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CETG Online Talk on Monday 14th December 2020

Speaker – Towse Harrison

“Before the Zip”

Towse’s most engrossing talk was more than just the story of fastenings before the introduction in the late 19th Century of “clasp lockers” for footwear, and covered over half a million years of history of the creation and use of textiles and clothing, something many people take for granted in these days of “fast fashion”.


The invention of thread, and thus the means for shaping hides and later woven cloth, transformed the lives of people even earlier than modern humans, and paved the way for our obsession with covering ourselves with ever more elaborate and expensive textiles to show off our wealth, status and taste.


Towse’s talk encompassed many countries and periods, illustrated by reconstructions of archaeological finds and historical images.  The laborious methods for creating thread from plant fibre via spinning, and then subsequent weaving into cloth was explained; the dyeing of the cloth with plant materials and the embellishment with shells, stamped metal beads and stitch was described.  Anecdotes from many ages highlighted the meaning and importance of dress, in ways which are lost to us today. 


New discoveries are constantly being made as previous finds are reassessed, and items classified using the catch-all term of “ritual object” have been revealed as tools for preparing cloth.  Modern archaeological methods are uncovering new textile treasures even amongst finds over a hundred years old.  Among the grave goods of Tutankhamun, a misshapen lump has been painstakingly unravelled to reveal a tasselled stole. The melting of the permafrost in northern Europe as a result of global warming is revealing graves and their occupants that have been frozen for three thousand years.


Towse touched on the legacy of weaving and clothing in our everyday language and encouraged us not to underestimate the textile skills of our distant ancestors who created clothes we would struggle to replicate today.  The mechanisation of textile production with the industrial revolution freed women from the need to stay at home to clothe their families and decorate their homes, but the important role of the humble needle and thread throughout human history is still greatly undervalued even today.


Finally, those present will never look at a nettle in the same way again: it is both tasty fried snack, soup ingredient, source of a soft and fine fibre for cloth and garden fertiliser.

Text © Liz Wilmott CETG

Photo of Towse © Towse Harrison

Whitehorse Hill Woman: Early Bonze Age 1730 - 1600BC

Photo © Dartmoor National Park Authority

Bronze Age White Horse Hill Woman (002).
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