Warp, Weft…What?

Wall painting in a tomb at Beni Hasan

Discovery has progressed through the last few centuries here on planet earth at an astounding gallop. Discovery within all of the various sciences, how motion impacts mass (a little something called gravity), telescopes and microscopes, antibiotics and surgical improvements, train, planes and automobiles, all the way up to the ever-improving and amazing iPhone. Somehow, we automatically think of progression as improvement. And often, it is.  The iPhone is a definite improvement over the telegram. Antibiotics are a definite improvement over dying.

But on rare occasions, some things start out great and don’t need much improvement, even after 10,000 years. The weaving of threads into a continuous fabric from which clothing is cut is one process that has not changed since the first time someone needed a shirt (or maybe it was a purse).  This illustration was found on a wall in an Egyptian tomb, depicting two weavers and a hand spinner, among other workers. Though we now process flax, spin it into threads, and weave it into linen cloth on machines, the individual steps in the process are remarkably the same.

I think I can now finally understand the difference between warp and weft. The warp threads hang vertically from the top of the piece to the bottom of the piece, each as an individual strand.

The weft are made by the continuous “threading” of a long fiber under and over each of the hanging warp threads. In other words, the weft threads must be “set up” to hang vertically like a sort of stringed curtain. Then, a continuous thread is “woven” over and under, over and under, over and under each of the hanging weft threads, and a strong, continuous fabric is made.  Remember making construction paper place mats in grade school with this method?  Then you have practiced the ancient craft of weaving.

Turns out that weaving is waaaaaaayyyyy older a method of making clothing than knitting.  In fact, amazingly enough, knitting (as we know it today) is a fairly recent development.  (More on that another time, but you can get a jump from this great site learning about Naalebinding.)  The point here is that the first spun yarns and threads were not knitted, they were woven. And remember that every shred of thread woven into cloth up until the 12-14th centuries had been spun with a pair of human hands and a spindle.

The parts of the flax plant

I am getting closer to answering the question who made the first shirt? and it is beginning to look something like a linen garment, hand-woven from hand-spun flax using a hand spindle. Wool, it seems, joined in the fun much later, by several thousand years. Interestingly, linen has some of the same amazing properties as wool:  it absorbs water without feeling “wet” and can keep the wearer both warm and cool.

*Image used under GNU Free Documentation License from Wikipedia