The Upper Paleolithic (40.000 - 10.000 years ago) is one of the most interesting periods in the history of human kind. It is the time of homo sapiens coming to Europe, bringing new technologies and expressions of personal identity; Finds e.g. female figurines with cloth depiction recovered in various regions of Europe (a.o. "Venus" figurine from Hohle Fels cave), dated to ca. 35 thousand years ago.
From that time also twisted and colored fibres of wool were found in the Dzudzuana cave in Georgia/Caucasus (Source: TF 1/2010, pp. 42-43).
Later on impressions of plant-fibre braidings were found in nowadays Czech Republic on ceramic shards, pointing to the existence of a sophisticated textile culture there around 25,000 BC.
In the Bronze Age wool was processed and woven north of the Alps.
Later the Romans reported about "Germania" as the centre of the
cloth trade. Flemish historians date the beginning of linen processing
around 2000 BC.
table: Early period of mankind to Bronze Age
We are accustomed to be looking
outside Europe when searching for the origins of cultures; we know
much more about advanced civilisations beyond the Mediterranean
since they have left numerous written and architectural records.
It is only due to progress in archaeological technology that we
are now able to discover faint traces of perishable textile products
created by early cultures in our own region.
The stream of facts does not begin to flow until the Middle Ages,
the period following the decline of the Roman Empire, the turmoil
of mass migration and the establishment of stable empires in the
east and west of our continent. In the Middle Ages as in Roman times,
wool was the most important textile commodity.
The First Industrial Revolution
Between 700 and 1300 Europe's population
grew from 27 to 70 million. A first industrial revolution met the
challenge of supplying all those people with everyday goods. Important
new inventions were made, e.g. the water-powered fulling mill (1086)
and the loom equipped with treadles and harnesses (12th century).
Sheep husbandry was intensified and cloth production relocated from
the countryside to the towns, accompanied by a change in gender:
weaving was now done by men instead of women. Until well into the
13th century the European textile industry centred on the Flemish
towns of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges as well as northern French towns
such as Arras, Saint-Omer and Douai. Until the mid-13th century,
only low-quality cloth was produced south of the Alps. Florence,
for instance, was set up for dyeing and finishing fabrics imported
from north western Europe. Both in the north and south the textile
workers of the metropoles formed a virtual industrial proletariat.
The first strikes were recorded in Douai in 1245.
At that time, sheep grazing had given way to more intensive forms
of agriculture where there was good soil. Raw wool was supplied
from England, making textile production prone to political fluctuations.
When the English king Edward I imposed high tariffs in 1275 and
even placed a wool embargo on continental Europe 21 years later,
famine ensued in the traditional wool processing regions, leading
to an exodus of their inhabitants, some of whom moved to England.
table: Middle Ages
The development of a sophisticated
banking system in Italy during the latter half of the 13th century
brought advantages for the local textile industry. Florentine bankers
were able to finance wool supplies for one or two years in advance.
High-quality cloth was produced in Florence as early as the beginning
of the 14th century, and as many as 80,000 bales thereof were manufactured
This improvement in output was accompanied by extreme exploitation
of the human workforce and an increasing division of labour. As
early as the 13th century the cottage industry gained general acceptance
in Flanders and was gradually introduced everywhere. Technological
developments also speeded up working processes. After a spinning
wheel modelled on the Indian one had been introduced in 1268, only
four to twelve spinners were required to work for one weaver. The
next impetus for technical improvements to the spinning process
was given by Leonardo da Vinci much later, around 1500. Between
1520 and 1530 the so-called Saxon spinning wheel with a flyer winding
and treadle was introduced. Besides those in Flanders and Northern
Italy, in the 16th century there existed important textile centres
in England and Ireland, southern Germany, Bohemia and Upper Silesia,
Lyon, Catalonia, Madrid and Granada, Portugal, the area around Naples
and in Greece. In the 18th century additional, large industrial
settlements developed around Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Polish
town of Lodz and in Alsace.
table: The New Age
The Second Industrial Revolution
The second revolution of the textile industry commenced
in England. Several conditions fostered this development - the bourgeoisie
gained strength earlier than elsewhere (1689 Declaration of Rights);
wide sectors of the population attained greater purchasing power;
and cheap raw materials were available from the colonies. As in
the early Middle Ages, demand exceeded supply, posing a challenge
to the inventiveness of entrepreneurs and engineers. Around 1733
John Kay made improvements to the treadle loom: the fly-shuttle
system was patented. In 1738 Lewis Paul and John Watt constructed
the first spinning machine, and Hargreaves applied for a patent
for his "spinning jenny" in 1770. The water-powered silk throwing
machine, introduced in Italy in 1272, had by then long fallen into
Although wool had been the most important raw material until that
time, it was replaced gradually by cotton from 1760 onwards. Cotton
processing marked the beginning of the true machine age. The spinning
jenny had increased the output of a spinning mill three to six-fold.
Entrepreneurs like Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) built their first
mechanical spinning mills under the factory system in the 1770s.
Until 1750 all advanced textile production was carried out under
the cottage system. Wealthy entrepreneurs supplied raw materials
to a widely branching cottage industry, and organised the sale and
distribution of the finished products. The developing factory system
gathered workers in large buildings equipped with the latest production
machines. The City of Manchester is a symbol of the heyday of the
early factory system in England. The town originally produced linen-and-cotton
blended fabrics. Since a law passed in 1721 banned the production
of all-cotton fabrics, people resorted to producing "fustian", a
weaving that consisted of a linen warp and - tolerated - cotton
weft. This allowed the cotton trade to flourish for the first time.
From 1753 onwards, cotton is being traded as a commodity on the
London stock exchange.
With a few exceptions, horse power gave way to the use of water
power from the early 18th century onwards. In the beginning of the
19th century water power was replaced increasingly by steam power.
From 1785 onwards the first steam engines came into use in textile
mills, which changed the conditions for locating production plants.
It became more important to establish factories along railway lines
and in the vicinity of coal fields than along rivers.
In the first half of the 19th century improvements were made to
weaving and spinning machines existing in Europe and the USA. Jean-Marie
Charles Jacquard took a pioneering step in their development when
he introduced his weaving machine that was driven by punched cards
and required just one weaver to operate it; it came to replace the
labour-intensive drawlooms used previously. From 1825 until 1830
the Englishman Richard Roberts developed an automatic spinning machine
called "self-actor" (self-acting spinning mule) that substantially
improved the principle of the spinning jenny. In 1851 Isaac Merrit
Singer managed to build a sewing machine suitable for industrial
use in the USA, nearly a century after the first patent had been
applied for in this technological field.
Electrical technology triggered a major wave of innovations in the
late 19th century. In 1897 the German engineer Werner von Siemens
introduced the first electrically operated weaving machine.
However, the most exciting developments during the latter half of
the 19th century took place in the field of textile chemistry, with
regard to both textile fabrics made from synthetic materials, and
textile finishing. Artificial silk made of "liquid wood" and new
synthetic dyes revolutionised the textile industry. The Frenchman
A. Payen managed to obtain cellulose from wood as early as 1830.
However, it took until 1905 for the first major viscose mill to
be built in Coventry, England, and for the Courtauld Ltd. company
to begin producing viscose yarns on a major scale. Other manufacturing
processes for synthetic textile fabrics did not triumph until the
20th century, although they began to achieve results in the late
19th century. In 1843 the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann
discovered how to extract dyes from aniline, an agent found in coal
tar that had been known since 1826. His assistant and successor
at the London Royal College of Chemistry further developed this
manufacturing process to make it ready for mass-production; he went
on to build a dye factory in 1857 and began to produce "mauveine",
the fashionable dye of the Victorian era.
table: The 19th Century
The Twentieth Century until
Since the post-war period, humanity has found itself
in the middle of the third industrial revolution - again fuelled
by enormous pressure of demand. Between 1900 and 1980 the world's
population increased from 1.5 to 4.6 billion people. During the
same period world fibre production was increased from 3.5 to 31
billion tons per year, which means that despite a rapid growth in
population the per capita output of textile fibres is three times
as high as it was in the early part of the century.
This increase in textile production is characterised by an optimisation
of world trade; accelerating automation of production processes,
from raw material production up to disposal management; and revolutionary
developments in information technology.
These processes are accompanied by incisive structural changes.
Old industrial plants are left to decay and labour-intensive production
is relocated to low-wage countries, exacerbating the decline of
the textile industry in our countries.
table: Modern Times
Why Maintain European Textile Routes?
Will a few ruins one day serve to remind us of our
industrial history, as we now remember classic antiquity by its
remnants? Or will we, after innumerable wars, reconstruct some of
our industrial monuments as we rebuild medieval or modern buildings
in town centres today? How can the history of our textile industry
be revived peacefully, and passed on to future generations in an
The European Textile Routes intend to keep this question alive in
the consciousness of our countries' population while at the same
time acquainting interested travellers with places of remembrance
(architectural monuments, museum collection and archives) and institutions
that help maintain the contemporary, creative production process,
for example artist, crafts or designer associations, workshops or
educational institutions. Perhaps some of our routes will help provide
a few answers to the many questions raised by the witnesses of the
Egytian flax processing
Domestic ram from Roman times
Earliest picture of a spinning wheel, 1480
Leonardo da Vinci with his flyer spinning device,
James Hargreaves "Spinning Jenny" (model),
Richard Arkwrights's "Water-frame-spinning machine",
Cone winder system for mechanical looms, late 19th
Spinning nozzle for the production of chemical fibres,
Modern automatic weaving machine driven by electricity,