Textiles are flexible materials made from a network of artificial or natural fibres, which are knitted or weaved together and the word textile derives from the Latin texere, which translates as to weave. Textiles have formed an important part of civilisation for centuries and their designs reflected the societies which produced them.
People have been wearing clothes for more than 100,000 years. Before the development of textiles, clothing was made from vegetation and animal skins. In addition to providing protection from heat and cold, clothing could also have had a role in ceremonial activities.
Evidence of weaving has been found in central Europe dating back 27,000 years. The spinning of linen in Egypt dates back over five thousand years, the spinning of cotton in India five thousand years and in China silk spinning to more than four thousand years ago. Sheep were first domesticated in central Asia around ten thousand years ago and the spinning of wool began more than five thousand years ago.
The Ancient World
Beginning more than two thousand years ago, the Silk Road stretched over eight thousand kilometres and enabled the growth of trade links between China and the civilisations of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Textiles were an important part of this trade and the people travelling along the Silk Road helped to spread the foundations of modern civilisation.
Iron Age Europe
The Iron Age in Europe began over three thousand years ago and ended with the fall of Rome and the rise of Medieval Europe around fifteen hundred years ago. During this period, in addition to animal skins, women wore woven textile dresses, capes and skirts and men wore woven trousers, leggings and capes. The domestication of sheep provided a ready source of wool and developments in spinning and weaving, combined with the use of plant dyes, enabled people to create both plain and decorated clothing.
Classical Greece and Rome
Running from around 500 BC to 400 AD, the Classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, reached heights in the arts and sciences not achieved again until recent centuries, which they inspired. Classical Greeks wore woollen or linen robes or tunics, worn by men to the knee and women to their feet. The Romans are famed for their togas which men wore over a tunic, whilst women wore shawls over long tunics. Although clothes were usually made from wool, wealthier citizens sometimes wore imported cotton or silk.
Medieval Fashion and Textiles
During the early Medieval period, following the fall of the Roman Empire, the clothing people in Europe wore tended to reflect their cultural background. Romanised people continued to wear long tunics. Among the northern tribes, who Romans had considered barbarians, most men wore tunics and trousers with belts and women dresses which were often embroidered.
Developments in textiles and dyeing during the 13th centuries saw the increasing use of linen and cotton and importation of silks. From the 14th century fashion began to emerge, with clothing designs changing rapidly which enables historians to better date images from the past. This contrasts to previous centuries in Europe and the rest of the world until recent times, where clothing tended to change little over time, often remaining unchanged for many hundreds of years.
In Renaissance Europe, between around five and six hundred years ago, textiles made from wool continued to be widely used and were available in a range of quality and dyed colours. England exported high quality woollen textiles across Europe and they formed an important part of the economy. Linen fabrics were also in use and by this time silk weaving was established in the Mediterranean, where elaborate designs were available to the rich and powerful. National dress began to emerge and the increasingly prosperous middle and skilled working classes began to wear clothing which copied that available to the upper classes. The attempt by the wealthy to stay ahead of the crowd and remain distinct from the masses was among the causes of more rapidly changing fashions.
Early Modern Textiles
During the 16th and 17th centuries there was some divergence in the clothing designs worn in northern Europe and southern Europe and the Reformation resulted in the more modest clothing of the former. Differences between formal and informal clothing during the 18th century began to lessen. French fashions became popular and there was also a military influence on clothing fashions for men.
The wearing of a coat, trousers and waistcoat by men led to the popularity of the three piece suit. For some time dress in particular for women became increasingly elaborate, with women wearing large hooped dresses. Eventually the more practical British tailored wool fashions became more popular and for women elegant gowns. By the 19th century, differences between the clothing worn across Europe had lessened as images of the latest fashions became widely available and people sought to be fashionable.
The Industrial Revolution began with steam powered machines in Britain during the 18th century and developed rapidly during the 19th century. Industrialisation brought great change to the methods used in the production of textiles which moved from a cottage industry to large factories and assembly lines, although the woven fabrics produced were largely unchanged. The automation of production, the growth of global transportation using canals, railways and the sea as well as improved communication, brought great wealth to Britain.
For many years British textile manufacturing led the world and allowed the United Kingdom to export its goods across the world, bringing affordable textiles to clothing designs and changing fashions. The availability from the 19th century of technology such as sewing machines made clothes production more efficient and new synthetic fibres such as nylon also became available to the textile industry. Although the weaving of textiles was industrialised, domestic sewing machines helped people to make or repair clothes at home. Craft makers have also worked hard to maintain the ancient textile weaving traditions and skills, working in small studios and using hand looms.
Once you have a pattern, the main tools you will need when working with textiles involve the measuring, marking out, cutting and assembling of materials. Although sewing machines are available, the work can be done using hand tools. Measurements are carried out using tape measures, rulers and sewing gauges, whilst T-squares and L-squares are used to get straight edges and right angles. Marking out tools include a dressmakers wheel, pencils and chalk. Long straight cuts are made with dressmakers shears, pinking shears are used to cut decorative edges and embroidery shears to cut small pieces of textile and threads. Materials are held in place using pins and stitched together using threads of various colours and weights, needles of suitable size and thimbles to protect fingers and thumbs. Other commonly used hand tools when working with textiles include an awl to make holes in textile, such as button holes, an unpicker to unpick thread and a type of needle called a bodkin, which is used to thread thick cords through holes in the material.
The fibres used in the making of textiles suitable for use in items such as clothing and soft furnishings are obtained from plants, animals or synthetics. Commonly used plant fibres include cotton, hemp and flax. Fibres sourced from animals include wool from sheep or goats and silk from silk worms. Synthetic fibres that have come into common use since the development of modern industrial processes include polyester and nylon. Textiles are clearly labelled as the characteristics of the fibres used to produce them determine the conditions under which it is suitable to use them and how they need to be looked after.
Modern Fashion and Textiles
In previous centuries people working in the textile industry had developed many innovations, but they remained largely anonymous and clothing was generally handmade. However from the mid nineteenth century and increasingly during the twentieth century, industrialisation and globalisation led to mass produced textiles and clothes manufactured to standard sizes and designs. Professional fashion designers and fashion houses grew in prominence as did the fashion capitals of London, New York, Paris and Milan. Increasingly all sectors of society could find a wide range of textile goods available from retail outlets, department stores and increasingly in the twenty first century Internet based stores.
The decades of the twentieth century saw fashions which reflected the active fast moving lives people were living. Since the mid to late twentieth century, people have increasingly worn clothes which reflected their personal style and cultural preferences, such as the youth cultures which developed first in the United States and United Kingdom but then spread worldwide.
Whereas in previous centuries fashion tended to be copied by the working and middle classes from the upper classes, fashion influences were as likely to originate in popular and working culture, such as the global wearing of denim jeans, casual shirts and sporting goods. Fashion magazines, movies, television and more recently the Internet have provided fashion and textile designers a platform on which to show their work to potential customers in national and global markets.
From its origins in Europe and America, much of the mass production of textiles has moved to the emerging economies of Asia, however there remains a demand for more expensive, high quality or luxury clothing. This has encouraged fashion and textile designers working in the UK to focus more on the creative challenges of developing innovative, niche products, with strong brand identity, individuality and fine craft quality. This has led to smaller scale manufacturing or handmade products, which have a high level of added value.
Whilst designers often find inspiration in the work of others, protecting the intellectual property of the unique work they create is essential for the continuing success of many smaller businesses in the textile industry. This is one of the reasons that many fashion and textile designers use trademarks or logos on their work, which can be copyrighted, ensuring they are protected from generally poorer quality copies.
Accepting commissions for work is a key part of any craft persons business. It allows the customer to dictate specific requirements that make the piece very special. This is going to cost a bit more but it is worth it. It can effectively guarantee that the piece is the only one in the world, a truly unique and often very personal gift.
Many of the textiles designers and makers listed have been making pieces for many years. If you are looking to start out, then you could study at classes run by experienced makers or at college.
Trademarks and Copyrighting
It is an honour to be considered good enough for other people to be influence by your work, and for them to go on a create new and original ideas. However, it is another matter when people mass produce exact copies of your work for large profits. If your work is unique it is in your interests to protect it.
Textile designers will often source their materials from a local source. This can give the maker a clear and unique aspect to the pieces created. It also help to support the local community and helps to keep transport miles down.
Textiles in other crafts
Many crafts people who do not include themselves in one of the textiles categories, use fabrics within the work they produce. For example a toy maker, teddy bear maker or furniture maker etc.