If you love fashion as much as I do, you will be happy to read the following lines ! I have gathered information about fashion innovations over time for you to discover how our favorite industry has evolved. I have learnt a lot and so will you.
I won’t be writing about style evolution but purely about technical tools that make fashion an everlasting fascination.
So, let’s get into the heart of the matter : we will go back in time and start with fashion’s true beginnings…
Neanderthal (200,000 BC — 30,000 BC)
Evidently, the majority of the knowledge that we hold from this era comes from cave drawings and fossils. But it appears that the earliest type of clothing comes from the Neanderthal men and women. Our ancestors used tools made from stone to hunt and cut off the furry hides of various animals such as dears, bears or even mammoths.
The Cro Magnon (40,000 BC — 10,000 BC)
The Cro Magnon is a further developed Neanderthal and seemingly invented needles. He made them out of animal bones slivers and used them to stitch two pieces of fur together to make shirts and close-fitting pants.
Prehistoric needles — picture credit “sapiens.org”
Please note that Ancient India also includes areas of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It extends from 2 million years BC to 800 AD but can be segmented in various eras, some of which are quoted in the following lines.
Neolithic period (8,000 BC — 2,000 BC)
The practice of tanning leather to make it softer began around 7000 BC in Pakistan.
Indus Valley Civilization (2,700 BC — 1,900 BC)
India is one of the first places where cotton started to be grown as early as 2,500 BC and then used to make clothes such as saris, turbans or shawls.
Gupta Empire (300 AD — 800 AD)
Since cotton is one of India’s specialties, it is with no surprise that you will learn that the first cotton gin was invented there (around 500 AD). Cotton gins are machines that automate the separation of cotton fibers from their seeds. Its use was then completed between 500 and 1000 AD, still in India, with the creation of the spinning wheel : a machine to spin cotton and make thread.
Spinning wheel — picture credit “thoughtco.com”
ANCIENT NEAR EAST
The Ancient Near East roughly represents the current Middle East and was composed of Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, etc.
Mesopotamia (4,000 BC — 539 BC)
It is in Mesopotamia that sheep were first domesticated and that their fur was used to make clothing.
Mesopotamians also discovered how to cultivate flax — a plant — in order to extract its fibers and weave them almost as finely as we do nowadays in order to produce linen clothes. Flax fabrics also were used to wrap the dead, or their usual name : mummies.
Mesopotamian linen — picture credit “bonhams.com”
Ancient Egypt (3100 BC — 30 BC)
The Egyptians seemed to be really fashion forward and innovative. First, they made enough progress to stop being limited to the use of pigments (of mineral origin and not soluble). Indeed, they exceeded the Neanderthal by managing to start using dyes — of vegetal or animal origin — in order to incorporate colors into their garments. For example, they discovered indigo really soon, which is a natural blue dye, or kermes mineral, a rich red.
Additionally, we owe the first pleating techniques to Ancient Egypt. In order to perfectly fold the clothes (for the queens and pharaohs), the fabrics were dived into a liquid gum solution and ironed with a heavy instrument.
That’s not it : Egyptians also spread resist-dyeing through Europe and Africa — a dyeing technique consisting of shaping and glueing wax onto the fabric in order to create colored patterns.
Ancient Egypt linen tunic — picture credit “Louvre Museum”
Ancient Israel (1,150 BC — 50 BC)
The first traces of Nalbinding — the ancestry of knitting and crochet — were found in Israel around 6500 BC.
ANCIENT CHINA (8,000 BC — 221 BC)
The most impressive and durable fashion innovation from China is the invention of silk garments. The earliest forms of silk production were found there, with a cocoon of a domesticated silkworm, cut in half, dating back to around 3000 BC.
The first primitive looms — textile machines — were also found in China and were created around 4000 BC.
Loom from Ancient China — picture credit “chinasilkmuseum.com”
ANCIENT JAPAN (14,500 BC — 300 BC)
Hemp has been grown in Japan since the Neolithic and they were the first to make clothes out of this plant, which is nowadays really fashionable and proved to be very sustainable.
CLASSICAL GREECE (510 BC — 323 BC) & ANCIENT ROME (27 BC — 476 AD)
Even though the two eras are extremely different and both very diverse in terms of discoveries, it seems that fashion was not their main focus, so I am grouping them since their garment techniques were relatively similar.
Apart from their memorable style, Romans and Greeks did not invent revolutionary fashion techniques, they mostly imported dye, cotton from India and silk from China. They also used the same linen techniques as Ancient Egypt.
What they brought to the table is the idea of sewing small gold ornaments onto the clothes (which would glitter as they moved) and the idea of closing garments with gilded breeches.
MIDDLE AGE (Europe : 5th to 15th century)
We owe the first buttons as we know them today to the Germans, who created them in the 13th century.
16TH CENTURY :
The stocking frame was invented in the UK in 1589 by William Lee. It is a mechanical knitting machine with a wooden frame that enables going from the not-so-practical tubular knitting, to straight knitting — it is way easier to sew garments with flat sections.
The 16th century in France also marks progress with the invention of block-printing on fabrics. It allowed fabric makers to create patterns on wooden blocks and to press them on the fabric with dye.
Another concept that is still used in modern times was born in the 16th century. Did you know that the name “jeans” comes from the Italian city of Genoa ? Peasants often used blue linen fabric for their trousers. The thick fabric was later used by the Genovese navy. The French had their eyes on such a practical textile and tried to recreate it… Did they manage to ? Read the next section !
Stocking Frame — picture credit “caramayknits.com”
17TH CENTURY :
The French did not succeed but they did however create another heavy fabric in the process. This new textile was made in the city of Nîmes (pronounced “Neem”). This strong twill fabric was called “De Nîmes” (French for “from Nîmes”) and was later contracted into “denim” which we all know today.
Printing on fabrics was also invented in France under the reign of Louis XIV. The process consists of putting glue on the fabric and then placing a fiber deposit (called flock) to create the print.
18TH CENTURY :
The end of the 18th century marks the 1st Industrial Revolution : a time full of discoveries and automations.
In 1764 the spinning jenny was created. It was a new and improved spinning machine, with 8 spindles — spindles are spikes used to twist fibers into yarn. Remember when I told you about the first cotton gin in India ? This is the same idea but higher-performance.
Then, in 1779, Samuel Crompton created the spinning mule : same concept as the spinning jenny but adding hundreds of spindles and allowing only one person to use the machine — unlike the previous ones which had to be used by multiple people.
These machines helped thread making. But once you have thread, you need to weave it. In 1787, Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom : a mechanized loom (remember Ancient China ?), allowing workers to turn yards into fabric much more efficiently.
In 1799, Charles Tennant and Charles Macintosh discovered and commercialized a revolutionary tool : bleaching powder — a chemical compound used to dye fabric.
Spinning mule — picture credit “ageofrevolution.org”
19TH CENTURY :
As we go get closer to our times, discoveries get more and more intense. The 19th century does not disappoint !
In 1801, in France, the Jacquard was created — and the technique is still used today. It is a type of loom allowing its user to create a pattern directly while weaving. This was revolutionary because all patterns were printed on blank fabrics at the time.
Jacquard fabric — picture credit “archirproducts.com”
The raincoat and its revolutionary waterproof fabric was invented by Charles Macintosh (yes, the man who invented bleaching powder) in 1823. He was a chemical engineer and his job was to deal with gas waste. Raincoats are commonly still called “mackintoshes” in the United Kingdom.
During the first half of the century, many machines were created, such as the lace machine in 1812 or the embroidery machine in 1828. But let me tell you the story of the sewing machine as we know it today. In 1830, Barthélémy Thimonnier invented the first sewing machine but did not patent it nor commercialize it. A few years later, in the US, Isaac Merritt Singer created the first modern sewing machine. He realized that manufacturers weren’t interested in his product so he decided to sell it to households and achieved the success that we know today : Singer is one of the leaders in sewing machine brands.
First Singer sewing machine — picture credit “time.com”
In 1856, William Henry Perkins discovered — by chance — the first synthetic dye. Around the same time, we owe the earliest development of the zipper to Elias Howe who patented an “automatic, continuous closure”.
The first stretchy fabric was invented quite unexpectedly in the 19th century too by Thomas Hancock, an English industrialist.
Finally, the beginning of commercialized sewing patterns in 1860 marked the real democratization of fashion. The first paper patterns were issued through a magazine called Mme Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion, by Ellen Curtis Demorest.
20TH CENTURY :
In 1921, the first electronic sewing machine saw the light of day and was commercialized by the Singer manufacturing.
In 1928, a patent for polyester was registered : the fabric is a mix between synthetic fibers and natural ones. A few years later, in 1935, the first 100% synthetic fiber, nylon, was invented and was mainly used to produce tights for women. Then followed the creation of other synthetic materials such as Lycra or Spandex, mainly used for swimsuits or shapewear.
During the 1960s, sewing machines continued to develop and got equipped with computerized numeric control (CNC) systems, which made them even higher-performance tools.
The pick-and-place robot was patented for the first time in 1988 in the US. It is an efficient way of assembling machines which is now essential in fashion, especially in manufacturing warehouses.
At the end of the 20th century, digital printing on fabrics was brought to the world. Digital fabric printers are composed of an inkjet system which prints on the textile, based on digitally-made patterns.
Digital fabric printing machine — picture credit “itnh.com”
Nowadays, and understandably, fashion uses more and more digital tools which contribute to improving designers’ workflows.
For example, Lectra is a French company providing computer-aided design (CAD) softwares and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems all over the world. They offer pattern-making solutions, cutting machines or even a tool that enables ideal placement of patterns on the fabric to reduce waste and optimize costs for fashion companies.
3D printing machines are now fully functional and 3D visualization softwares are getting more and more sophisticated.
3D printed dress — picture credit “sculpteo.com”
Regarding fabrics, more sustainable options are now available. Innovative brands such as Orange Fiber or Piñatex provide textiles made from food waste and are already used by luxury actors.
Piñatex fabric — picture credit “aplasticplanet.com”
Finally, one of the newest technologies introduced to the fashion industry is Artificial Intelligence. It can be used to deal with overproduction such as Heuritech : a platform that effectively predicts fashion trends thanks to AI. At Eva Engines, we have created an AI solution that allows designers to get hyper-realistic product views instantly after their sketches were uploaded to our platform.
This article comes to an end. It was meant to show you examples of how fashion was able to reinvent itself throughout all eras and always make good use of innovations. As scary as they might have been at first, they all sound very obvious now. Now we can only look forward to tomorrow’s fashion world !