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date: 15 January 2021

textile productionfree

  • Miko Flohr

Summary

Textile production was a central part of everyday life in the Greco-Roman world, both in cities and the countryside. In the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, increasing urbanization and acculturation transformed dress practices throughout the Mediterranean and created a more complex manufacturing economy, even if not all textile production was market oriented. Textiles were mostly of wool and linen, though other materials, including cotton and silk, also existed. Raw materials were prepared and then spun into yarn using simple, handheld tools. Weaving was mostly done on upright, weighted looms, but loom design began to show increasing variation in the Roman Imperial period, reflecting innovation that served to increase the quality of the output rather than productivity. While textile production had a strong basis in household production for personal needs, there are some signs of increasing professionalization, and it is clear that, particularly in the Roman imperial period, there was a significant (and unprecedented) trade in textiles over longer distances. At the same time, textile production, and particularly spinning and weaving, remained of enormous cultural significance and contributed enormously to the personal identities of men and, especially, women.

Updated in this version

Text rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Textile production includes a range of processes that together turn fibres into cloth. In the Greco-Roman world, textiles were used for a wide variety of purposes and in a variety of forms, from very rough sacks to couches and bed textiles to refined, polished, and heavily decorated dress items; practices and contexts of production differed accordingly. The most complex practices and technologies were developed for dress, and virtually all known evidence primarily concerns the production of clothing. By consequence, scholarship on Greco-Roman textile production mostly concerns dress manufacturing.

Uses of Textiles

Textiles had a long history in the Mediterranean before classical antiquity and had developed both their practical functionality in everyday life and their representative qualities in dress by the start of the first millennium bc.1 Yet the broader context in which they developed changed dramatically over the course of the Greco-Roman period. This is particularly due to two factors: urbanization and globalization. The emergence of the Greco-Roman city with its refined urban consumer culture gave dress a central role in everyday urban social interaction.2 Literary texts recount how specific dress items had become packed with symbolic meaning and how Greeks and Romans had developed elaborate dress-codes for public life. It is also clear that increasing urban prosperity in the Hellenistic and the Roman period fostered appreciation for high-quality textiles and kindled debates on overly luxurious dress practices by the socially ambitious. Increased cultural contact, particularly in the Hellenistic and Roman period, led to a gradual mixing of regional dress styles—the end of this process is visible in the large quantity of cloaks and mantles associated with specific regional origins in the Prices Edict of Diocletian, but already in the Late Republic, Romans had begun to wear the Greek pallium in public life. These developments had an impact on Greco-Roman textile economies, making manufacturing practices more complex and varied, and putting a higher premium on the skills needed for making high-quality garments.

Evidence

Understanding the precise impact of these developments on textile production, however, is not straightforward. The study of the history of textile production in the Greco-Roman world was long dependent primarily on references to textile production in literary sources and on snippets of epigraphic and papyrological evidence; it had a strong emphasis on the Roman period.3 Only from the 1990s onward, the sculptural, iconographic, and architectural records began to be explored, and these offered some additional information on manufacturing practices and their organization.4 This was followed by a sustained upsurge in the study of archaeological textiles, which gave the debate a much broader spectrum of analysis, and led to a substantial geographical and chronological diversification of scholarly discourse.5 However, in many respects, modern understanding of Greek and Roman textile production still is, and will always be, seriously compromised by lack of evidence. Both archaeological and textual data are lacunose and divided over time and space in an uneven way. As a consequence, discourse on textile production has, understandably, privileged places and periods with more substantial bodies of evidence. These include, particularly, Classical Greece (especially Athens), Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, Roman Italy, and Roman Asia Minor. The largest and most varied sets of epigraphic and archaeological evidence come from Roman Italy.6 The largest quantity of textile remains dates to Late Antiquity, which is also the period with the most detailed textual and documentary evidence for production and trade.7

Raw Materials

The two fibres that dominated textile economies throughout the Greco-Roman world were flax and wool, each widely available and circulating in a variety of qualities. Both materials had to be removed from the parent body and prepared before they could be used. They could be traded in unprocessed form or as yarn; the Prices’ Edict suggests that in the Roman world, wool was traded unspun, while flax entered the market as yarn (Edictum Diocletiani 20–26). Some regions became renowned for the quality of their raw material, while others for the quantity in which it was available. For instance, black wool from the upper Maeander basin in Asia Minor, named after the city of Laodicea on the Lycus (Strab. 12.8.16), and white wool from the northern Apennines, associated with the city of Mutina (Columella, Rust. 7.2.3–4; Strab, 5.1.12), were renowned for their quality in early Imperial Rome, whereas the coastal plains of Elis (Pausanias, 7.21.14) and Cilicia (Dio Chrys. Or. 34, 21–23; Clem. Al. Paedagogus 2.11; Edictum Diocletiani 26), as well as the Jordan basin (Scythopolis, Edictum Diocletiani 26), reportedly produced large quantities of flax. To some extent, this pattern appears to reflect a gradual specialization of certain regions made possible by the increasing political and economic integration of key Mediterranean supply networks in the Hellenistic and Roman imperial period.

A range of fibres were used alongside flax and wool, including silk and cotton, and more extravagant materials like byssus (sea-silk) and even gold were used for textiles.8 Silk and cotton were not native to the ancient Mediterranean and had to be imported. For silk, it is clear that it also was imported as raw material, as the Prices’ Edict reports its use in garments otherwise made from Mediterranean wool or linen (Edictum Diocletiani 22–23). Cotton was initially imported from India, but there is substantial evidence that it was also being grown in some of the oases of Roman Egypt; while the full extent of cotton use is not fully understood, remains of Roman period cotton textiles have been found in several places in the western Mediterranean.9

The Production Process

The process of transforming fibres into textiles consists of two essential steps—spinning and weaving—and, especially in the case of garments and other fine textiles, four optional procedures—dyeing, tailoring, decorating, and finishing.

Of all steps in the production process, spinning is the least visible in the evidence. Throughout antiquity, it was done with very limited technological means and seems almost universally associated with women.10 There is evidence for prespinning in the case of wool, which was carded and turned into rovings, or loose rolls of fibre; some of the implements used for doing this have been identified in the archaeological record. Spinning, then, was done by means of a spindle (fusus) and a distaff (colus). The spindle was a rod of wood or bone of some 20cm in length on which a spindle-whorl (turbo) had been fixed. This was a small disc of ceramic or bone that functioned as a weight; they have been found in significant quantities throughout the Greco-Roman world. The distaff was a forked stick on which the raw fibre was loaded. Spinners held the distaff in their left hand and used their right hand to draw out the fibres and attach them to the spindle. Rotating the spindle would turn the fibres into yarn. Yarn could be spun clockwise (‘Z-spun’) or counter-clockwise (‘S-spun’), and to add strength, yarns could be plied. The basics of this technology had been developed in the Neolithic period and were not further developed during antiquity; to make finely spun thread required significant training and exercise and remained extremely time-consuming: it has been estimated that up to ten spinners were needed to support the work done by one weaver.

For most of antiquity, weaving was done on upright rather than horizontal looms.11 Initially, these looms were warp-weighted, and the terracotta loom-weights associated with them belong to the staple goods of Greco-Roman excavations and field surveys, both at urban and at rural sites; their form varies from place to place and from period to period. A warp-weighted loom consists of two upright beams supporting a horizontal beam to which the warp threads were fastened; on the lower end of the loom, the warp threads were connected to two sets of loom-weights—one for the even threads, and one for the uneven threads. A shed-rod fixed between the two upright beams separated the two groups. By means of heddles, sticks to which the even and uneven threads had been fixed, the position of the two groups could be manipulated. The weaver would run the spool of weft thread through the shed, separating the two groups, beating the weft against the already woven cloth, and then changing the position of the heddles to repeat the procedure. This approach would result in a simple 1/1 tabby weaving pattern, which remained the most common weave structure throughout antiquity.

Of the optional treatments, dyeing was most fundamental. It could happen before or after spinning and weaving, depending on the material and desired outcome.12 Wool was generally dyed before being spun, while linen was dyed as yarn; occasionally, entire textiles were dyed. A large variety of natural dyestuffs were used, usually applied after treating the fibres with a mordant (such as alum). Certain natural dyestuffs or dyeing procedures were accessible only in a limited number of places, leading to spatial clustering of production. For instance, this is true for Hierapolis in Phrygia, where the hot springs made it possible to give wool a unique red color, and for all purple dyeing by means of murex shells, which was logically restricted to coastal areas.13 As far as tailoring is concerned, most textiles were woven to piece, so they needed only a limited sewing after being finished, and most tailors (sarcinatores) known from the epigraphic record and from legal texts were actually involved in mending clothes rather than in making garments.14 Occasionally, additional decorations could be added in appliqué, that is, by stitching them onto the garment. This technique had a history before the Greco-Roman world, but it became increasingly popular in the later Roman imperial period, when appliqué decorations appeared on tunics and mantles depicted in mosaics and on archaeologically recovered remains. These decorations would first be separately woven in tapestry before being attached to the tunic or mantle. Finally, fine woolen textiles could be subjected to fulling before their first use; this procedure targeted the quality and appearance of the surface of the textile and made it more comfortable to wear.15

Technological Development

Technologically, textile production has often been seen as stagnant throughout antiquity; indeed, it is notable that key aspects of the production chain remained stable, from archaic Greece through to Late Antiquity. This is particularly true for spinning, a key bottleneck in the production process, which continued to use the same basic implements until the emergence of the spinning wheel sometime in the early Medieval period. There were no meaningful improvements in productivity in Greco-Roman antiquity. There was, however, meaningful innovation in loom design, which saw the development of, first, a two-beam-loom and, later, a horizontal loom. The precise geography and chronology of these innovations remain unclear, but they are commonly associated with the (later) Roman imperial period, and with the (eastern) Mediterranean.16 Improved looms may have slightly speeded up the weaving process, but they made it significantly easier to weave more complex patterns. Thus, they enhanced the overall quality of the output and may have made higher-quality textiles a bit more affordable.

Organization

Because of the general invisibility of spinning and weaving in textual sources and the archaeological material, the modes of organization of textile production remain only fragmentarily known. Archaeological evidence for spinning and weaving has been found throughout the Greco-Roman world at virtually every place that has been thoroughly researched, but it offers very few clues about the actual organization of the industry. On the micro-economic level, it remains unclear to what extent spinning and weaving actually became professionalized and market-oriented. It is clear that professional weavers existed throughout the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, but a significant proportion of textile production took place within households in cities and in the countryside, perhaps also as a seasonal activity. It is impossible to know how much of that household production was market-oriented and how much was serving personal use. There is very little evidence for large-scale textile entrepreneurs buying up raw material and distributing it to people working for them, though there is evidence for large Roman elite households having their own specialized textile-workers, potentially producing both for internal consumption and for the market.17 At the same time, the relative standardization of dress items made it easy for people to produce textiles on their own and sell them, subsequently, on the market and to traders.

Trade

On the macro-economic level, there has been debate as to whether spinning and weaving were consumer- or producer-oriented in their economic geography, and there is clear evidence for both scenarios: renowned wool- and flax-producing regions exported both raw materials and finished textiles; large centres of consumption are known to have imported both wool and linen as well as woven garments.18 At the same time, there is evidence indicating that textile production could have been concentrated in cities, while it has also been suggested that some centres of the textile trade known from literary sources were in fact entrepots where local producers met traders rather than centres of production themselves.19 In general, it is likely that the emergence of larger markets for textiles in the Hellenistic and Roman period led to more complex and specialized geographies of production and trade, as is particularly well-attested to by the supply economy of the Roman metropolis.20 The development of these geographies was, to a significant extent, path dependent: established trade connections remained stable throughout the Roman Imperial period, and regions with a reputation for textile production in the early empire generally kept that reputation until well into Late Antiquity.

Economic Significance

It is impossible to quantify the economic significance of Greco-Roman textile manufacturing. Scholars have sometimes assumed that ancient textile economies must have been, proportionally at least, similar in size to that of textile economies in medieval and early modern Europe, when textile manufacturing was by far the largest non-food sector of the economy, but this glosses over substantial structural differences between Greco-Roman and medieval textile economies.21 While the low productivity of spinning and weaving implies that textile production took up a significant proportion of working time compared to any other craft in Greco-Roman manufacturing economies, there are two factors that limited its overall role in the economy compared to later periods. First is the fact that textile manufacturing, to some extent, remained informal and, to a much larger extent than in later historical periods, simply bypassed the market—as in the case of household production for personal use; second, as garments were generally woven to piece and needed only very limited stitching, tailoring played little or no role in the textile economy. It is also important to point out that there are no reliable indicators of the quantity of cloth consumption: lower productivity may simply have been kept in balance by more frugal consumer practices, by careful maintenance and substantial reuse, and by a larger focus of textile manufacturing on garments as opposed to other products. A central role for maintenance and reuse is suggested by texts indicating a professionalization of textile maintenance and clothes-mending, and by the actual remains of textiles themselves, which often show indications of a considerable life-span preceding deposition.

Socio-Cultural Significance

Whatever the size of the textile economy, the everyday significance of textile manufacturing is highlighted by its prominent cultural position, by the high value attached to textiles in gift exchange, both among humans, and between humans and gods, and by the role of textile manufacturing in certain rituals, such as the annual weaving of the peplos for the cult statue of Athena by the arrēphoroi.22 While it is clear that many professional weavers could be men, spinning and weaving remains strongly associated with girls and women, and, particularly, with the image of devout married women, whose ideal position in the household was behind the loom, rather than anywhere else.23 This appears to have been a constant from the Homeric period until well into the Roman Empire, and it was decidedly more than a literary topos: there are several Roman funerary inscriptions and reliefs celebrating the role of women as wool workers (e.g. CIL I, 1211). Wool working, in fact, was a sign of financial stability and prosperity: if women could spend the day spinning and weaving, this meant that they did not need to do any other work—neither domestic tasks nor paid labour—and, thus, implied that the household was prosperous and stable. In Roman houses, such prosperity also could be communicated visibly by setting up the loom in a prominent position in the household.24

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Notes