As I was leaving a bookshop the other day I spotted a book with the title “The Golden Thread: how fabric changed history”. History and textiles combined in one book - two of my favourite subjects. I had to buy it! I was both surprised and delighted later in the week to hear that this book was Radio 4’s Book of the Week and I listened to a fascinating account of the history of silk production as I drove to a meeting.
The book enthuses about the importance of cloth in our lives; for clothing, seating, bedding, protection, and enjoyment. The author, Kassia St Clair, describes how textiles were signs of wealth and status in the past and made valuable contributions to trade, technology and the exchange of cross-cultural ideas. She notes that cloth and fabric have become such an intrinsic part of our life that we have adopted key phrases into our speech that reflect this; we talk of “lives hanging by a thread” or “being part of the social fabric” or people being “torn away from family and friends”. In the Bible there are references to beautiful fabric, embroidery and clothing and Jesus comments on the lilies of the field by stating that “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6.28)
There are thirteen chapters in the book, telling the story of significant types of cloth that have shaped our history. One of the early chapters in the book describes the use of linen shrouds and wrappings in Egyptian mummies. Conditions in Egypt were ideal for growing flax from which linen threads could be extracted. The ancient Egyptians became highly skilled in spinning and weaving fine quality cloth and linen was often exchanged like money for goods and services. They were attuned to minute differences in the texture, colour, weight and weave of various linen textiles. Linen was also culturally associated with cleanliness; white linen was a sign of purity. Bodies were wrapped with great care and ceremony prior to burial. Priests responsible for wrapping the bodies had to purify themselves before work could begin. The number of layers of cloth and the revolutions of wrapping were often in multiples of three or four because these numbers held special religious significance. Great intricacy and skill was employed to create amazing visual effects.
It seems appropriate at this time to recount these details about the way in which the Egyptians honoured their dead. November is the month when we remember those who have died or been seriously injured in order to give us the opportunity to live in peace. This year is particularly poignant because it is the centenary of the end of the First World War. The Church also prays for
the departed on All Souls Day (November 2 nd ) and offers comfort to those who have been bereaved. Like the ancient Egyptians textiles and ritual continue to play a part in our commemorations nowadays; the Women’s Institute in Ashendon have been making hundreds of poppies out of felt and buttons in order to decorate the war memorial in the village for November 11th. They will be a visual tribute to those who have died.
I challenge you this month to be aware of the importance of textiles in your lives! When I have read a little more of the book I’ll be able to tell you about the Vikings’ woollen sails, lace used to make Elizabethan ruffs, the fabric used to make space suits, and record-breaking sports clothing. What a variety of textiles – all part of life’s rich tapestry!