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When ancient tombs in Egypt have been opened they have revealed woven products some as old as 5000 BC. The predominant fiber found in Egypt was linen, a product of the native flax plant. A simple plain-weave pattern, an over-under stitch, was used for the construction of cloth. This plain weave structure was the dominant stitch until about 2500 BC. Wool was accessible in Egypt, as well, but was considered a fiber of the lower classes, namely, herdsmen and farmers.
Wool garments are rarely found in Egyptian tombs. In fact, Egyptian law placed certain restrictions on the use of wool. One such law forbade members of the priesthood to wear wool next to their skin or to wear wool into a place of worship. Cloth make from wool was thought to be crude and irreverent. Fabric made with cotton was much more acceptable and has been found in Egyptian tombs, but cloth made with linen was always considered the highest quality material and was used in mummy wrappings of the aristocracy.
Mesopotamia, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, became the center for commerce and was known to have textiles of quality. Because of its location, Mesopotamia was a major pathway for trade and for other developing civilizations. Archeologists found Sumerian clay tablets dating back to 2200 BC, which provided evidence of a flourishing weaving industry.
Ancient fabrics from the Hebrew world date back as early as 3000 BC. Many of the yarns produced by the Hebrews were multi-plied, up to 72 ply, and the Bible indicates that some garments contained threads made of gold and silver. Wool was used more than any other fiber in this area, white wool being the finest. Course wool, black wool, and horsehair were considered secondary. Hebrew priests were required to wear pure linen. In the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 22:11), we are given detailed information about the practices of early Hebrew weaving. One law stated that it was prohibitive to wear fabrics made from a mixture of linen and wool fibers. Another Hebrew law forbade married women to spin yarn in public places or to spin yarn at night by moonlight. Because of the active nature of the spinning process, such an act might reveal a woman's arms, and if this were to occur, it would give a husband the right to divorce his wife.
One of the most fascinating stories in the development of weaving comes from China. Several legends have been told about the discovery of silk, but there is one that has become the most noted of all. In the 27th century B.C.E., during the reign of Emperor Huang-Ti, a disease began to destroy the trees in the royal mulberry grove, so the emperor asked his empress to study the problem. Empress Hsi-Ling-shi spent time in the groves and noticed that small white worms were devouring the mulberry leaves. The worms then would crawl to the naked stems below where they would spin silvery, white cocoons. According to legend, Empress His-Ling-shi took some of the small cocoons to her apartment for closer observation, and there one of the cocoons accidentally fell into a bath of warm water. As water was absorbed into the cocoon, the tiny pocket began to unravel revealing a delicate network of fibers. The empress pulled a small filament from the network and realized the fiber was a continuous thread, hundreds of feet long. In fact, one cocoon can contain a single filament measuring over 1,000 yards. With the discovery of the silk fiber, His-Ling-shi found the secret of acquiring a very rare and exquisite thread, one that could be used without first going through the spinning process.
As weavers in China began using silk in many of their elegant garments and tapestries, and later, as fabrics began to be exported, people outside of China became envious and somewhat resentful of the discovery. Despite the interest and curiosity of others, the process of cultivating silk remained a mystery and a well-kept secret to the outside world for over 3000 years.