A textile is any material made from a fiber or yarn. Textiles such as wool, cotton, and linen were commonplace in the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans, who used these materials to make clothing, blankets, sails for ships, and other items. The Greeks and Romans became skilled at dyeing, spinning, weaving, and decorating textiles, and textile manufacturing and trade played a central role in the economies of Greece and Rome.
Much of the textile production in ancient times was done in the home. Early Greek and Roman women took great pride in their skills at weaving cloth, and they valued the praise they received for their accomplishments. They created their own patterns and techniques and taught them to their daughters and servants. The association of women with weaving became very strong. One early Greek law allowed widowed and divorced women to keep half of the weavings they had made during their marriages.
As the demand for textiles grew, more and more cloth was produced in small professional workshops that employed both women and men. The growth of these workshops enabled people to buy cloth in markets, as well as make it themselves. Cloth was very expensive, however, because it required many hours of labor to produce. The home production of textiles remained important, especially for making clothes and other items for family use.
The increased demand for textiles also led to the growth of a textile trade. The Greeks developed only a modest trade in this commodity. The Romans, however, imported large quantities of fine cloth from distant regions. The two major textile-producing areas within the empire were northern Gaul and Syria. The Romans also imported fine silks from China and India. Lower-quality textiles were sold mostly in the areas in which they were manufactured.
By the A.D. 300s, the Romans had established textile “factories” to mass-produce textiles for the empire’s growing population. This led to a specialization of labor, in which workers limited themselves to only one step in the production process. For example, workers became specialists in weaving either wool or linen or in dyeing particular colors.
The production of textiles remained relatively unchanged throughout ancient times. Raw fibers of wool, cotton, or flax* were first washed and prepared for spinning. The chief spinning tool was a round stick of wood or bone called a spindle, which was rotated to twist the loose fibers together into yarn. By varying the rate of spin, a person could control the texture and strength of the finished yarn. After being spun, the yarn was dyed.
The spun yarn was made into cloth on a loom, a special wooden frame designed for weaving. A series of yarns was stretched in one direction on the loom, and bundles of yarn were passed back and forth through those yarns to create a woven fabric of vertical and horizontal threads. By varying the color of the yarns and their arrangement during the weaving process, a weaver could create different designs and patterns in the cloth.
* flax plant whose fibers are used to make linen
Once woven, cloth went through several finishing processes that cleaned, stretched, and pressed it and made it stronger and more durable. Sometimes articles of clothing or other items were woven into shape directly on the loom. At other times, the finished cloth was cut, shaped, and sewn into the finished product. (See also Clothing; Family, Greek; Family, Roman; Women, Greek; Women, Roman.)