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Meeting on Monday 13th May 2024

Towse Harrison - Before the Zip


When our scheduled speaker cancelled at short notice, committee member Towse Harrison stepped in with a fascinating talk on why we should not underestimate the importance of textiles in history and prehistory.  She asked us to imagine a world without fabric – no clothing, no household linens, the very chairs we were sitting on would be hard and uncomfortable.


Then she began a whistlestop tour through the archaeological record, starting over 170,000 years ago when human head lice evolved a separate lineage which lived in our clothing.  So human ancestors must have been wearing something even then!


Along the way she busted a number of myths – the Vikings wore elaborately embroidered tunics and trousers, not horned helmets; female captives of the Assyrians were not sex slaves, but valued as spinners and weavers; bunions from unsuitable shoes are not just produced by modern stiletto heels, but are found on the bodies of medieval men in a Cambridge cemetery.


The talk was lavishly illustrated with ancient textiles: sophisticated woven fabric found in a Swiss glacier, a shirt from Cairo adorned with neat pintucks, a tasselled string skirt buried in a Danish bog, padded trousers worn by early nomads, Scythian felted costume adorned with thousands of solid gold beads sewn in patterns of lions and dragons, a tasselled stole from Tutankhamun’s tomb.


It has been suggested the breakthrough which marked the transition to modern mankind was not agriculture, but the making of thread and thus woven fabric – the “string revolution”.  The importance of textiles has been ignored, because the materials are rarely preserved in archaeological sites, and of course, it was “women’s work” and therefore of little value.  The time and effort that goes into spinning and weaving is no longer appreciated.  A Roman tunic required 10,000 metres of thread, and would take 60 hours to weave.


Which brings us to modern fast fashion.  Our discarded clothing is sent to landfill in poor countries and whereas in the recent past it could be re-used, now it is of such poor quality it is useless.  We have lost our connection to and appreciation of the importance of fabric and thread, and forgotten why textiles matter.

Words © Liz Wilmott/CETG 2024

Photos © Towse Harrison CETG/Dartmoor National Park Authority

Bronze Age Woman Dartmoor grave.jpg

Reconstruction of clothing of White Horse Hill Woman from a Bronze Age grave on Dartmoor

Scythian costume reconstructions with gold 'beads' from the Hermitage Museum.jpg

Costumes of elite Scythian nomads with gold and felted embellishment before C200BCE

L'Anse aux Meadows Textile colours - small.jpg

Reconstruction of Viking Age dye house from L'anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, site of a C10thCE Viking settlement in Canada

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