Textiles – A Historical Perspective

Last Updated on 28/01/2021

Textiles – A Historical Perspective

Govt. College of Engineering and Textile Technology,
Serampore, West Bengal, India
Email: uhossen@gmail.com


The earliest technologies primarily used human hands as the main tools. These were supplemented by other ancillary tools as revealed by archaeological excavations, which yield artifacts made of stone, bone etc. Textiles are an important source of reference for the cultural studies because of their universality. Textiles have always draped the body, whether human/deities/animal, floor and furniture. Unlike stone, clay, metal etc. textiles were traditionally made from biodegradable materials. In this article I will discuss on a historical perspective of textiles.

If we study textiles in historical perspective then we can see the usage of textiles can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. The people around 4000 BC invented hand-operated spindles and looms in Europe and the materials used were wool and flax. The spinning and weaving processes changed considerably at the end of the first millennium AD. In the middle of the 14th century, cotton was introduced in central Europe. Due to the growing world population, the processes developed needed drastic changes to meet the requirements. This led to industrialization. The post-industrialization era witnessed continuous improvement and innovation in textile raw materials, machinery and processes. Around the middle of the 20th century, significant developments in raw materials like manufacturing of polyamides, polyester, polyacronitrile and machinery like water-jet weaving looms and open-end spinning machines took place and this process of innovation and improvement is still in continuation.

The processing of textiles (dyeing and printing) also has its roots in the prehistoric era. The first solid evidence about dyeing of silk and brocades from religious and social records suggests that Indians were aware of the dyeing process in 2500 BC; however, it is also believed that the Chinese in 3500 BC practised dyeing but no solid evidence is available to substantiate it. Safflower was in use for dyeing textiles for red and yellow colours in 2500 BC. Egyptians were able to produce a whole range of colours for textiles by 1450 BC. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, no record is available on the developments of textile dyeing till 1371 when the dyers formed their own independent guild in Florence and made the information public about dyeing.

Historical perspective of textiles
Women spinning with a wheel in early century

Textiles are indispensable part of human civilization. Textiles serve the individual, the home and the country. We are all aware that the prime needs of man are food, clothing, shelter.

The word Textile comes from the Latin word ‘Textilis’ and the French word “Texere” pertaining to weaving or to woven-fabric.

It covers all the woven materials whether made of wool, cotton, silk, jute, rayon or other manmade fibres. The variety of materials is simply tremendous. Textiles are so much a part of our daily lives that it is not unusual that we take them for granted. The fabrics that clothe us can be considered a part of us, just as the air we breathe and the environment that surrounds us. In fact, textiles have created a stimulus for man’s indigenousness.

Today, cotton is an integral part of textiles. There are 23 different varieties of cotton. It was a piece of cotton stuck to a silver vase and some spindles discovered in excavations which revealed that the spinning and weaving of cotton was known to the Harrappans, nearly five million years ago.

References to weaving are found in the Vedic literature. Method of spinning, the “arious materials used etc. are also mentioned in these ancients’ scripts. The history of Textiles is told many times over in the epics, the Puranas, the Graeco- Roman sources of Indian history and the classical Tamil Sangam Literature. Various techniques of weaving, designing, needlework etc. have survived through the centuries.

The foundations of the textile trade began as early as the second century Be. Kalyan, a port, is place in that time from where textiles were exponed. A variety of fabrics, including cotton brocade, is mentioned in Chinese literature as Indian products exponed to China.

Hoard of block printed and resist dyed fabrics, mainly of Gujrati origin, found in the tombs of Fostat, Egypt, are the proof of large scale Indian export of cotton textiles to the Egypt in earlier times. They were exported in the early medieval times. Some of these motifs were found similar to those mentioned in the Western Indian manuscripts in the 13th century. There are others, which have resemblance to the block printed fabrics, in Gujarat.

indian women using spinning wheel
Fig: Indian women using spinning wheel

The silk fabric was a popular item of Indian exports to Indonesia · around the 13th century, where these were used as barter for spices. Towards the end of the 17th century, the British East India Company had begun exports of Indian silks and various other cotton fabrics to other countries.

These included the famous fine Muslin cloth of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The trade in painted and printed cottons or chintz, a favorite in the European market at that time, was extensively practiced between India, China, Java and the Philippines, long before the arrival of the Europeans.

Before the introduction of mechanised means of spinning in the early 19th century; all Indian cottons and silks were hand spun and hand woven, a highly popular fabric, called the khadi.

Textile Designing
Textile is the base element of garments and it can also be a spirit of a home or office as it can change the look of an interior layout. It combines the love of colour, painting and drawing with the hands-on satisfaction of working with fibre and cloth to make patterns in painted and printed forms.

You may also like: What is Textile? | Basic Textiles | Flow Chart of Textile Processing | Uses of Textiles

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