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The Golden Thread

How Fabric Changed History

By Kassia St Clair
13-minute read
Audio available
The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St Clair

Textiles are woven into every part of human history. Our continual reinvention of cloth is a testament to the irrepressibility of human ingenuity. The Golden Thread (2018) surveys the role of fabrics in numerous epochs and cultures, making it clear that fabric has always been more than simply clothing – it is an ever-evolving vehicle for human ingenuity and achievement.

  • Lovers of fabric and textiles
  • History buffs
  • Fashionistas looking for inspiration

Kassia St Clair is a London-based freelance journalist and author. She is the holder of a first-class honors degree in history from Bristol University and a Master’s degree from Oxford University. Since 2013, she has written a column about color for Elle magazine, and her writing about design in culture has been published in The Economist and New Statesman, among other publications. Her acclaimed previous book, The Secret Lives of Colour, was published in 2017.

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The Golden Thread

How Fabric Changed History

By Kassia St Clair
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St Clair
Synopsis

Textiles are woven into every part of human history. Our continual reinvention of cloth is a testament to the irrepressibility of human ingenuity. The Golden Thread (2018) surveys the role of fabrics in numerous epochs and cultures, making it clear that fabric has always been more than simply clothing – it is an ever-evolving vehicle for human ingenuity and achievement.

Key idea 1 of 8

Linen was an essential element of ancient Egyptian life – and death.

Egypt is famous for its arid climate, which tends to preserve historical evidence extraordinarily well. Take fabric, for instance. In most places, it lasts a few hundred years at best, but in Egypt, textiles have been found that date back seven thousand years.

By far the most common type of textile found by historians in Egypt is linen. This material held a special position in Egyptian culture. In fact, at an archeological site at Amarna, 85 percent of the thousands of fabric remnants discovered were made of linen.

Linen was important in many ways. For one, as a valuable, tradeable asset, it was used like money to obtain goods or services and collected over time as a way of storing wealth. Linen underpinned the Egyptian economy.

And in manufacturing, it was commonly used to make bandages, wrappings and clothing. Linen is a very good conductor of heat, which makes it feel cool against the skin – a practical attribute in Egypt’s climate.

But beyond its practical value, linen also played a key part in Egyptian religious practices, where secrecy and concealment were often important. For example, deep within temple shrines, cult statues were wrapped in linen daily by priests as part of their worship.

A common misconception today is that Egyptian death rite of mummification was merely a method of preserving bodies for the afterlife. This would mean that the linen wrappings were a mere covering for the artifacts of real importance.

But in fact, it was the linen wrapping that gave mummies their meaning and significance, making them sacred.

The intricate wrapping of mummies was highly ritualized and secretive. Priests who did the work were even respectfully called “masters of secrets.” The wrapping took place in a special room, and the priests would purify themselves beforehand by shaving, washing and donning fresh linen.

The ritual of wrapping added meaning to the mummification process in many ways.

For one, priests usually tried to layer fabrics in multiples of the numbers three and four, which had a special status in Egyptian culture. Objects of significance like amulets were also layered in with the fabric.

What’s more, people seem to have collected the linen used for their own burial during their lives, preferring textiles that held some significance due to their past. For instance, text on one of the linens wrapping the body of Ramses III identified its weaver as the daughter of a high priest, which is probably why it was considered worthy for this function.

The process of embalming and wrapping transformed a dead human body into something imbued with spiritual significance. The cultural significance of fabric can go far beyond the spiritual, however. It can also be integral in diplomacy and art, as we’ll see in the next blink.

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