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No. 840:
The Cloths of Heaven

Today, let us spin our dreams into a magical new material. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Here's a question for you: When did your forebears quit wearing animal skins and put on cloth? Early humans took up art thirty thousand years ago. They probably learned to talk around the same time. They took up farming eight to ten thousand years ago -- metal working, five thousand years ago. Today, the very word clothes means cloth garments. So when did we dress ourselves in clothes?

Before carbon dating, we thought cloth was 7000 years old. We've gradually pushed that date back. Now we've found a half-fossilized scrap of cloth stuck to a piece of antler near the headwaters of the Tigris River. It is 9000 years old. Carbon dating does that. It pushes history back.

This earliest known cloth shows up right along with the first agriculture. This site was a primitive farming community. Those neolithic farmers had yet to make pottery. But they'd already learned to weave baskets.

When we see the community in context, we understand why they conceived a new material. The last ice age was retreating; the weather was warming. As game moved north, they had to invent farming if they meant to keep eating.

So they looked at plants with new eyes. First they wove baskets from reeds and straw. Animal skins became harder to find and too hot to wear. They experimented with open meshes. They made skirts from leather cords.

The Finns had already made open mesh fishing nets and carrying bags from woven plant fibers. But cloth is more complex. These ancient farmers had to learn to spin thread from flax. They invented tight weaves to replace open mesh.

This 9000-year-old fragment of linen isn't simple. It's already a twined weave, a double weft laid on a single warp. It was by no means the first piece of cloth these people had made.

And what was the article they'd made from this magical new material? What had this bit of cloth now stuck to an antler once been? A cloth bag to collect bones for carving or for arrowheads? We can only guess. It was certainly one more harbinger of civilization rising out of the new practice of agriculture.

So cloth became as sure an icon of beauty and wealth as gold. We dressed it in increasing color and complexity. As I weigh this ancient wounded fragment of human invention I suddenly see why Yeats was moved to write:

Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light, ...
I would spread the cloths under your feet;
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, ...

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wilford, J. N., Site in Turkey Yields Oldest Cloth Ever Found. New York Times, Science Times, Tue., July 13, 1993, pp. B5, B8.

Barber, E.J.W., The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special Reference to the Aegean, Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 1991.

Crowfoot, G.M., Textiles, Basketry, and Mats. A History of Technology, Vol. I (C. Singer, E.J. Holmyard, and A.R. Hall, eds.). New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, Chapter 16.