A History of Fiber: Spinning and Weaving

Approximately a year ago, I told Cheryl I wanted to do a blog post on the history of fiber arts.  She responded with “That sounds awesome.  You do you.”  Not exactly in those words, but you get the point.  I haven’t exactly forgotten about it, quite the opposite in fact, but it’s been more of an idea that I couldn’t get a grasp on HOW to go about it.  One would think it shouldn’t be so difficult, yet here we are…

This is the first in a multi blog post series.  Historians believe it all began with hand spinning which immediately lead to weaving, followed by knitting, and finally crochet.  There is no better place to start than the beginning so this blog post focuses on spinning and weaving. Subsequent blog posts will address knitting, crochet, and fiber arts within mythology and religions. 

Spinning is an ancient art in which fibers are stretched and twisted together to form thread or yarn.  Because natural fibers (plant and animal) decompose easily and quickly, the true origins of spinning are mostly lost.  This is an important fact to remember.  Historians and archeologists can only make hypothesis based on what has been found and any written records of fiber arts.  I believe it’s a fair assumption spinning and weaving began earlier than the oldest artifacts found.

 Archaeologists found string skirts that have been dated to 20,000 years ago-theUpper Paleolithic era (think midway-ish through the Stone Age).  These primitive spun textiles were formed by taking animal hair or plaint fibers and rolling it down the thigh by hand, adding additional tufts as need to achieve the desired length and weight.  Holy cow!  Can you image how long it would take to make a blanket?!

Over centuries people began to use rudimentary tools to assist with yarn spinning.  The most elementary tool used was a stone. Yarn would be tied to stone and twirled to twist the fibers.  Eventually, the distaff and spindle were invented. As with fibers, these early tools did not survive history and time.  Spindles have been found at archeological digs dating back to Neolithic era (end of the Stone Age).  Distaff is a short stick that held the raw materials (hands free!) and the spindle held the material after spinning. 

Image from Instasaver

Interesting fact, distaff indicates the material side of a family, insinuating spinning during this time was done by women. 

In 1030, the spinning wheel was invented in the Islamic world.  By 1090 the wheel had spread to China.  It took until the 13th century for Europe and India to pick up the trend. Even though the spinning wheel made hand spinning uneconomical and time consuming, for poorer families or countries, hand spinning was still necessary. Interesting fact: in Medieval times, poor families needed to spin their own yarn to make clothes thus all poor girls and unmarried women were more or less required to learn to spin.  Hence the word "spinster" became synonymous with unmarried women.

This brings us to the 1700's and the Industrial Revolution. The spinning wheel was originally done with man power, but the revolution evolved it to steam or water power wheels and eventually electricity.   In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny, a multi spool spinning wheel.

Image from Britannica

This reduced the amount of physical work and employees could spin 8 or more spools in a days work!  In the same era, Richard Arkwright developed the spinning frame, which produced an even strong thread.  However, it was so large, it could not be powered by hand thus evolving into the Water Frame which is powered by a waterwheel.

Image from Wikipedia

By 1779, Samuel Crompton combined the Water Frame and the Spinning Jenny to create the spinning mule and an even stronger thread/yarn.  

Image from Wikipedia

Finally, the 20th century brought more technologies including Open End spinning and can make yarn in excess of 40 meters per second!  Many people around the world still spin by hand as a hobby, to preserve the craft and/or for cultural purposes.

As soon as humans discovered how to spin plant and animal fibers, they began weaving.   

Several Stone Age era woven textiles have been found around the world: 

  • Peru-plant fiber woven textiles and cords (between 10100 and 9098 BCE), 
    Catalhoyuk (large Neolithic settlement where modern day Turkey is)-woven hemp cloth in a burial site from 7000 BC
  • Egypt: flax weavings from around 5000 BCE.  The fragment found was approximately 12 threads by 9 threads per centimeter! During this time, flax was popular in Egypt and alone the Nile.  Wool was the predominant fiber in other cultures around 2000 BCE.
  • China: around 3500 BCE weaving a silk began.  Intricately woven and dyed pieces were found in a Chinese tomb dated to 2700 BCE
  • Indigenous people from the tropical Americas approx 4,000 BCE: mostly used cotton and Andean wool from domesticated camelids (primarlily llamas and alpacas).  These indigenous people were (and ARE) highly talented and are best known for their non-mechanical techniques.  

Common Era weavers are equally important and influential:

    • Inca Empire (1438-1533): Women used backstrap looms were used to make small pieces of cloth while vertical frame looms were used to make larger pieces.  Andeans took pride in their textiles and were often religious and ceremonial.  They used textiles as currency as well as a determinant of social class and rank.  Several of their techniques are still used today!

Image from World History
  • North America Native Americans: oldest woven artifact found was in Floriday dating from 4900-6500 BCE ish.  However, modern Native American Indians are well known for their weaving. They mostly used plant fibers and create twined and plain weave items such as baskets, mats, and blankets.

Early looms were operated by 2 people and had a fixed length.  Later, looms were able to be wound out as the fabric progressed.  By 700 AD, horizontal and vertical looms were popular in Europe, Asia, and Africa.  In 1177, a taller and strong loom frame was built allowing the weavers hands to be free to pass the shuttle and operate the heddles with their feet.  This became the standard European loom. 

When American was colonized, wool weaving became popular so the colonists could manufacture their own goods. Cotton was also used, but less than wool, because of the labor intensive process of separating the seeds and shell from the cotton fiber.  However, after the cotton gin was invented, eliminating the manual labor of separating the cotton, it became a very popular fiber.

As with spinning, the Industrial revolution switched hand weaving to machine.  John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733.  This allowed wider fabrics to be made, and be done faster. 

Image from Fine Art America

In 1785, the first weaving factories were built.  The Jacquard loom, invented in 1803 could be programmed with punch cards and allowed faster weaving of complicated patterns.  Natural dyes were used until the later half 1800s and which time synthetic dyes were created.

As we all know, fiber arts and crafts are vastly popular hobbies and past times for people around the world.   I hope you have enjoyed this condense history of spinning and weaving!

Until next time, happy crafting!







Citation:  Most information was found on Wikipedia

Written by Brianne Matlage


Great blog! Look forward to the next one.

Janice Marra on Sep 21, 2019

Leave a comment