Natural Fibres, a part of our history.By Be Quality | Comments: 0 | April 25, 2023
Fibre (in latin: fibra) is a natural or artificial substance which is significantly longer than it is wide.
A Natural Fibre is a fibre we find in nature as such with no modifications by man. The main ‘work’ men do to it is to extract it from the plant or the animal. After that, they clean it and then transform it into a yarn and later into fabric.
In our human history we have been using natural fibres for thousands of years to cover our basic needs. The main use was mainly to protect our bodies from the different climate conditions: from cold, hot sun, winds, rain, etc. But textiles were also used in the household (mattresses, bed sheets, table cloth, etc), to make our life more comfortable. And not only, natural fibres application was also on fishing, sailing, food processing, and in the agriculture too.
Up to the medieval era, every region of the world produced locally their own clothing. As each region has a different climate, fibres grow according to the natural conditions and the needs of the people. Around the end of the Middle Ages the trade throughout Asia, Middle East and Europe increased considerably. As a consequence there was a big exchange of goods, including clothes.
Hemp, linen, cotton & wool were the first natural fibres in use. Proof of this is that there are records of natural fibre clothes from more than 6,000 years b.c.
The Flax, from which we extract the Linen fibres, was one of the first agricultural plants around 5,000 b.c. in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians considered the linen as a gift of the Nile for its beauty. The main reason this was the most used fibre is because it absorbs the humidity and is fresh. This is ideal for the high temperatures and humidity in those areas. We have records that the use of clothes was already at those times a social recognition. Indeed poor people or slaves had the coarser material and had very little and simple ‘garments’. Rich people had tunics, gowns, shirts, and also rectangular clothes wrapped around the body, all made with the finest linen fibres.
Linen clothes had an important part on the ‘afterlife’ rituals in the Egyptian culture, in the preparation of the mummies. Amazing to notice that the material used to protect the mummies came from bed sheets and/or clothes. This means they were already recycling! After cutting them into strips, they soaked them with preservatives and resins to protect and conserve the body.
Interesting to know that the sails for the boats were also made in linen. You can discover many other uses of the linen in ancient Egypt in this link.
Believe it or not, hemp seems to be the oldest textile material known to mankind, around 10,000 b.c. Some say it is originated in Central Asia, some say in China. Undoubtedly, Mesopotamia was an important hemp cultivation and cloth production centre since at least 8,000 b.c.
Hemp arrived Europe around 1,200 b.c. as hemp cloth, after which the hemp cultivation and fabric construction technique spread in Spain, Italy & France. Mainly used by the common people, as per its rough and coarse touch.
But besides textiles, hemp was used also for food, for medicine, to make paper (150 b.c.), as a building material, and also for sailing (ropes and sails).
Christopher Columbus arrived to the New World in 1492 thanks to hemp sails. Similarly, hemp was extremely important in England in those times, as its navy depended on it so much. For this reason, King Henry VIII made a law requiring all farmers to grow hemp each year.
It is easy to understand that cotton replaced the widely use of hemp for clothing around the 19th century. Mainly because of the hemp ‘s long and difficult process to extract the fibres from the plant.
Anyway, hemp plants still had many uses in other industries as in building, food, paper, etc. Nevertheless, in 1,937 the US government banned the cultivation of hemp. Thus all the products made on hemp disappeared. This extended to many other countries in the world.
Usually the hemp is used for ropes & cords as per its strength and durability and for coarse fabrics as sacs, shoes, and painting canvas, among others. Hemp garments today use more softened fabrics.
In the meantime, in other regions in the world, there were cultivations of cotton plants : in India and in Central & South America. In the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, a cotton species (Gossypium Arboreum L) grew since around 5,000 b.c.
The cotton in Central and South America was spontaneous and grew like a wild plant. The cotton in America was in use long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors: the oldest cotton fabric found dates 6,000 b.c. and comes from the Huaca Prieta in Perú. The main cotton family that grows in South America is the Gossypium Barbadense *1, to which belongs the Tanguis and the Pima Cotton . There are other cotton families in Perú that have a natural colour: green, brown and bordeaux. On the Inca period, the use of the fine pima cotton was reserved to the Inca and his close relatives. As the fibre was so soft and shiny, people considered it as a gift from the gods to the Inca. Anyway, in these areas the common cotton was used for the daily life. Moreover, in some cultures, Paracas and Nazca civilizations (previous to the Inca empire), it was part of the afterdeath rituals, as they used to wrap the mummies with cotton fabrics.
As the trading around the world developed, cotton became a material widely used in Europe, specially after the discovery of America. At those times cotton was a luxury product.
The Industrial Revolution on the 18th century spreaded widely the use of cotton, as it eased enormously the processing of the yarn and fabrics. Let’s also remember that it’s cultivation in those times is extremely related to slavery, mainly in the US. But also in Perú, there is a cotton cultivation area, Chincha, where there is a group of black people, descendants of those slaves brought to Perú to work the fields. It is good to know that slavery in US and in Perú is no longer enforced. But unfortunately there is still modern slavery around the world on the cotton farming and processing.
The domestication of the sheep, from which we extract the wool, dates back to 9,000 b.c. in the Middle East. Persians were the first wool producers and were trading woolen products throughout Africa and Europe. By 1,000 b.c Spain and Great Britain were the main wool production centres in the European area. And from those times on, wool garments became a common material that everybody could afford.
The wool production and commerce were a driving force in the economy and politics of Great Britain since the XII century. On those times the abbeys and monasteries owned the biggest sheep flocks. For this reason we can understand the prohibition for the cotton importation in Great Britain. It took long before they opened their borders to the cotton products.
The second trip of Christopher Columbus introduced the sheep to America.
Commonly, there are more than 500 sheep breeds in the world today, which produce different qualities of wool, from very fine and precious, ideal for garments, to very coarse ones, ideal for carpets, pillow & mattress fillings, etc.
The Merino wool, that is very precious for it’s softness comes from Spain. It was introduced around the second half of the Middle Age. On those times there was a very strict monopoly from the spanish rulers. So, there was a strong ban for any exportation of Merino Wool breed. Things change and today Australia has the biggest production of Merino wool.
Nowadays the main wool production by the volume they produce is China and Australia.
A very interesting characteristic of the wool is that it felts, making a thick fabric from which we can make shoes, caps, jackets, rugs, tents, etc. In fact there are archaeological remains dating the Bronze Age and even before of wool felted products, as socks, hats, etc. Over the times, the ancient populations learned also to spin it, and produce woven and knitted fabrics to make any kind of garments.
For its thermal qualities, its use is ideal in cold and even humid climate conditions, and it has the capacity to protect from hypothermia.
When we think about silk fabrics, we always feel the fine and precious quality. Undoubtedly, the damasks, brocades, gauzes and embroideries found in chinese tombs are some examples of robes and also tapestry expressing a period of the rise and prosperity of the chinese culture.
The silk discovery in China dates around 2,640 b.c. or even before. Similarly to the Incas, at those times, the use of silk was exclusively to the emperor, his family and some high ranking officials. After many centuries, the Qin dinasty allowed everybody who could pay for it, to use silk garments. It was clearly a luxury product as it was very expensive, even more than gold. As a consequence, few people could afford it.
In some places in China, people could even pay with silk yarn.
The famous Silk Road origins starts on the important trading voyages by the merchants bringing this precious material to Europe through Central Asia.
We know that the silk production was a chinese monopoly for centuries. Clearly there was a rigid ban to share any information about its production, specially the origin of the silk thread. Very few chinese people knew where the silk yarn came from and how to process it. Many, during the centuries, tried to find the ‘secret’ of the silk production. Hence, we can find many legends and stories around the silk origins.
Despite the tough chinese control, under the order of Justinian I, byzantine emperor on the 6th century, some persian monks were able to smuggle silkworms from China to Constantinople in the hollows of their bamboo canes. Following this, the sericulture in Europe developed until the 19th century.
Consequently, in many other cities in Europe were producing and processing silk. Proof of this, Bologna (where I used to live for many years) on the medieval times was an important centre for silk manufacturing. One characteristic that was key for the production was that the old city had some water channels (like Venice) that you can still see. And there were also water mills.
In essence, we can see that nature has always provided us through all of our history with everything we need and much more. Naturally we had some fine and luxurious fibres to dress and decorate with.
Before the 21st century, every textile product was meant for a lifetime. As the fibre cultivation and the processing was given its natural times. It was a very complex process and requires a huge amount of work. Remember that in those days all was handmade. Another element to consider is that whatever we took from nature, was exclusively to cover the real basic needs. So a good balance was kept between natural resources and fulfilling our necessities. This is the main principle of slowfashion.
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century introduced modern machinery. This certainly made all processes faster and easier. However it still remains long and complex to harvest or produce the fibres up to having the finished garment. And now in the 21st century with the fastfashion attitude we are in a ‘discardable era’: we buy and throw easily. Particularly as millions of garments are produced and thrown away in just one season.
Synthetic and artificial fibres are in use since the last 50 years. And these fibres are big players on this ‘discardable fashion’. Lately we are getting aware of the negative impacts of the misuse of these non natural fibres. Specially on the environment and also on our health.
Learning from our past can help us to understand that natural fibres and fabrics had been used for thousands of years. This can help us to evaluate our relationship with today’s fashion. Specially to find a new balance that is more friendly with nature, with ourselves and even with our pockets.
Less is More.
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