Weaving a Time Warp

Every now and then I like to poke around on the web and look for news about prehistoric textiles. Because fibers decompose so quickly, they are very rare compared to prehistoric artifacts made of more durable stuff like stone, metal, or bone.

The oldest known textile fibers, microscopic ones from flax, came from Dzudzuana cave in the Republic of Georgia and date back more than 34,000 years. They were most likely not woven into cloth, but twisted into cord and rope for a variety of useful and decorative purposes. Fast forward almost 30,000 years to a point in time where humans were weaving threads into cloth on some sort of loom. Weaving yarn into fabric and using it for clothing was likely an innovation on the use of animal hides for warmth and probably followed from the weaving of fibers into baskets.

Several years ago I found a picture online of a pair of 3,000 year old wool pants, worn by a mummified man excavated from a tomb in the Tarim Basin in China. These pants have made the news again recently after a collaborative project by archaeologists, weavers, fashion designers, and others recreated the wool yarn, the woven cloth and the tailored pants designed for a horseback-riding nomadic warrior.

Thanks to the Folkwear Patterns newsletter for pointing me to this fascinating video. Links to other recent articles follow.



Amazon Women wore wool felt – did they also wear sprang?

I recently finished reading The Amazons, by Adrienne Mayor. What we know of Amazon women comes from Greek vase paintings and Herodotus, the Greek historian. The Amazons were probably Scythian warrior women, part of a society of Eurasian steppe nomads who herded horses, cattle and sheep. Their clothing consisted of coats, long tunics and trousers for horseback riding, and they wore tall felted wool caps with ear flaps. Both men and women wore garments of similar style, and fragments of woven clothing have been excavated from some prehistoric burial mounds, known as kurgans.

amazon archer
An Amazon warrior woman depicted in felted cap, long sleeves and leggings. The front and back of her costume appear to be made in two techniques. Possibly sewn together?

diamond sprang
An Amazon archer wearing a diamond-pattern costume, left. A modern reconstruction of the same textile, right.

Greek vase paintings also show Amazon women wearing close-fitting, highly patterned clothing designs on sleeves and leggings. In the vase paintings, only foreigners wear these designs, not Greek women. However, Greek women are depicted holding frame looms, on which they may have been weaving sprang, a type of textile construction that is stretchy, like knitting, but is woven with warp threads only. Think Mexican hammock.

spots costume
An Amazon depicted in cap, tunic and leggings, left. A modern reconstruction, middle and right. The right-most picture shows how the textile stretches.

sprang looms
Ancient Greek women holding frame looms, working textiles that look like sprang.

Dagmar Drinkler, a textile historian who has written about tight-fitting clothing in antiquity, has reconstructed in sprang some of the clothing patterns depicted on Greek vase paintings. While these sprang garments have not yet been found in excavated burial mounds, the reconstructions are startlingly similar to those in the vase paintings. Is it possible that the sheep-herding, wool felt-wearing nomads were knowledgeable of sprang technique as well?

sprang pants2
A modern reconstruction of sprang leggings – tight and stretchy.

stripes n dots
An Amazon depicted on a Greek vase, left. A modern reconstruction of her costume in sprang, right.

striped sprang costume
Amazon depicted in close-fitting striped costume, left. A modern version of the textile in sprang, right.