History of Textiles


textiles, all fabrics made by weaving, felting, knitting, braiding, or netting, from the various textile fibers (see fiber).

Types of Textiles

Textiles are classified according to their component fibers into silk, wool, linen, cotton, such synthetic fibers as rayon, nylon, and polyesters, and some inorganic fibers, such as cloth of gold, glass fiber, and asbestos cloth. They are also classified as to their structure or weave, according to the manner in which warp and weft cross each other in the loom (see loom; weaving). Value or quality in textiles depends on several factors, such as the quality of the raw material used and the character of the yarn spun from the fibers, whether clean, smooth, fine, or coarse and whether hard, soft, or medium twisted. Density of weave and finishing processes are also important elements in determining the quality of fabrics.

Tapestry, sometimes classed as embroidery, is a modified form of plain cloth weaving. The weaving of carpet and rugs is a special branch of the textile industry. Other specially prepared fabrics not woven are felt and bark (or tapa) cloth, which are beaten or matted together, and a few in which a single thread is looped or plaited, as in crochet and netting work and various laces. Most textiles are now produced in factories, with highly specialized power looms, but many of the finest velvets, brocades, and table linens are still made by hand.

The Printing of Textiles

Textile printing, the various processes by which fabrics are printed in colored design, is an ancient art. Although the time and place of origin are uncertain, examples of Greek fabrics from the 4th cent. BC have been found. India exported block prints to the Mediterranean region in the 5th cent. BC, and Indian chintz was imported into Europe during the Renaissance and widely imitated. France became a leading center and was noted especially for the toile de Jouy manufactured at Jouy from 1760 to 1811.

Early forms of textile printing are stencil work, highly developed by Japanese artists, and block printing. In the latter method a block of wood, copper, or other material bearing a design in intaglio with the dye paste applied to the surface is pressed on the fabric and struck with a mallet. A separate block is used for each color, and pitch pins at the corners guide the placing of the blocks to assure accurate repeating of the pattern. In cylinder or roller printing, developed c.1785, the fabric is carried on a rotating central cylinder and pressed by a series of rollers each bearing one color. The design is engraved on the copper rollers by hand or machine pressure or etched by pantograph or photoengraving methods; the color paste is applied to the rollers through feed rollers rotating in a color box, the color being scraped off the smooth portion of the rollers with knives.

More recent printing processes include screen printing, a hand method especially suitable for large patterns with soft outlines, in which screens, one for each color, are placed on the fabric and the color paste pressed through by a wooden squeegee; spray printing, in which a spray gun forces the color through a screen; and electrocoating, used to apply a patterned pile. Color may be applied by the various processes directly; by the discharge method, which uses chemicals to destroy a portion of a previously dyed ground; or by the resist, or reserve, method, which prevents the development of a subsequently applied color to a portion of the fabric treated with a chemical or with a mechanical resist.


Yarn, fabrics, and tools for spinning and weaving have been found among the earliest relics of human habitations. Linen fabrics dating from 5000 BC have been discovered in Egypt. Woolen textiles from the early Bronze Age in Scandinavia and Switzerland have also been found. Cotton has been spun and woven in India since 3000 BC, and silk has been woven in China since at least 1000 BC About the 4th cent. AD, Constantinople began to weave the raw silk imported from China. A century later silk culture spread to the Western countries, and textile making developed rapidly. By the 14th cent. splendid fabrics were being woven on the hand looms of the Mediterranean countries in practically all the basic structures known to modern artisans, and there has been no change in fundamental processes since that time, although methods and equipment have been radically altered.


See A. T. C. Robinson, Woven Cloth Construction (1967); E. E. Stout, Introduction to Textiles, (3d ed. 1970); A. Geijer, A History of Textile Art (1982); F. M. Montgomery, Textiles in America, 1650 to 1870 (1984); M. Thomas, Textiles: History of an Art (1985); E. J. W. Barber, Prehistoric Textiles (1991).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

History of Textiles: Selected full-text books and articles

The Textile Book By Colin Gale; Jasbir Kaur Berg, 2002
Chinese Art: An Introductory Handbook to Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Textiles, Bronzes & Minor Arts By Roger Fry; Osvald Sirén; Bernard Rackham; A. F. Kendrick; W. W. Winkworth; Laurence Binyon B. T. Batsford, 1935 (Revised edition)
Librarian's tip: "Textiles" begins on p. 39
Georgian Art (1760-1820): An Introductory Review of English Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, Ceramics, Glass, Metalwork, Furniture, Textiles and Other Arts during the Reign of George III By Geoffrey Webb; Bernard Rackham; W. W. Watts; Oliver Brackett; A. F. Kendrick; L. Gordon-Stables; Roger Fry; J. B. Manson B. T. Batsford, 1929
Librarian's tip: "Textiles" begins on p. 57
Spanish Art: An Introductory Review of Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles, Ceramics, Woodwork, Metalwork By Bernard Rackham; R. R. Tatlock; A. F. Kendrick; A. Van De Put; Sir Charles Holmes; H. Isherwood Kay; Bernard Bevan; Geoffrey Webb; Pedro De Artiñano; Royall Tyler B. T. Batsford, 1927
Librarian's tip: Discussions of the history of Spanish textiles begins on p. 59
Performance, Culture, and Identity By Elizabeth C. Fine; Jean Haskell Speer Praeger Publishers, 1992
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "Fabricating Culture: The Textile Art of Hmong Refuge Women"
An Introduction to Persian Art since the Seventh Century A. D By Arthur Upham Pope Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "Textiles"
Technique & Personality By Margaret Mead; Junius B. Bird; Hans Himmelheber The Museum of Primitive Art, 1963
Librarian's tip: "Technology and Art in Peruvian Textiles" beings on p. 45
The Ancient Civilizations of Peru By John Alden Mason Penguin Books, 1957
Librarian's tip: Chap. 15 "Textiles"
A Handbook of Muhammadan Art By M. S. Dimand Hartsdale House, 1947 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 12 "Textiles"
The VOC's Trade in Indian Textiles with Burma, 1634-80 By Dijk, Wil O Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, October 2002
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