How Yarns Shape History

Yarns have shaped history and greatly influenced human living for thousands of years. The oldest artefacts found made with yarn (just similar to modern yarn we see today) date up to 20,000 years ago (some estimates that it’s just 7,000 years ago). Yarns have been comprised of interlocked fibres (whether plant or animal fibres) and both the protein-derived fibres and that interlocking have provided yarns their strength and usefulness.

Yarn’s usefulness for fabric and clothing has influenced the course of history of plants, animals, humans and societies. For instance, the fast and large-scale production of yarn has enabled a lot more fabrics and clothes to be manufactured which then in turn became useful to billions of people. Back then, yarn and fabric material were relatively scarce because of the lack of source material and difficulty and slowness in production.

How yarns shape history

For yarns to be made, somehow the need for them should be established in the first place and the source material should be available in reasonable amounts. For example, good amounts of cotton should be present first and there’s no other suitable material for clothing or the alternatives were scarce. That could be especially the case during human’s early history wherein animal skins were primarily used for clothing (e.g. Aboriginal Australians used animal skins to make cloaks).

When it comes to cotton, its history of domestication cannot be traced clearly because cotton was found to be independently domesticated in several isolated civilisations around the globe. This domestication has been crucial because it gives better control to how plants and animals are utilised for human benefit. Furthermore, this domestication better supported the growing population and allowed settlements to form (instead of searching for another place again in search of food).

The domestication of cotton and probably the scarcity of suitable animal skins could have catalysed the use of cotton as clothing material. This then in turn provided protection to our ancestors against heat, cold, rain and other natural elements. This might have helped many people in the past to survive or even innovate on cotton cultivation and other agricultural practices. They can now better focus on innovation and other things aside from surviving against extreme heat or cold.

Once cotton cultivation was refined through years of improvement and innovation, the next challenge then arises: how to speed up the processing of cotton and make them into yarns. The problem requires innovation (the statement “necessity is the mother of invention” might be true here) and that might have led to the development and usage of spinning wheels and cotton gins (short for cotton engine). The cotton gin is 10x much faster than manual means in separating cotton fibres from their seeds. This higher productivity dramatically increased both the supply and demand for cotton. And because of the increased supply, the surplus could then be used for artistic purposes and the prices of cotton fibres and yarns fell drastically. The result is that cotton reached a lot more people (and today the cotton production industry employs more than 250 million people worldwide).

Partly we can attribute that growth and influence to industry and human societies to the need for producing more yarns. More yarns mean more clothing and lower prices so most people could afford them. That was just the start because the high-speed processing and yarn production helped in creating more sails for ships (which then helped enable travel, exploration, trade and warfare). From that we can immediately see the impact of yarns to how the Europeans explored different continents and civilisations (and often leading to deaths and epidemics).

As a result of that exploration and conquest, different kinds of animals were brought here in Australia (e.g. through the First Fleet). For example, 70 sheep were first brought here in 1788 and more than 200 years later, there are now more than 70 million sheep in Australia alone. Sheep’s wool is valuable for the textile industry and yes, for the knitting enthusiasts who like to create essential and decorative crafts.

Again, raising that high number of sheep requires agricultural and technological innovations (as with cultivating cotton and the need for high-speed processing). For example, these animals feed on grass and pastures but are commonly supplementary fed with grain, hay or silage. This supplementary feeding helps sheep gain their energy and protein requirements. Aside from feeding, innovation is also required in breeding the sheep. For instance, sheep producers can use the Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBV) to select rams and ewes. The goal here is genetically improve the flock and thereby help in increasing the flock’s growth rate, reproduction, wool and other economically important traits.

It’s a similar case with raising alpacas (alpaca yarns are a great choice for creating mittens, hats, scarves and cardigans). Genetic improvement is also applied here because it’s profitable to breed for specific traits in alpacas such as a higher micron fleece for carpets or pure white for easier dyeing later on.

Notice how yarn production has directly or indirectly driven development in genetics, agriculture and the entire economy. This then has shaped our history and process as a society as yarns (including production, import and export) supported livelihoods, employed millions of people and allowed hobbyists to engage in knitting.

Yarns have been shaping history for thousands of years as they helped clothe the royalties and other groups of people. Aside from being a clothing essential, yarns and fabrics have paved the way for fashion and recreation (e.g. knitting and crocheting). The fabrics have also been used to display social status because high-priced yarns and intricately designed fabrics were reserved for royalties back then. Good thing is that with the large-scale cost-effective production of fabrics and yarns, getting decent and even fashionable clothing is the least of our worries. It’s even easy now to get a bunch of yarns (alpaca, wool, mohair, silk, cashmere, and cotton yarns) because of the reasonable price and wide availability. Aside from enabling the textile industry at a macro scale, these yarns are now also being used for our hobbies.

Indeed, yarns don’t just shape human history but also our everyday modern lives. Sitting down and working with the needles is just one great way to slow down and perhaps remember the past. History is fascinating especially if we realise how things have come a really long way and how these have enabled our hobbies and everyday living.