Oldest evidence of patterned silk loom found in China

The technology fed the Silk Road trade

ancient pattern loom

LOOM ROOM  Excavation of a roughly 2,100-year-old tomb in southern China uncovered four small-scale models of pattern looms, including these two shown where they were found alongside several wooden figurines. These discoveries represent the earliest clues to a weaving technique that transformed silk production.

Tao Xie, Feng Zhao et al/Antiquity 2017

An ancient tomb in southern China has provided the oldest known examples, in scaled-down form, of revolutionary weaving machines called pattern looms. Four immobile models of pattern looms illuminate how weavers first produced silk textiles with repeating patterns. The cloths were traded across Eurasia via the Silk Road, Chinese archaeologists report in the April Antiquity. The models, created between 2,200 and 2,100 years ago, predate other evidence of pattern looms by several hundred years.

Red and brown silk threads still clung to the model looms. The largest stood half a meter tall. A reconstruction of that model includes two foot pumps connected to beams, shafts and other parts. A full-scale device with moving parts would have woven repeating geometric designs on clothing and other items made of silk, a technique that transformed the textile’s production.

These 2013 discoveries, made of wood and bamboo, supply the first direct evidence that pattern looms were invented in ancient China. Such looms are mentioned in ancient Chinese texts, but actual examples of the loom technology were lacking. Pattern looms influenced the design of another type of weaving machine that appeared in China within the next few hundred years and then spread to Persia, India and Europe, the researchers suspect.  

WEAVE RETRIEVE After studying models of pattern looms found in an ancient Chinese tomb, researchers made this full-size reconstruction of what the specialized weaving machine probably looked like. Bo Long, Yingchong Xia, Feng Zhao et al/Antiquity 2017

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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