Textiles have been a fundamental part of human life since the beginning of civilization. The methods and materials used to make them have expanded enormously, while the functions of textiles have remained the same. The history of textile arts is also the history of international trade. Tyrian purple dye was an important trade good in the ancient Mediterranean. The Silk Road brought Chinese silk to India, Africa, and Europe. Tastes for imported luxury fabrics led to sumptuary laws during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Industrial Revolution was shaped largely by innovation in textiles technology: the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and the power loom mechanized production and led to the Luddite rebellion.
From early times, textiles have been used to cover the human body and protect it from the elements; to send social cues to other people; to store, secure, and protect possessions; and to soften, insulate, and decorate living spaces and surfaces.
Flax is believed to be the oldest fiber that was used to create textiles, as it was found in the tombs of mummies from as early as 6500 B.C. The fibers from the flax are taken from the filaments in the stem of the plant, spun together to create long strands, and then woven into long pieces of linen that were used from anything from bandages to clothing and tapestries. Each fiber's length depends on the height of the leaf that it is serving, with 10 filaments in a bundle serving each leaf on the plant. Each filament is the same thickness, giving it a consistency that is ideal for spinning yarn. The yarn was best used on warping boards or warping reels to create large pieces of cloth that could be dyed and woven into different patterns to create elaborate tapestries and embroideries. One example of how linen was used is in the picture of a bandage that a mummy was wrapped in, dated between 305 and 30 B.C. Some of the bandages were painted with hieroglyphs if the person being buried was of importance to the community.
Cotton was first used in 5000 B.C. in India and the Middle East, and spread to Europe after they invaded India in 327 B.C. The manufacture and production of cotton spread rapidly in the 18th century, and it quickly became one of the most important textile fibers because of its comfort, durability, and absorbency. Cotton fibers are seed hairs formed in a capsule that grows after the plant flowers. The fibers complete their growth cycle and burst to release about 30 seeds that each have between 200 and 7000 seed hairs that are between 22 and 50 millimeters long. About 90% of the seed hairs are cellulose, with the other 10% being wax, pectate, protein, and other minerals. Once it is processed, cotton can be spun into yarn of various thicknesses to be woven or knitted into various different products such as velvet, chambray, corduroy, jersey, flannel, and velour that can be used in clothing tapestries, rugs, and drapes, as shown in the image of the cotton tapestry that was woven in India.
Light microscopy, normal transmission electron microscopy, and most recently scanning electron microscopy (SEM) are used to study ancient textile remains to determine what natural fibers were used to create them. Once textiles are found, the fibers are teased out using a light microscope and an SEM is used to look for characteristics in the textile that show what plant it is made of. In flax, for example, scientists look for longitudinal striations that show the cells of the plant stem and cross striations and nodes that are specific to flax fibers. Cotton is identified by the twist that occurs in the seed hairs when the fibers are dried to be woven. This knowledge helps us to learn where and when the cultivation of plants that are used in textiles first occurred, confirming the previous knowledge that was gained from studying the era in which different textile arts aligned with from a perspective of design.
While plant use in textile art is still common today, there are new innovations being developed, such as Suzanne Lee's art installation “BioCouture.” Lee uses fermentation to create a plant-based paper sheet that can be cut and sewn just like cloth- ranging in thickness from thin plastic-like materials up to thick leather-like sheets. The garments are “disposable” because they are made entirely of plant based products and are completely biodegradable. Within her project, Lee places a large emphasis on making the clothing look fashionable by using avant-garde style and natural dyes made from fruits because compostable clothing is not appealing to most shoppers. In addition, there is a possibility to create designs with the plants by tearing or cutting the growing sheet and allowing it to heal to create a pattern made of scars on the textile. The possibilities to use this textile in art installations is incredible because artists would have the ability to create a living art piece, such as Lee does with her clothing.