Jonathan Openshaw explores how technology has influenced textiles across the ages
Textile and clothing production ranks as one of the oldest human crafts. Deriving their name from the Latin textilis – meaning to weave – textiles can actually be made by weaving, felting, bonding, tufting and knitting, making their form and function as diverse as human culture itself. Throughout history, textiles have underpinned the fashion industry and have taken on great symbolic significance, being found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and driving vast trade networks such as the 7,000 km Silk Road. Here, we explore the advancements in technology that have led to the modern textile industry and shaped the history of fashion itself.
Tools of the trade
Historically, textiles were made from plant or animal fibers such as flax, cotton or wool. Laborious processes are needed to create usable fibers from these raw materials, however, and some of the earliest technology involved in textile production comes from this processing stage, including tools for combing, hackling and carding made from wood or bone. Once processed into individual strands, these fibers would be tied together to make plaits of fabric that became some of the earliest human garments. You can see this early form of fashion on stone sculptures such as the ‘Venus’ figurines of the European Upper Paleolithic, and the images below show some of the ancient technology used in creating these garments.
Taking a spin
Knotting and plaiting had its limitations, however. It was time-consuming to create garments this way and the yarn it produced often had weaknesses where it had been spliced. But then our ancestors learnt to spin: this meant that they could create greater quantities of higher quality yarn at speed, leading to the development of more complex fabrics and fashions.
The earliest examples of spinning used two implements known as a distaff and spindle, but the spinning wheel – developed in India and reaching Europe in the Middle Ages – revolutionized the process. Another major advancement was James Hargreaves’ 1767 spinning jenny, which allowed textile workers to use multiple spindles simultaneously. This lead to the development of semi-automatic spinning machines like the one below, and paved the way for the industrial textile production we know today.
Shuttles fly off the shelves
The ability to create yarn at speed meant that the weaving industry really took off, allowing the production of a wide range of silks, linens and wools. Small wooden tools called shuttles were used to pass the yarn through the handloom, but this was a slow process that required a lot of skill.
In 1733, one of these skilled weavers called John Kay developed a new piece of technology called the ‘flying shuttle’, which was attached to a cable, making it much easier and quicker to use. This new mechanical element laid the foundations for a fully-automated weaving process and drove up demand for yarn, forcing mechanized innovation in the spinning industry, too. This was the beginning of mass production, providing designers and consumers with far greater quantities of more affordable fabrics, underpinning the growth of the fashion industry beyond the aristocratic classes. Fashion was becoming accessible to everyone.
Machines steam ahead
The flying shuttle was just the first of many innovations that began to mechanize the industry, leading to the rise of power looms where a series of pistons, levers and springs replaced the human hand, eye and foot. The first commercially viable power loom is credited to English clergyman Edmund Cartwright, who patented it in 1785. Cartwright opened his own textile mill and soon incorporated steam power into the process. By 1818, it’s estimated that there were 2,000 steam-powered looms in the industrial heartland surrounding Manchester, but just 30 years later this had increased to 250,000 nationwide.
This rapid industrialization allowed the development of the international export in textiles and fashion. Although we think of countries like Bangladesh and China as the manufacturing bases of fashion today, in the 19th century, the opposite was true, and Britain exported vast quantities of linen and wool throughout its empire. Just as the semi-automatic loom gave middle and working class people access to more complex fashions in the 18th century, steam powered production expanded this access worldwide in the 19th century.
People power vs. the power loom
Whilst power looms were good at creating vast quantities of textiles, skilled artisans were still required to produce cloth with complex patterns, such as brocades and damask. French inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard changed all this in 1804. His revolutionary innovation was to create an attachment for the loom that used a series of punch cards to control the relative positions of warp and weft. When these stiff cards were sewn together in a long belt, complex patterns could be created with minimal skill. This made it possible to produce endless varieties of fabric in large quantities with uniform quality, but it also spelt the beginning of the end for skilled textile weavers in Europe and North America.
Fun fact: the Jacquard system is sometimes credited with laying the foundations for modern computing.
The digital revolution
The 19th century saw technological innovations such as steam power and Jacquard technology in the West, but it was the 20th century that would bring about the most radical transformations in the textile industry. The emergence of electronics allowed greater automation and the introduction of manmade fibers like nylon, revolutionizing the colors, shapes and styles available to fashion designers. One of the key innovations was the fluid-jet loom, which replaced the flying shuttle with a high-pressure jet of air or water, vastly speeding up the weaving process. Knitting was also transformed by computerized technology, allowing the production of complete garments including arms, necks and buttonholes to be fabricated in a matter of minutes. This was truly the dawn of fashion as we know it, where items that would have previously taken a skilled artisan days or weeks to produce could be knocked out in minutes and seconds.
The technological revolutions of the 20th century further destabilized the traditional manufacturing bases of Europe and North America, with the industry going ‘offshore’ to new markets, especially in India and East Asia. It's unclear whether new developments in technology such as 3D printing will bring about significant further changes, but they may hold the potential for a wave of ‘reshoring’ textile production. The role of cutting-edge technology in the future of fashion was explored in the Met exhibition Manus x Machina in 2016, which considered processes from laser cutting to 3D printing and their future potential.
Textiles are – quite literally – embedded in the fabric of our daily lives. But they have a hidden history: a past that goes hand-in-hand with the history of the human race itself. When we put on a shirt in the morning, wrap a scarf around ourselves when it’s cold, or slip into a fancy dress for a party, we’re immersed in all of the historical innovation and technological advancements that have gone before us.
And who knows what revolutionary new technologies could create the clothes of tomorrow; perhaps in a few years we’ll all be wearing high-tech laser-cut dresses and 3D printed jackets...
Explore more on the making of fashion:
- The Story of Irish Linen
- The Fabrication of Fashion
- The Development of Textile Tech
- How Machines Make Stockings
- Back to We Wear Culture