Before the maufacturing processes were mechanized, textiles were produced in the home, and excess sold for extra money. Most cloth was made from either wool, cotton, or flax, depending on the era and location. For example, during the late mediaeval period, cotton became known as an imported fibre in northern Europe, without any knowledge of what it came from other than that it was a plant; noting its similarities to wool, people in the region could only imagine that cotton must be produced by plant-borne sheep. John Mandeville, writing in 1350, stated as fact the now-preposterous belief: "There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie." This aspect is retained in the name for cotton in many European languages, such as German Baumwolle, which translates as "tree wool". By the end of the 16th century, cotton was cultivated throughout the warmer regions in Asia and the Americas. In Roman times, wool, linen and leather clothed the European population: the cotton of India was a curiosity that only naturalists had heard of, and silk, imported along the Silk Road from China, was an extravagant luxury. The use of flax fibre in the manufacturing of cloth in northern Europe dates back to Neolithic times.
Cloth was produced in the home, and the excess woven cloth was sold to merchants called clothiers who visited the village with their trains of pack-horses. Some of the cloth was made into clothes for people living in the same area and a large amount of cloth was exported.
The process of making cloth depends slightly on the fiber being used, but there are three main steps: preparation of fibers for spinning, spinning, and weaving or knitting. The preparation of the fibers differs the most depending on the fiber used. Flax requires retting and dressing, while wool requires carding and washing. The spinning and weaving processes are very similar between fibers though.
Spinning evolved from twisting the fibers by hand, to use of a drop spindle, to a spinning wheel. Spindles or parts of them have been found in very, very old archaeological sites; they may represent one of the earliest pieces of technology available to humankind. was invented in India between 500 and 1000 A.D. It reached Europe via the Middle East in the European Middle Ages.
Weaving, done on a loom has been around for as long as spinning. There are some indications that weaving was already known in the Palaeolithic. An indistinct textile impression has been found at Pavlov, Moravia. Neolithic textiles are well known from finds in pile dwellings in Switzerland. One extant fragment from the Neolithic was found in Fayum at a site which dates to about 5000 BCE. There are many different types of looms, from a simple inkle loom that dates back to the Vikings, to the standard floor loom.