Preface to History of Textiles textbook by Carla Tilghman PDF 

Since 1990, an enormous amount of new textile research has been published, new textiles have been identified and dated, existing textile finds have been re-examined and more accurately assessed. The pioneering efforts of Emil Vogt, Margarethe Hald, Agnes Gejier, John Munro, J.P. Wild, Elizabeth Coates, Frances Prichard, and countless other earlier textile historians have provided groundwork and inspiration for a new generation of textile historians.  The interdisciplinary methods used by E.W. Barber and others have played an essential part making the study of textiles pertinent to the fields of archaeology, art history, history, and social anthropology and in the development of the field of textile history in its own right.

 Loom, 1250 AD, Trinity College, Cambridge

Loom, 1250 AD, Trinity College, Cambridge

What are textiles?  Wool?  Flax?  Bamboo?  Wood?  Skin? Are they woven, knotted, coiled, embroidered, knitted?  How do we understand textiles culturally, economically, artistically?  Living in an age where textiles are generally considered to be quite cheap and easily disposable, it is difficult to imagine a time when textiles drove the economies of countries and were used as currency between empires.  We can hardly fathom the idea of owning only six pieces of clothing (extra under-garments if you were well-to-do) and of needing to use, repair and reuse those garments for years.  Textile History is intended to help readers navigate an array of textile issues, crossing cultural and chronological boundaries.

Textile creation reaches back to the earliest moments of human prehistory.  Along with ceramics, the construction of textiles seems to be synonymous with homo sapiens sapiens.  The exploration of the history of textiles is complex and covers a wide range of topics and academic disciplines.  Not only is it important to come to grips with the mechanics of textile creation, but also the ways in which textiles have influenced/controlled economics, scientific and industrial inventions, aspects of cultural and physical anthropology to say nothing of artistic endeavors.

Textile history courses are incorporated into a wide variety of programs: textile degree programs with both industrial and artistic focuses, interior design programs, architectural programs, anthropology and history as well as fashion oriented programs.  There is not a single textile history text that will completely serve the needs of all of these diverse courses.  But aspects of these varied disciplines are useful to all.  With this in mind, Textile History has been designed to touch on many aspects of textiles with the assumption that individual courses will include supplemental material to meet specific academic and functional needs.

Overall, the text is constructed on a chronological model, moving from prehistory to the end of the twentieth century.  Each chapter places emphasis on geographic regions where certain textile issues were particularly important historically and culturally.  Cross-cultural parallels are also made apparent in each chapter.

Copy of Peru, Huari, 750-950, tunic, camelid, probably  alpaca, plain weave w discontinuous warp and weft, tie-died resist,120 pieces, Textile Museum Washington DC.
Copy of Peru, Huari, 750-950, tunic, camelid, probably  alpaca, plain weave w discontinuous warp and weft, tie-died resist,120 pieces, Textile Museum Washington DC.

Creation and manufacture

Each chapter contains information about the techniques used to create various textiles.  These sections are specifically designed to be used by those students who want to gain an overview about a specific technique.  For instance, in Chapter 1, there are diagrams and directions for twining and coiling. Other chapters will include information about barkcloth, screen printing, basketry, weaving, netting, coiling, block printing, and digitization. (These are basic bits of information and students who truly wish to delve into these techniques will need to do additional reading.)  Information about fiber properties from natural fibers to synthetic will be incorporated into different chapters that see extensive use of those fibers as well as the Appendices.

Africa, Kuba cloth, 23 x 24 in, raffia

Africa, Kuba cloth, 23 x 24 in, raffia

 History and Archeology

Understanding both the cultural context in which textiles were created and also the archaeological conditions under which many textiles have been found provides a necessary backdrop to understanding the ways in which textiles have functioned in particular cultures.  It should be noted that while this text is intended to be a useful resource for archaeologists, it is not an archaeological text.  I have eschewed use of as much discipline specific jargon as possible in order to provide a text that is understandable to a wide audience.  Any archaeological errors should be attributed strictly to me, and not seen as a reflection on the Herculean efforts of my archaeological colleagues to correct and guide me.

Uzbekistan, chemise, kuilak, Kashkadaria region, 1980s, silk front

Uzbekistan, chemise, kuilak, Kashkadaria region, 1980s, silk front
Social Anthropology and Economics

Textile design, creation and display often had enormous and far-ranging economic impact.  Witness the breadth and depth of the influence of the Silk Road (which, of course, didn’t just exist for the trade in textiles, but was strongly influenced by the desire for silk in the Middle East and Europe).  The Ottoman Empire had special government controlled textile workshops called tiraz which made silk fabrics used as currency in diplomatic negotiations.  Cotton manufacturing had positive and devastatingly negative effects on the economics of England, India, the Americas and many other countries.  Each chapter will cover significant aspects of the economics of textile manufacture and trade.

Japan, Antique Kimono,

Japan, Antique Kimono, front, silk, 48 x 58.3 in.

The gendering of textiles is another important aspect of the history of textiles that will be included in most chapters.  In Europe, women were mostly relegated to support roles in the manufacture of textiles.  ‘Spinster’ is a word that comes from the medieval practice of having unmarried women produce the yarn used by a male weaver (which is why Weaver is a patronymic and Spinster isn’t.).  The text will explore the shifts in the perception of gender roles connected to textiles with the development of the European Industrial Revolution. Other topics to be explored are the positions of men and women in the making of textiles among the Asante, the Tlinglit and the Peruvians (to name only a small selection.)

Janice Lessman, #357, February Circles, 61 x 60 in, dobby, linen, nylon, paint, Feb 2006

Janice Lessman, #357, February Circles, 61 x 60 in, dobby, linen, nylon, paint, Feb 2006

Artists and Designers

The latter portion of the text will include specific biographical, contextual and art historical material about nineteenth and twentieth century textile artists and designers.  These sections will continue to explore the social and economic impact of textiles in contemporary societies as well as the expanding definition of what constitutes ‘a textile.’  The work of Anni Albers and Nick Cave both often fall under the umbrella of ‘Textile Arts’, yet their work seems to have very little in common.  The design work of Jack Lenore Larsen, Carole Little, or Kaori Maki have influenced what we wear and how we decorate our homes.  The technological textile developments from NASA and Japanese companies such as Inoue have trickled down to the consumer in the form of Tencel, newly developed heat-set polyesters, bamboo sheets and smart fabrics.  The final chapter of the text will explore these late twentieth and early twenty-first century developments and textile design and manufacture still on the drawing board.


Friends and Family

I would especially like to extend inadequate thanks to my stunningly supportive family who listened to endless stream-of-consciousness babblings and were charming about giving me up to my obsession.  Gretchen Anderson and Valija Evalds were my constant writing buddies and helped me get up really early in the morning and stay productive.  Elizabeth Howard contributed much needed encouragement, editorial commentary and arcane bits of etymology. I’m grateful to Jim Downey for his editorial comments and support.


Elizabeth MacMahon is both a friend and colleague and has been a source of encouragement, inspiration, information and support. Marla Mallett, Susan Hudson, and Mary Dusenbury have filled in many gaps and provided accurate information and resources. Thanks to David Cateforis for a particularly useful pearl of wisdom.

Complete strangers

To all of the coffee-houses in Lawrence, Kansas whose employees served me innumerable cups of latte, chai, tea, coffee, and molé mochas.  Thanks for helping to keep me caffeinated. 

Thanks to all my Facebook friends.  They have cheered me on, made me laugh, providing more daily tidbits of support than they’ll ever know.

Bio: Carla Tilghman has been  spinning and weaving since she was 12.  After a career as a paramedic, she decided to turn her hobbies into her profession and return to school earning an MA in Art History from the University of Kansas and an MFA in Fibers from Kent State University.  Tilghman has been researching and writing about the history of textiles for over a decade now as well as teaching History of Textiles classes for any institution that will let her.

The idea for the History of Textiles textbook came out of a conversation at a local farmer's market (you never know just where those random conversations will lead).  "Working on the book is a constant challenge and the most fun I've ever had."

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