Today for Big Art Day in Texas, my artist friends and I are going to yarn bomb the local arts council building. We’ve been crocheting, knitting and finger weaving for two weeks in preparation for the big day. My students have really enjoyed the process. So when I was trying to think of a topic, I thought I’d look up the history of yarn. Most pioneer women made clothing for their families and this often included raising the sheep or growing flax, spinning the fibers into yarn, weaving the yarn into fabric, dying the fabric and then sewing the articles of clothing. It was a very labor intensive process. As areas became more settled and mills more automated for making fabric, settlers could either order readymade clothing, commission a seamstress or in some cases buy clothing in the local mercantile.
The first recorded piece of yarn is a string skirt dating over 20,000 years so I figure I’ll cover the era after the spinning wheel was invented. While an exact date and place for the first spinning wheels are not known, many suspect the originated in India somewhere between 500 and 1000 CE. Charkha wheels are still used today and are among the first type of spinning wheels. “Instead of a wheel with a rim, Charkha wheels were composed of spokes with holes in the ends. A string was run through the holes, connecting the spokes in a zigzag and supporting the drive band. The drive band was connected to a spindle on its side, and powered by a hand crank.” (From Crochetvolution – The History of Yarn).
With the spinning wheel, the production of cloth took less time. Technology continued to advance and in the 1760s the development of the water wheel, spinning jenny and the spinning mule contributed to the growth of the cloth industry and enabled the first fabric mills. By the 1830s, steam power allowed the mills to be semi-automated.
The most common fibers used for yarn are cotton and wool but yarn can also be made from more unusual sources like yaks, possum, ostrich feathers, bamboo, hemp or even soy. Dyes could be made from natural materials like shellfish, bugs and certain plants.
The phrase “spin a yarn” comes from women spinning their yarn in groups and telling stories until eventually “spinning a yarn” also meant telling a story. So I guess it’s rather appropriate to be talking about yarn on a writing blog. For more information, check out this site on the spinning wheel.