Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sheep Stories, volume 7

OK, this post isn't actually about sheep. It's about history, and how economic necessity drives technological change, which itself gives opportunity for societal change...

I recently read an interesting article about the history of the spinning wheel. The spinning wheel (at least it's essential parts: a spindle driven by a flywheel) was likely invented in China or India around the year 1000 or so. It speeded up the production of yarn and thread suitable for weaving by a large factor; previously, weaving yarns had been produced by means of a spindle (usually while doing something else, like tending sheep) and done almost exclusively for home use. People did not own a lot of clothing as a result.

Within a couple of centuries, spinning wheel technology had made its way to Europe, and with it came the slow development of a sort of cottage industry of spinning, in which professional spinners would spend all day producing a lot of yarn. Spinning became a job, like being a blacksmith or something. The increase in the availability of weaving yarn spurred an increase in cloth production. This is when the beginning of the wool trade started, and England's love affair with the sheep. The production bottleneck shifted from the availability of the yarn, to the speed at which one could produce cloth. Loom technology started to improve, other forms of needlework took off (nalbinding, knitting, embroidery...all of which use lots of yarn or thread) and the demand for more yarn, faster, in turn spurred more innovation in the spinning wheel (and also in sheep breeding, wool and fabric processing, etc). The flyer and foot treadle made their appearance, the industry grew, and looms got bigger and faster and by the 1700's things were starting to get mechanized on a larger scale. Sheep breeding became a big deal at the same time and England's wealth rested on the wool trade. People got richer.

The appearance of the spinning wheel also caused an increase in cloth waste. Where in times past people would wear and repair their clothing until it fell off of them, now cloth was much cheaper, and people could afford to throw away rags. In China especially, where this process began, cloth waste was turned into rag paper, and this technology soon spread to Europe via the Muslim world (hemp, mulberry bast, and cloth rags were used as basic ingredients, but even today the best quality paper is rag paper. Paper from trees didn't appear until the mid 1800's). Before the year 1000, paper was in short supply or nonexistent - vellum or animal skin was used - so books were luxury items and not mass-produced and were copied by hand. With an increase in the raw materials for paper, book production took off, and the production bottleneck became the copying. There was an opportunity, economic demand, to speed up the copying process, something which eventually led to the invention of the printing press. And of course, once cheap books were made available, ideas and knowledge diffused very quickly even through the so-called lower classes, and social change - including the ideas that eventually led to our modern democracies - swept through Europe.

Who'd have thought that the invention of the spinning wheel would enable modern democracy?

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