The fabric of ancient societies
October 6, 2021
How many different fabrics have you touched today? Cotton, wool, silk, linen, polyester, nylon – maybe even bamboo and hemp – or any combination of them.
Now, think about the origin of those fabrics. How long have they been in existence? How did the ancients turn the raw material into thread, and the threads into fabrics? When did these fabrics begin to appear? And, who did the physical work?
Those were some of the questions being answered during a special session of Ashley Brewer’s advanced Latin class. The combined third- and fourth-year Latin students spent time listening, watching, and working with Laura Ricketts of the Huffington Library staff, who is nationally recognized as a knitting instructor, speaker and writer, on turning raw wool into yarn.
It was part of the class’s exploration into the everyday lives of the Romans, especially the women and slaves. Brewer said they were responsible for taking the raw wool, prepping it, and then spinning it into yarn. When a Roman woman died, eulogies often complimented her ability to spin wool. There would also be drawings of her spinning. That was the apparent standard for a dedicated wife and mother, she said.
Ricketts told the class that Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all spun their threads using hand/drop spindles. The Egyptians created a process that turned flax into fine linen. That linen was used to wrap the mummified remains of the ancient kings. The fabric was so fine that textile experts has never been able to duplicate it.
The fibers were obtained from the inner shaft of the plant after the tough outer shell was soaked and stripped off. It was a long and very labor-intensive process, which is why it fell on the servants or slaves. The linen produced was such a good quality, many experts believe the flax plants used have since become extinct, she said.
The Greeks, Romans and people in western Europe relied mostly on wool because sheep were so abundant throughout the region. To keep the animals comfortable, they were shorn twice a year, Ricketts said. And it still took a lot of time to prepare the wool before the spinning could begin.
She brought a bag of fresh wool for students to feel because it still contained lanolin. The Latin term for wool is “lana,” Brewer said. Olin comes from the Latin “oleum,” which translates into wax or oil in English. The lanolin in wool helps sheep shed water. It is collected by pressing the wool during the textile process.
Spinning was originally done by hand, Ricketts said. Giving each student a piece of wool, she told them to practice stretching it with their fingers and then twist it by rolling on their thighs. While the twisting made the wool thinner and stronger, the results were uneven and bulky.
The invention of hand spindles, which look similar to wooden toy tops, dates back to the First Century A.D. These were used for thousands of years, Ricketts explained. While faster and more consistent, it was still a very labor-intensive process and often done by the women and slaves. The slaves would each be given a certain amount of wool to spin every day. Dozens of people could be assigned to spinning wool in some households.
The threads produced are called “singles.” They were then twisted together to form two-ply yarn to make it stronger, Ricketts said, but it also cut the amount of thread produced in half. That is why so many people were tasked with spinning. The term “spindling,” which means long and thin, comes from producing singles on the spindles.
The spindles Ricketts gave the students varied in size and shape but they performed the same task. Spinning got easier as the spinning wheel evolved. But that evolution took centuries, Ricketts said. The spinning wheel most people visualize is from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” she added.