Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Barber, Elizabeth J. W. “Ancient Near Eastern Fibers and the Reshaping of European Clothing.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 9–17.


Copyright © 1994 Elizabeth J. W. Barber


In April of 1994, an amazing story hit the news-stands. A group of naturally mummified corpses dated to 2000 BC and later had been found in Chinese Turkestan. Not only were their Caucasian features and blondish hair well preserved by the dry heat of the xinjiang desert, but also their clothes--brightly colored plaids and twills among them (Hadingham 1994). We know from later linguistic records that a group of Indo-European speakers we call the Tocharians had made their way to Xinjiang and the Tarim Basin in early times. We also know that the Indo-Europeans began to spread across Eurasia from somewhere in the Caucasus region during the mid to late third millennium BC. Thus I was delighted to learn eventually that the plaids and twills were of wool, for I had been tracking the origins of twill weave for many years and had concluded that it began with the advent of wool from Mesopotamia into the Caucasus and southeast Europe in the 3rd or late 4th millennium BC (Barber 1990). If these were indeed the Tocharians, then this theory must be right on target.

It is well documented by now that the arrival of a useful new fiber will radically alter the textile technology of a culture. So we see it in early China, with the addition of silk to the older tradition of spinning and weaving hemp (Becker 1987, 81 et passim), and so we see it in early Europe, with the addition of wool to the earlier knowledge of working flax. In Europe, moreover, the addition of wool altered the culture's views not just of how to produce cloth, but also of how cloth could be used.