Today, let us spin our dreams into a magical new
material. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a question for you:
When did your forebears quit wearing animal skins
and put on cloth? Early humans took up art thirty
thousand years ago. They probably learned to talk
around the same time. They took up farming eight to
ten thousand years ago -- metal working, five
thousand years ago. Today, the very word clothes
means cloth garments. So when did we dress
ourselves in clothes?
Before carbon dating, we thought cloth was 7000
years old. We've gradually pushed that date back.
Now we've found a half-fossilized scrap of cloth
stuck to a piece of antler near the headwaters of
the Tigris River. It is 9000 years old. Carbon
dating does that. It pushes history back.
This earliest known cloth shows up right along with
the first agriculture. This site was a primitive
farming community. Those neolithic farmers had yet
to make pottery. But they'd already learned to
When we see the community in context, we understand
why they conceived a new material. The last ice age
was retreating; the weather was warming. As game
moved north, they had to invent farming if they
meant to keep eating.
So they looked at plants with new eyes. First they
wove baskets from reeds and straw. Animal skins
became harder to find and too hot to wear. They
experimented with open meshes. They made skirts
from leather cords.
The Finns had already made open mesh fishing nets
and carrying bags from woven plant fibers. But
cloth is more complex. These ancient farmers had to
learn to spin thread from flax. They invented tight
weaves to replace open mesh.
This 9000-year-old fragment of linen isn't simple.
It's already a twined weave, a double weft laid on
a single warp. It was by no means the first piece
of cloth these people had made.
And what was the article they'd made from this
magical new material? What had this bit of cloth
now stuck to an antler once been? A cloth bag to
collect bones for carving or for arrowheads? We can
only guess. It was certainly one more harbinger of
civilization rising out of the new practice of
So cloth became as sure an icon of beauty and
wealth as gold. We dressed it in increasing color
and complexity. As I weigh this ancient wounded
fragment of human invention I suddenly see why
Yeats was moved to write:
Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light, ...
I would spread the cloths under your feet;
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, ...
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilford, J. N., Site in Turkey Yields Oldest Cloth
Ever Found. New York Times, Science
Times, Tue., July 13, 1993, pp. B5, B8.
Barber, E.J.W., The Development of Cloth in
the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special
Reference to the Aegean, Princeton, NJ: The
Princeton University Press, 1991.
Crowfoot, G.M., Textiles, Basketry, and Mats.
A History of Technology, Vol. I (C.
Singer, E.J. Holmyard, and A.R. Hall, eds.). New
York: Oxford University Press, 1954, Chapter 16.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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