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 weave baskets.
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 agriculture.
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 work.
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. Lienhard.
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