Bast Fibre Plants in the Stone Age

In my previous post, the use of bast fibres for textile production, net, rope and basket making, was noted to be a feature of cultures towards the late paelolithic period.  This seems to imply that the plants were cultivated for this purpose, in an era well before formal agriculture was known; which in turn implies that  late paelolithic and the following, mesolithic people were possibly more settled than their hunter -gatherer lifestyle implies. However it is also possible that the areas the people roamed in pursuit of foodstuffs were actually rich in the various plants that bast can be harvested from. So settling in a place for a season where those plants were ready to be harvested and prepared, could also allow them to produce fine textiles, during the summer months when the period of daylight was longer. Harris (2014)  suggests that plant fibre was used before sheep or goat  wool for producing a yarn to make textiles, this will be explored in a later post.It is however worth noting that there are many similarities between the processes used to prepare plant fibre and wool for spinning and weaving, suggesting that if Harris is correct, Neolithic man would have applied the learning of his ancestors to the creation of this “new” fibre.

WILD PALE FLAX Alvesgaspar – Own Work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Whilst we will be looking at how the fibres were prepared and used in a later post, its important to note that for the extant examples of finely woven and embroidered textiles found in late paeleolithic and mesolithic site to exist, high quality fibres were required. Weaving a  fine textile demands a high level of skill and a finely and evenly spun thread, with few if any slubs or spinning errors. The weft and warp are well matched, with few, if any errors in the weave. Therefore, according to Ranson (2015), the plants used for linen textiles had to be specifically grown for fibre. The uncultivated plants produce both fibre and seed, and the bast from “seed flax” is short, coarse and uneven, due to the large number of side stems, bearing a great number of seed producing flowers. The stems of “fibre flax” have few disruptive side stems in order to produce a fine, even and long bast.


However it is possible that the fine linen and embroidery threads were not obtained

CC BY-SA 3.0, https// 369351

from flax, but from other bast producing plants such as nettle. Nettle is a  common wild plant throughout the British Isles and produces a long and silky fibre, which is finer than flax. According to Heise (2003), it is not possible to determine the fibre content of linen without first chemically testing a sample, so it could be that the “linen” discovered in paeleolithic sites, could have been made from the long nettle fibre. One can imagine though that harvesting the nettles must have been a somewhat painful operation unless the workers had some form of hand covering. Nettles were also used for rope and fishing nets, with archaeological remains of neolithic cloth and rope being found in Denmark and Britain (Quinion 1996)

Tree bast was also useful for making cordage from the coarse fibres of the inner bark (Wigforrs 2014). Trees native to Britain that can be potentially used in this way include:

  1. Linden or Lime Tree
  2. Pine
  3. Birch
  4. Willow

One the fibres had been stripped out they could be spun and plied. However this would suggest that some way of tensioning  the cord would have been required, unless only small lengths were made to serve a given purpose (Barber 1994). Potentially there could have been clearings made in forests to produce a rough approximation to a rope walk if long cords were produced, with a substantial tree used to anchor the cords to be plied and the person making the rope walking backwards as he twisted the cords together. Alternatively he could have tied the cords to a  heavy stone or even his big toe and leant backwards in a sitting position to ply and tension the rope, perhaps using a stick or “ten” as suggested by Wigforss… something we will probably never know.

References and Bibliography

Barber, E.W. (1994). Women’s work: the first 20,000 years: women, cloth and society in early times. New York: W.W. Norton.

Clarke R, Merlin M. (2013) Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. University of California Ltd, London. online [] Accessed: 29/7/2016

Harris S (2014). Flax fibre: Innovation and Change in the Early Neolithic A Technological and Material Perspective.University College London. Online [] Accessed: 29/7/2016

Heise J.A. (2002-3) Hemp and Nettle, Two Food/Fibre/ Medical plants in use in Eastern Europe. [Online] www, Accessed 5/8/2016

Quinion M (1996) Fibres from the Earth [online] Accessed 6/8/2016

Ranson R (2015)  Linen Flax – Flax plant for spinning and weaving. [online] Accessed: 29/7/2016

Wigforss E (2014) Evidence for a Stone Age fibre technology – a closer look at the prehistoric String Theory Lunds Universitet [online] Accessed  6/8/2016

Yorkshire Hemp (2016) History [online] Accessed 6/8/2016


Bast Fibre Plants in the Stone Age

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