much more efficient – and I don’t believe they would have been a massive intellectual leap. A technological leap, yes.
Once you’ve got what is effectively string, you can do all sorts of things with it. You can make nets, for instance. You can thread beads on it, and there is evidence of this having happened in the distant past, though the beads could possibly have been threaded on fine sinew. Cords can be used to trace your way through a dark cave, tie up a bundle, fasten clothing. Multiple cords can be plaited together into mats or larger pieces of fabric and used to carry things, or wrap round a baby, or lie on, or exchange for something you cannot make yourself… And all these are relatively light in weight, too, and won’t interfere with a comparatively mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
(You can also, of course, weave… and that’s a vast subject all by itself.)
But string can be used as it is, and the string skirt is an amazingly long-lived example of doing just that. Fast-forward many years from those Venus figurines to the Bronze Age in northern Europe. People are living in settled communities now, farming and raising domestic animals. They are also burying their dead, and clothing has survived from well-preserved burials. Some women were buried in wrap-around string skirts. This is probably the best known, from Egtved in Denmark:
The girl who wore this was buried about 3,300 years ago; the boggy conditions in which she was buried preserved her clothes (and stained them a rusty red). It would have hung on her hips and reached just above her knees. There’s been a lot of speculation about why women wore such revealing – to our eyes – garments, and it’s been suggested that they went on top of a shift, but there’s no evidence of that. They may have been a sign of fertility.
For me, the most extraordinary thing is not that women should have worn such things, but that they had been wearing them for so long. And not just from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, either: their descendants existed almost until the present day as heavy fringes in female folk costumes, often from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Some even still survive (these skirts are Serbian):
See what happens when I can’t knit or spin? I get distracted, that’s what. More immediate knitting content next time – promise!