The variety of cloth in the Roman period was not as diverse as today. The Romans only had cloth made from both animal and vegetable fibre, i.e. wool, silk, flax and cotton. Their availability determined their value, for example, as silk cocoons were difficult to find silky cloth was very expensive.
Now for a little bit on how the people of the past created thread and how they made cloth. The Romans used mainly five or six different sources of material to make thread. The most common was wool, which is made from a sheep’s fleece, carded using combs and then spun using a drop spindle.
Silk is also an animal fibre, is spun by an insect called the mulberry moth. When it is a caterpillar it eats the leaves of the mulberry tree and weaves a cocoon of silk thread around itself. Man releases this thread by boiling the cocoons.
Obtaining thread from flax and hemp is a more labour intensive process. Fibres are taken from the stems of these two plants by submerging them in water and then by beating the dried stems. These two phases soften the hard outer stem which can then be removed more easily. They are then combed and spun into a thread. While hemp was a fibre of low value more suitable for ropes and linen, the cloth made from flax fibre was a luxurious fabric often worn by priests.
Cotton comes from the cotton plant. As it ripens woollen seed balls form and they are then picked by hand. This fibre, like wool, is then carded and spun to obtain a thread. Cotton was a rare and luxurious fabric in the Roman period and it was imported from India and southern Egypt.