For hundreds of years people have been producing many
different forms of decorated textiles.
Embroidery, appliqué, painting and printing, beadwork and various
techniques of weaving have all been used to enhance the look and quality
of garments and accessories. Richly decorated clothing is interpreted
as a sign of wealth and status in past societies, as designer clothing
and high-fashion accessories are today.
Development of archaeological techniques has allowed us to learn more
about the richness and variety of weave, colour and decoration of fabrics
and materials from the past, where there have been the right conditions
for preservation of the textile. Examples include pieces of cloth and
spools of thread from Robenhausen and Irgenhausen, two Neolithic lakeside
settlements in Switzerland. The Irgenhausen cloth was both dyed and embroidered.
F rom the Anglo-Scandinavian site of Coppergate in York archaeologists
recovered more than 200 finds of textile, yarn, rope and raw fibre, mostly
dated between the mid 9th century and the mid 11th century. The textiles
included wool, linen and silk, some with quite complicated weaves and
a silk reliquary had been embroidered. Gold thread was also found at Coppergate
- only a few short pieces, but they bore 'kinks', probably from the thread
that couched them onto the ground fabric. (The vestments of St. Cuthbert
at Durham are an example of couched embroidery from the same period).
The best, and only complete, example of textile from
Orkney is the fringed 'cloak' known simply as the 'Orkney Hood', found
in peat in the late 19th century. It can be seen in the National Museum
of Scotland in Edinburgh. A replica hood was made in 2002 and that is
on display in Tankerness House Museum in Kirkwall. This garment, radiocarbon
dated to between AD250 and AD 615 was probably made for a child. Interestingly
during the research and replication of the Hood, it became clear that
it is a wonderfull early example of recycling . Two older pieces of fabric,
were recycled to make this special garment, one of which, the fringed
tablet band, was originally high status fabric.
Mineralised textile fragments were also recovered from the
Scar boat burial on the Orkney island of Sanday. These fragments preserved
where in contact with metal, appear to be of five different weave patterns
including a brocade effect weave. The fibre could be identified in only
two of the samples, which were definitely of plant origin, probably flax.
This burial containing a man, woman and child and dated between the late
ninth and mid-tenth centuries is one of the richest Viking graves found
in the British Isles.
My embroidered fabric replica of the Scar whalebone plaque
Textile art and needlework has not only a long history, but is found widespread
throughout the world, used both decoratively and symbolically, denoting
wealth, status, gender, religious beliefs, cultural identity or tribal