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Felt garments: from 8000 BC

It is arguable that the invention of textiles is the single most liberating step in human history. Previously people have had a choice only of going naked in warm regions or wearing rough and clumsy furs in colder climates. The most elementary of fabrics - felt - is probably the first to be developed for garments.

Felt is a fabric in which fibres of any kind are made to intermesh not by spinning and weaving, but by processes of heat, damp and pressure. Wool, hair and fur are the conventional ingredients of felt. It can also be made from strips of bark, to produce floor coverings of the kind which Palaeolithic man may have used.

Woollen felt is probably in use for garments at least 10,000 years ago, well before the first weaving of textiles. But felt has little lasting strength. Its fibres pull gradually apart.

For a fabric with greater resilience, a woven material is required. The yarn for this can be acquired from the wool of sheep or goat, from the fluff surrounding the seeds of cotton, from the fibre in the stems of flax, or from the thin threads excreted by the silk worm. Any of these substances can be twisted by hand to form a strong thread. But greater efficiency requires the spindle.

The crafts of settled life: from 8000 BC

With the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, about 10,000 years ago, several of mankind's basic crafts emerge over a relatively short span of time.

Sun-dried bricks make possible the beginning of architecture. In textiles, the spindle evolves to transform the spinning of thread. Weaving is perhaps first practised in the making of baskets, but soon the loom is developed for weaving cloth. Pottery provides greatly improved facilities for the storing and cooking of food.

Bricks: from 8000 BC

An innovation in the neolithic period is the use of bricks. In their simplest form (still familiar today in many hot regions), bricks are shaped by pressing mud or clay into a mould. The damp blocks are then left to bake hard in the sun. Bricks of this kind are known in Jericho from about 8000 BC.

The more durable type of brick, baked in a kiln, is an offshoot of the potter's technology. Kiln bricks are widely used in the two earliest civilizations, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, often to provide the outer surface of walls on an inner core of sun-dried brick.

Spinning: from 8000 BC

The spindle develops naturally from the process of twisting fibres into a thread by hand. The spun thread must be stored, and the easiest way is to wind it onto a stick. This means that the stick is also attached to the unfinished thread (the fibres which are still being twisted). The stick must therefore twist with the fibres.

Instead of being an encumbrance, this can be turned to advantage. If the stick is given greater weight, by attaching to it a lump of clay or a stone, its momentum will help in spinning the thread.

The thread can be turned into fabric in either of two ways. One of them links a continuous length of thread in rows of interconnected loops. This is knitting, which can create garments of any shape.

The other method, going back to at least 5800 BC, uses the thread in a rectangular criss-cross pattern to produce flat cloth. The vertical threads are stretched taut to form a grille; the horizontal threads are then interwoven between them. This is the process for all textiles of cotton, linen, silk or wool. It also produces tapestry. It makes the cloth which is decorated in embroidery. When loops are inserted, it gives the soft pile of rugs and carpets. All these involve the basic craft of weaving.

So the spindle acquires its two characteristics. It is a bobbin, on to which the spun thread is wound; and it is a flywheel, prolonging the spinning motion which creates the thread.

The spinner uses one hand to draw out the fibres from the bundle of wool, cotton or flax, thus extending the half-spun thread to which the spindle is attached. The other hand gives a rotating flick to the spindle whenever it begins to lose impetus. Hand-spinning of this sort becomes a basic cottage industry throughout the world.

Basketry: from 7000 BC

The development of basketry can be seen also as the first step towards weaving. The interweaving of strands of reed or osier, to make a simple container, is an elementary process which rapidly provides an extremely useful object.

The impermanence of the materials means that the earliest surviving fragments of baskets (from a cave in Utah) date only from about 7000 BC, but the craft is almost certainly practised considerably earlier. From around 5800 BC we have scraps of woven textiles, preserved because carbonized in the fire which destroys one of the levels of Catal Huyuk.

Loom: from 6000 BC

Weaving of cloth requires a loom - a structure which will hold taut the vertical threads (the warp), while the weaver snakes each horizontal thread in and out to form the weft. When the threads of the weft are pressed down tight, to form a solid mesh with the warp, a section of the cloth at the bottom of the loom is complete. A pattern is achieved by varying the colour of the threads in warp and weft.

The earliest known evidence of a loom comes from Egypt in about 4400 BC, but some method of supporting the warp exists from the beginning of weaving. The threads must either be suspended (and held taut by a weight at the bottom) or else must be stretched in the rigid frame of a conventional loom.

Weaving: from 6000 BC

Until recently the earliest known scraps of cloth are woven from wool; dating from about 5800 BC, they come from Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. Similarly the first known example of linen has been from about 5000 BC in Egypt, where flax (an indigenous wild plant in the Mediterranean region) is cultivated. But a small woven fragment discovered in 1993 near the upper reaches of the Tigris probably pushes back the available evidence. It appears to be linen and has been dated to about 7000 BC.

Cotton is grown in both Eurasia and America; woven cotton survives from about 2500 BC in the Indus valley and slightly later in Peru. The most precisely localized source of any major fabric is China, where pieces of woven silk are known from about 2850 BC.

Pottery: from 6500 BC

One of the most useful of all human discoveries is pottery. Indeed a standard distinction made by archaeologists, when describing successive cultures in an area, is between groups which are 'aceramic' (without pottery) and others which have mastered the technology of clay and kiln.

In western Asia, where the Neolithic Revolution is most advanced, the first pottery at sites such as Catal Huyuk dates from about 6500 BC.

The earliest wares at Catal Huyuk are made by one of the standard methods of primitive potters. Rings or coils of clay are built up from a circular base. The walls of the pot are then smoothed and thinned (by simultaneous pressure on the inner and outer surfaces) before being fired in a bread oven or in the most elementary of kilns - a hole in the ground, above which a bonfire is lit.

Early neolithic pottery is usually undecorated. Where there is decoration, it takes the form of patterns cut or pressed into the damp clay.

Alcohol: from the 4th millennium BC

Humans must frequently have discovered, in a series of happy accidents, the pleasant side-effects of drinking the fermented juice of grape or grain. The earliest evidence of the systematic production of alcohol comes from Mesopotamia, where by the 4th millennium BC beer is brewed on a regular basis. Barley is indigenous in the region.

Beer subsequently becomes the national drink of ancient Egypt. From there the secrets of brewing spread round the Mediterranean. A standard way of achieving the necessary mix of barley and yeast is to allow mashed barley bread to ferment. So brewing becomes, in these early times, part of the baker's trade.

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