Watching 'Grayson Perry and the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman' last night I really found myself in tune with his thoughts. He hit the nail on the head when he crystallised people's trips to museums as 'pilgrimage': essentially we go because we are fascinated by the hands that created things in the past. His exhibition of the same name at the British Museum will definitely be on my schedule next time I'm in London. It's on until February so there's every chance I might actually get to it.
As an exhibition of artefacts, it does include textile elements, but of course most textiles don't survive well in the archaeological record. Loom weights, spindle whorls, even types of niddy-noddy have survived, along with wool combs and other solid items. Cloth itself is all too rare, though it's through the dedication of women like Elizabeth Crowfoot that we can get an insight into what to us seem invisible materials.
I was infuriated not so long ago on an archaeology course to hear one of the tutors say to a student from Botswana that there was "no evidence of sophisticated culture" in her country before the 19th century. Utterly ridiculous. If an area is not rich in the types of long-lasting stone and bone we have in our part of the world it doesn't mean that "civilisation" is absent. Cloth and basketwork, both ancient and necessary, are biodegradable. And both imply technical sophistication, high levels of skill - as all of us fibre-holics recognise - and societal organisation of a level that allows these specialised activities to take place. Cloth and baskets carry with them the stories of the people they represent, in the same way as fragments of braid, though they are even more rare.
I studied the Basketmaker People of the southern USA for one of my archaeology essays. The most fascinating event was showing a picture of a 'Basketmaker II' period museum artefact to the chairperson of the UK's Basketmakers Association, who said the pattern of basket weaving would have taken an apprenticeship of approximately seven years to master. Whilst it's important to see 'evidence' it's also exceptionally important to understand it, in the context of the life of its maker.
Another example of biodegradable 'evidence' kept alive through a weaving tradition is Kente cloth from Ghana. Each colour and pattern has significance and tells a story, as it has done over many generations back into history. The skill of the archaeologist should be interpreting not just the past but possible links to the present. All over the world, spinners and weavers are carrying on traditions going back to the dawn of time.
Not so far from where I live, Anglo Saxon remains show that our area was inhabited by highly skilled fibre artists. Fragments of rare braids, spindle whorls, and loom weihts have all been found, some in such quantity that there must have been considerable fibre-related industry here around 1,500 years ago.
In my own small way, by making my yarns I'm paying homage to a long line of Unknown Spinners who've gone before me in this landscape. Our work may not make it into Grayson Perry's exhibition, but spinnners and our fellow textile creators of all kinds, along with our basket-making cousins, are the backbone of societies across the globe - and across time.