As long as a piece of string

Jo Andrews

When anyone watches me weave at handloom, they ask the same questions: ”How long does it take to do that?” and “Why do you do it?” I guess everyone who works with their hands at something which a machine could do faster or ‘better’ gets asked the same thing, and the answer isn’t simple. I am a handweaver for many reasons, it shapes a flow in my life, thread by thread, I bring order out of the chaos of yarn and, if it is a successful piece of work, it delivers something useful that pleases the hand to touch and the eye to see.


But, it also connects me with humanity and a shared history. It was an instinctive feeling at first, a knowledge that I was part of a craft that had been learnt, refined and broadcast over thousands of years. Only with time did I understand that creating fabric is part of what it means to be human. It helps us fashion our own stories and tell a tale about who we are, where we live, whether we are rich or poor, male or female, and, sometimes, what we do and think.

Ball of string

Ball of good string

It all begins with string. There is something elegant about a well-made ball of string. Roll it between your fingers and you are touching one of the most important pieces of technology crafted by the human mind. Hold it taut and you will hear the murmuring of history along its length. Over twenty thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, someone found that the long fibres of wild plants, like hemp or linen, when they looked dry and dead, could be twisted together between the fingers, or on a thigh, to produce a strong, pliable yarn. It was a revolutionary discovery that changed human existence just as much, if not more, than the development of the wheel, or metal smelting and yet, in comparison, it remains unremarked and uncelebrated.


String opened the door to a world of possibilities: new ways to feed ourselves with fishing line, and as knotting developed, with fishing nets and trapping snares, ways to carry heavy loads, pack animals could be trained, harnessed and led with rope. Bridges were built across ravines, new weapons made with bows to fire arrows, string drills to create fire, work wood and perform early dentistry (say – ahh!). Then people discovered that interlacing twine made fabric, and through the skills of weaving, knitting, embroidery, crochet and sewing, humanity was launched on a path to using wools, silks, cottons, linens and, more recently, synthetic fibres, to stay warm and dry. At the same time it allows us to express ourselves and share information about who we are.

Everything derives from that moment when an intelligent woman (or possibly, man), rolled fibres into string. It’s how the dense and elaborate human conversation carried on through clothing begins. Without that moment the Romans would lack their imperial purple togas, the geishas of Japan their kimonos, the Tudor kings and queens their majestic embroidered and studded gowns, the nun would be without her habit, the Pope his robes and the Scots without their kilts and tweed.  Everything I am wearing today, thousands of years later, stems from that discovery, except for the soles of my shoes, which are moulded.


Almost every society on earth has developed its own forms of textile production, and the world has been hungry for those innovations of technique, of colour and processing. Odysseus and the Greeks would never have left port without the work of many weavers to produce the canvas for their sails and certainly wouldn’t have survived a ten-year siege of Troy without tents, and yet the only weaver remembered in their tale is Penelope, Odysseus’s wife.


Not for nothing was the first trans-continental trade route called the Silk Road, after the fabric which for centuries was China’s most important secret, Legend has it that Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, around 3,000 BCE, discovered how to produce the lustrous yarn when the cocoon of a mulberry caterpillar, happily for us, dropped into her hot cup of tea. But just as silk cloth made its way west along the road, so fine wool heavy linen and flax also travelled east, and the production of those was every bit as skilled.

Hsi Ling Shih

Hsi Ling Shih – whose tea was disturbed by a caterpillar

Elizabeth 1

Elizabeth 1st of England as a girl, in red 

Imagine too the reaction of Herman Cortes when he saw people wearing and selling clothes of a vibrant red in the great marketplace of Tenochtitlan – modern day Mexico City – in 1519. He could scarcely believe his eyes. Europeans had been pursuing the perfect red for decades as a symbol of wealth and status, but had only succeeded in producing weak and fugitive colours – here was a dense, deep red. He wrote to the Spanish King immediately, and by the middle of the 16th century over 150,000 thousand pounds in weight of cochineal was traded from Mexico every year in a profitable Spanish monopoly. It begins to turn up everywhere: judges’ robes, soldier’s uniforms, cardinals’ hats. The unfortunate wives of Henry V111, and his daughter Elizabeth, were early adopters of the new carmine – it gave them majesty and they could foot the bill for it.


Others couldn’t afford it. On the wall at home we have a much-loved reproduction of Bruegel the Elder’s painting from 1565, Hunters in the Snow. It shows people out in deep winter wearing practical wool clothing with lots of layers, every one of them handmade. There is an ochre over-jerkin on one of the foreground figures, but otherwise this is a palate of browns, blacks and greys. Vivid colours, especially red, were beyond these working people.

Catherine Parr

Catherine Parr, 6th wife of Henry VIIIth, rocking the new cochineal

Bruegel Hunters in the Snow

Hunters in the Snow, Breugel the Elder 1565 

Compare that with the slightly later painters like Caravaggio, Tintoretto and Rubens, who depicted more establishment figures, people who wanted the world to understand their power and status. One way these painters did that was to deploy the colour from the little Mexican cactus beetle to give depth, warmth and, for viewers of the day a particular meaning to the textiles. You can begin to understand why it became known as the insect that painted Europe red.


It’s vital though when we marvel at cloth and colour to remember the extreme human hardship that fabric production has, and continues, to impose. Slavery in all its forms is intricately bound to textiles from the Mexican cochineal producers labouring to fulfil Europe’s insatiable desire for red, and the slaves of Egypt working their looms to produce the linen that dressed the court and wrapped the mummies, to the horrors of the Middle Passage and the slavery that kept the American cotton plantations profitable and British mills spinning.


The Musicians, or Concert of Youths, Caravaggio, 1595

Luttrell Psalter (British Library)

Marginalia for the Luttrell Psalter, circa 1330

More recently the lust for cheap clothes contributed to the deaths of over a thousand people, mostly women, in the Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh. Servitude in the pursuit of our appetite for cloth has not disappeared, even though parts of the process have been mechanised. Don’t take it for granted. Look before you buy and think about how the garments you wear, or throw away, were made and by whom. However cheap a piece of clothing is, there is always a person at the end of that process, unseen, but linked to you by the threads that hold your garment together, and there is always a cost to them, and to the earth of your clothing. Around 40 million people worldwide produce textiles today and it remains the world’s second biggest polluter.


Making cloth has been at the heart of human activity for so long that it has shaped our language, but just as the London mudlarks have to burrow into the banks of the River Thames to find the treasures lost or discarded there, so we have to excavate a little to unearth the words it has given us. Unmarried women still bear the name of the occupation all of them devoted so many waking hours to, spinsters. Women in Europe of the Middle Ages worked hard to make all the yarn their households needed whatever their status. So critical was this activity that time spent on horseback wasn’t lost – there are pictures of women riding and spinning on a drop spindle at the same time.


There’s a wonderful picture in margins of the Luttrell Psalter, created around 1330, of a woman about to beat a man with her distaff, the stick that held the wool or linen she needed to spin. Look closely at the distaff, it’s bound with a red ribbon, women were said to bind their distaffs with blue ribbon, except when they were looking for a husband, when they would bind it with a red ribbon. This gave us the expression flying the red flag. We can assume that this was not the man she had in mind, perhaps he was being sleazy, originally a word to describe a weave that was too open, so that it wasn’t good quality cloth. Maybe she found him shoddy, the meaning migrating from the word that describes fabric made with recycled, or shoddy yarn, or maybe he had been pulling the wool over her eyes. Safe to say he hasn’t driven her to ‘rhapsodies’ from the Ancient Greek rhaptein, meaning to sew together, and oide, meaning song.

Even words we think are modern have older derivations extracted from our history. Texting comes directly from the Latin, Texere, meaning to weave. We spin a yarn and weave a tale, we place things in context, or give them a pretext and we embroider our stories. The inarticulate are dismissed with ‘can’t string two words together’.


The language and the lovely words of cloth production often survive better than the fabric does itself. One of the great frustrations in tracking the revolution wrought by string is that cloth is friable, it rots and is destroyed by water, fire and insect, leaving us with dust. A piece of woven, indigo dyed cotton has been recently excavated in a desert area of Peru which is around 6,500 years old. Mummies in their linen wrappings survived in their lightless dry tombs for around 4,500 years before being disturbed, and occasionally Europe’s peat bogs and melting glaciers turn up clothed figures that give us more information.


Often it is ghosts we are hunting. A lack, rather than a presence, a gap where something ought to be, that gives the clue. We only know that humans made thread twenty thousand years ago because, from a culture dating to that time in central and eastern Europe, we find needles and then shells and stones with smaller and smaller holes. Crucially rows of fine beads have been found across bones, wrists and skulls, the last survivors of sewn decoration on long vanished clothing or bracelets and necklaces.

Statue in Westminster Square

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Campaigner for Women’s Suffrage, UK

Statue in Westminster Square

Detail of skirt on statue, Parliament Square, London

The caves at Lascaux in France have given us some of humanity’s earliest art, the wonderful animals, which have danced across the walls for over 17,000 years. No-one knows what they mean, whether they are prayers of hope for better hunting and more meat, or simply humans making art because it gave them pleasure. The paintings have been given their place as critically important to the story of human creativity. But in the dust at the foot of the paintings something else has been found that is of equal importance, a piece of fossilised twine – a heavy cord twisted from three fibre strings. The actual fibre was eaten by time long ago, but the fossil survives as an informative remnant. The same is true of cloths wrapped around wet clay pots in central Asia 4,000 years ago, faint traces of the textile structures were fired into the pots, leaving us information about what was being woven and the level of skill used to do it.


There is a graceful modern echo of this process in a statue in Parliament Square, in London, of the campaigner for votes for women, Millicent Garrett Fawcett. She holds a banner that says ‘Courage Speaks to Courage Everywhere’, but of interest to makers is her skirt: a perfect depiction of a twill weave – maybe in millennia to come, if we survive, our descendants will be interested in what her skirt tells us about the level of technical achievement in the early 20th century.

So, part of the answer to the question ‘Why do you do this?’ is because when I sit at a hand-loom, I sit with thousands of years of history at my back and a cast of characters to keep me company. They connect me along the fibre of humanity to our ancestors who discovered the magic of twine. Weaving allows me to put my hand on twenty thousand years of history, helping to keep the human story going. And the answer the first question: ‘How long does it take you?’ is simple: “As long as a piece of string”.

© Jo Andrews 2020


Here are some of the books that have inspired me.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber – Women’s Work – The First 20,000 Years

Amy Butler Greenfield – A Perfect Red

Elinor Kapp – Rigmaroles  and Ragamuffins.

About the author

Jo Andrews is a weaver and writer. She has been weaving for over twenty years, slowly expanding her skills and the range of weaving she makes. At the same time she has been reading and thinking about the influence of cloth and cloth making on history and trade. She is the founder of Haptic and Hue.