From the Latin texere meaning ‘to weave,’ woven cloth has been in use for many centuries by all civilisations, dating back at least 30,000 years. Art that has survived from that time depicts types of clothing worn in the ancient world.
The general term “textiles” today includes all fabrics. In addition to covering our bodies, bedecking our beds, and carpeting our floors, textiles give us seatbelts and sofa cushions, tents and bath towels, medical masks and duct tape. Silks from China, carpets from Persia, ikats from Indonesia, cottons from India have all shaped the modern world. The story of textiles is a story of human ingenuity.
Early humans discovered that fibres from inner barks of trees as well as flax plants could be twisted between their fingers or on their thighs to produce string, a significant invention which built the capacity of human minds and expanded the capabilities of humans. A general purpose technology (from the Greek techne meaning ‘craft and productive knowledge’ and tekhnologia meaning ‘systematic treatment’), string had countless applications: it was used to make fishing lines, set hunting traps, tie logs together to make rafts, among numerous others.
Experimentation with string led to the development of woven cloth, or linen – from linum – Latin for flax plant.
The term ‘linen’ was applied to general cloth that was woven. “Because of its widespread use in bedsheets and table cloths, the word is used as a catchall for these textile. We also get ‘linings’ and ‘lingerie’ from linen because clothes were sewn with an inner layer of fabric and undergarments were commonly made using linen” (Ortiz).
Other daily English language words from textiles include frazzled, spinoffs, hanging by a thread, follow a comment thread, take a shuttle bus, weave through traffic, and so on. Some fabrics also derived their names from cities in which they were first made, such as damask named after Damascus (Syria) and muslin, named after Mosul (Iraq). Taffeta, the ultimate fabric for special occasions, is from the Persian word taftan meaning ‘to spin.’ The Sanskrit word sutra, now referring to a literary aphorism or religious scripture, originally denoted string or thread. The word tantra, referring to a Buddhist or Hindu religious text, is from the Sanskrit tantrum meaning ‘warp’ or ‘loom,’ and the Chinese word zuzhi, meaning ‘organization’ or ‘to arrange,’ is also the word for weave (Postrel, Fabric of Civilization, p 5).
The production of cloth depended on spinning string. Since flax fibres and animal wool were short, humans discovered that drawing them out and twisting them together produced long strings. Over a long period of time, thousands of years, when early humans began to settle and form agriculture societies (ca. 12,000 years ago), the domestication of animals (for food and wool) and cultivation of crops changed the nature of their fibres. Selective breeding of animals transformed the fibres they produced into finer and more uniform ones than their wild kin.
The quest for thread prompted some of the world’s most important mechanical innovations, leading ultimately to the Great Enrichment that further spawned innovations leading to improved worldwide standards of living.
Weaving, the primary method of textile production, involves interlinking vertical threads, known as warp, with horizontal thread, known as weft. This was the first binary code, at least 24,000 years old: warp-weft, up-down, one-zero (Ibid. p75).
The earliest known looms, dating to the 5th millennium BC, comprised beams forming a frame to hold a number of parallel threads in two sets, alternating with each other. By raising one set of these threads, which together formed the warp, it was possible to run a cross thread, a weft, or filling, between them. The block of wood used to carry the filling strand through the warp was called the shuttle.
The increased need for thread gave rise to the invention of various hand spindles. Spindle whorls have appeared in the archaeological record dating back to the Neolithic period (ca.7000 – 1500 BCE) worldwide at various times.
The spindle and whorl were brilliantly simple technology, portable and easily crafted from local materials, but they were slow in the production of string. Increasingly complex societies required more and more cloth to be produced at greater speeds.
The hand-spinning tools were replaced by the hand-spinning wheel and eventually by the water powered wheel, and the flying shuttle, which shot out of a box, backwards and forwards, carrying the weft without the weaver having to come into contact with the shuttle at all.
A subsequent landmark invention was the spinning jenny, in 1764, that allowed a single wheel to control eight spindles rather than the single spindle on conventional spinning wheels. Later versions had upwards of eighty spindles (British Library).
In order to weave cloth with images or patterns, the warp and weft had to be lowered or lifted to permit the different colour threads to be inserted by the shuttle, made easier by the drawloom. However, it was a slow, laborious process requiring the operator to make decisions on a row-by-row basis about whether each warp thread should be raised, kept in position, or lowered. The drawloom required two operators: the weaver who operated the shuttle, and another person to raise/lower the warp; complex patterns required more assistants.
In 1725, Basile Bouchon, working in one of the many silk centers in Lyon, France, revolutionised the weaving industry by inventing a semi-automated process that controlled the weaving with a perforated paper tape. A continuous roll of paper was punched by hand, in sections, each of which represented one tread, and the length of the roll was determined by the number of shots in each repeated pattern. This invention was the first industrial application of a semi-automated machine, making the production of textiles quicker, more efficient, and more uniform.
(Detailed workings of this loom at History-Computer)
Improving on Bouchon’s mechanism, Jean Baptiste Falcon introduced, in 1728, a punched-card system tied together in an endless chain to control the loom. The holes punched in different sequence instructs the machine to weave out specific patterns and designs. However, a second person was still required to press the punched cards against the rods controlling the warp threads. Additionally, the paper had a tendency to break with continual use.
(Detailed workings of this loom at Weaving History)
Further improvements were made by Jean Baptiste Vaucanson, who eliminated the complicated system of weights and cords (tail cords, pulley box, etc.) that had been used to select which warp threads were to be raised during weaving. Vaucanson also added a ratchet mechanism to advance the punched paper each time that the cylinder was pushed against the row of hooks.
While Vaucanson’s machine was ingenious and technically sound, the metal cylinders were expensive and difficult to produce, and they could only be used for making images that involved regularly repeated designs.
(Detailed workings of this loom at Computer Timeline)
More than half a century later, Joseph-Marie Jacquard refined this technology, devising a way to automate the execution of the process, revolutionising the art of weaving. He pioneered the process of applying punched cards in the loom control system automatically so that the loom fed itself with the information it needed to carry out the next row of weaving. The weaver did not need an assistant, and had the ability to control the mechanism that maneuvered all the warp threads into the position they needed to be for each successive row of weaving. “Once all the punched cards had been made and strung together in the right sequence, that chain of punched cards could always produce the same design” (Postrel, The Fabric of Civilization p 36). This device was flexible. Any image or pattern could be embodied into the chain of punched cards and woven by the Jacquard loom.
(Detailed workings of this loom at Science + Industry Museum)
The cards for specific patterns were punched, labelled, and stored on shelves allowing workshops to produce works to order. The Jacquard loom, patented in 1804, would come to impact the computing world in its introduction of the punch-card technology.
(Detailed workings of this loom at The Science + Industry Museum).
Ismail Al-Jazari (1136-1206) – pioneered automation, inspiring Da Vinci
Although Jacquard’s loom was a breakthrough in automation, the concept dates back to the work of Ismail Al-Jazari, a mathematician, mechanical engineer, and artist. While everyone is aware of Da Vinci’s legacy and genius, very few know that he was inspired by Al-Jazari’s work and inventions, which included automated mechanisms such as moving peacocks powered by hydropower, as well as the first automatic gates and doors.
Al-Jazari wrote The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in 1206, which was arguably one of the most comprehensive methodical compilations of knowledge about automated devices, robotics. and mechanics. Seven centuries later the British historian Donal Hill, who was also an engineer, translated Jazari’s book from Arabic into English in 1974.
Although humans had been harnessing complex mathematical patterns, weaving and remembering intricate patterns for thousands of years, Jacquard’s loom enabled weaving of patterns at greater speeds. He pioneered the notion of applying punched cards in the loom control system so that the loom in effect continually feeds itself with the information it needs to carry out the next row of weaving.
The card-driven system spread to makers of ribbons, woollens, and carpets. “Shipbuilders designed similar systems to control the automatic riveting machines used to build the era’s new ironclads. Inspired by Jacquard’s machine, Charles Babbage (1791-1871) invented a complex device called the Analytical Engine (AE), a general purpose calculator that used punched-card programming. The AE was designed to have a memory (storage) and a processor (mill). The rest is history. The need for a higher storage capacity as well as versatility of storage devices became apparent, requiring further developments.
Storage was done on magnetic tape and floppy disks. Floppy disks, an almost universal data format from the 1970s into the 1990s, were used for primary data storage as well as for backup and data transfers between computers. Complex systems were subsequently developed: IBM Harvard Mark 1, ENIAC, BINAC, UNIVAC 1, CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-Rewritable (CD-RW), drives, the Compact Disc, Digital Versatile Disc or Digital Video Disc (DVD), Flash Drives, USB, and cloud storage.
While the punched card technology to record and store information has been replaced by electronic systems, it is generally agreed that Joseph-Marie Jacquard created a brilliant mechanism to be changed indefinitely according to an endless variable set of instructions. The entire concept of ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ can be traced directly to Jacquard.
Although fabrics are now more frequently knitted rather than woven, Jacquard’s loom allowed humans to weave at higher speeds, subsequently facilitating complex algorithms to process information within nanoseconds.
Donald Hill, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, Routledge, 1998
Gerald Ortiz, This Great Summer Fabric Was Used in Prehistoric Times, Gear Patrol
JP Valery, Fathers of Robotics: Ismail Al-Jazari, Robot Shop
James Essinger, Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, The Oldest String Ever Found May Have Been Made By Neanderthals, NPR
Timothy Williamson, History of computers: A brief timeline, Live Science
Ufuk Necat Tasci, Why Ismail al Jazari is called the father of medieval robots, TRT World News Magazine
Virginia Postrel, The Fabric of Civilization, Basic Books, New York, 2020
Weave History, Weavedesign
Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.