Wedding dresses and bridal veils. Graduation caps and gowns. The Stars and Stripes and the Rainbow Flag of Pride. Rally towels and baseball caps. The flags and the clothing of the Olympic opening ceremonies. Plaid picnic blankets and striped beach towels. The red, green and black of the Juneteenth celebrations.
Summer wouldn’t be summer without textiles.
Endowed with an abundance of fabrics, we tend to take textiles for granted, especially since we’re not bundled up against the cold. But textiles are among the oldest, most essential and most widespread human inventions. Their summer incarnations demonstrate how essential they are in defining who we are. Freed by the higher temperatures of most of their protective functions, textiles reveal their social side in summer, becoming signs of who we are and what we value.
A combination of warm weather and cultural imperatives likely prompted humans to invent the fabric in the first place. During the last ice age, loose blankets and shawls made from animal skins no longer offered humans sufficient protection against wind and cold. People began to make skins in layers of body-hugging clothing. Intricate clothes have replaced simple envelopes.
Then, at the end of the Ice Age about 11,500 years ago, the climate changed. The weather has become hot and humid. Clothing made from animal skins would get sweaty and uncomfortable, sometimes dangerously. The obvious solution would have been to get rid of the clothes completely. But that’s not what happened, even in hot climates.
Like Adam and Eve with their fig leaves, people almost everywhere continued to at least cover their genitals with loincloths and sashes. It was only in a few places where the climate had never become cold enough to require complex clothing, such as mainland Australia, that daily nudity remained normal until contact with people from colder regions. “After wearing intricate clothing for millennia – at least 40,000 years ago in mid-latitudes of Eurasia – it would appear that occasional naked body exposure was no longer socially acceptable,” writes the archaeologist Australian Ian Gilligan in his 2018 book, Climate, clothing and agriculture in prehistoric times.
To meet cultural expectations and climatic constraints, people began to transform twine into fabric.
Freed by the higher temperatures of most of their protective functions, textiles reveal their social side in summer, becoming signs of who we are and what we value.
The earliest archaeological evidence of fabric dates back approximately 11,000 years, around the time the world warmed. The fabric required agriculture and animal husbandry to reliably provide enough fiber to make large amounts of yarn. A typical beach towel contains about five miles of yarn. A Roman toga required 25 miles. We owe agricultural colonization at least as much to the social desire for clothing as to the biological need for food.
The first surviving archaeological textiles demonstrate that the fabric was more than purely functional. The fragments found in the cave of Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert in Israel date back almost 9,000 years. They show signs of red pigment, as well as decorative stitching and embellishments with tassels, seashells, and pearls. At the Huaca Prieta mound on the northern coast of Peru, archaeologists discovered a 6,200-year-old cotton fabric with alternating stripes of natural beige and indigo blue, as well as white highlights from a local milkweed plant. Someone went to great lengths to create blue dye and make patterned fabric. Summer plaid picnic blankets and striped beach towels, designed to do more than just protect you from dirt and sand, reflect the same decorative impetus and the same basic knowledge of how to weave patterns. simple.
Of course, textile technologies have changed a lot over the millennia, especially in the 250 years since the first spinning mills opened in the north of England. By making yarn abundant, spinning machines have changed the world. They cut the time it takes to spin miles of yarn from weeks to minutes, and ultimately seconds. By the turn of the 19th century, the fast mechanical looms invented in the mid-1880s had joined the spinning mills to make textiles abundant for the first time in history, affecting not only clothing, but also sails and tents, bags and sheets. These technologies allowed a beach goer to stretch out on a towel whose thick pile of loops consumed extra thread – the sponge only dates from the 1890s – or a bride to walk down the aisle in a special dress that she only wears once.
The development of synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century was even more important for the cultural role of textiles. Starting with the purple that teenage chemistry student William Perkin accidentally concocted in 1856, lab-made dyes added every color imaginable to the textile palette. Hues that were once hard to come by, such as deep blacks, purples, and greens, have become commonplace.
Color doesn’t just add beauty to the fabric. It gives it meaning. Just look at some of the simplest textiles in the world: banners and flags. The red, white and blue of Independence Day in the United States and Bastille Day in France have symbolic meanings: value, purity and justice. Equally important, and this is probably why these are the most common colors of old national banners, is that blue and red are also easy to achieve with herbal dyes: indigo for the blue and madder for red.
It was only with the spread of synthetic dyes that the green and purple of the rainbow flag, as well as the intense blacks and greens of the Juneteenth banners, became widely available.
Before that, greens were usually created by dyeing first with yellow and then with blue. The yellows tended to fade, which is why medieval tapestries you see in museums often have blue grass on them. The best blacks, like those recorded in Dutch portraits, also required multiple coats of color, often starting with an indigo base. Ordinary people used brownish vegetable dyes, adding iron salts to deepen the color, to dye fabrics black. But none of these were as true as the blacks adopted as Pan-African symbols in the mid-20th century. Traditional African artisans were (and still are) among the world’s great masters of indigo, but the vibrant colors of African pride are the product of modern chemistry.
Each new textile technology opens up new means of cultural expression, as people find ways to make the fabrics their own and, through their textiles, to say something about who they are, where they belong and what they love. . In substance and meaning, the fabric is remarkably fluid. The fabrics bend and bend and flap in the wind, go from two dimensions to three, follow the contours of the bodies and follow the terrain. In fine summer days, above all, they become expressive declarations of identity and joy.