Textiles through time

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Discover the history behind our ever changing fashions


As humans, we are intimately involved with textiles. At birth, we are wrapped in cloth; it touches every part of our bodies all our lives, and at death we are once again wrapped in it. From the earliest known fabric – felt made of animal wool – to the sophistication of LYCRA® and micropore fleece, textiles have been made, needed and depended upon by humans – a huge part of our culture which cannot be ignored.

The following activities offer opportunities for children to investigate and increase their understanding of the importance and properties of textiles, and to learn how and why clothing has changed over time. The work can be linked with the QCA Art Units 3B, 5C and 6B.

Essential facts

  • The earliest form of clothing was probably animal skins thrown over the shoulders. It was not until much later that humans began to shape them to fit the body.
  • The original reasons for clothing were warmth and protection. Later, other reasons developed, so that clothes began to signify status or have special meaning. Humans originally wore very little. In some periods of history, such as the Victorian era, it was thought rude to show too much of the body, whereas in the 1960s mini-skirts became the fashion.
  • Humans naturally use the materials that are around them. However, once people were able to travel they could trade for materials from other environments. As this cost time and money, these materials were only affordable by the rich and so came to signify wealth.
  • Further on in time, the concept of fashion emerged. This is when a clothing idea is copied by others until it is seen as the acceptable ‘norm’.
  • In the Tudor and Regency periods, and into Victorian times, all clothing had to be created, and washed, by hand, so it was not easy to simply buy lots of dresses. Fashions went in seasons, so a lady might choose and wear one dress for an entire season. Clothing was very precious, and people would often leave items to others in their wills.
  • Now, we live in what we call a ‘throwaway society’. Clothes are cheaper and widely available, easy to wash and we expect them to be well-made and comfortable. Instead of mending our clothes we tend to replace them.
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