Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Recreating a piece of Mycenaean fabric

This blog is going to be all about my historical experiments.  Currently I’m doing both the Historical Sew Fortnightly and the Historical Food Fortnightly, and I really do need a place to put my research and so on.  Rather than file it away on a drive somewhere, I’m going to put it in a blog where other people can perhaps benefit from it.

Let’s kick off with something fun!  For HSF Challenge 10: Art I wanted to recreate a decorative band from a fresco found at Tyrins.


Hvitr,  woven band taken from afresco from Tyrins, 13th century BCE


As you can see, all I actually managed was a short piece of woven cloth about two inches wide, but you would not believe the time it took or the difficulty I had just to get this far.  I’ve always been impressed by the elaborately woven cloth shown in Minoan and Mycenaean art, and after attempting this project my admiration for those Bronze Age weavers has increased exponentially. 

I tried a whole lot of different ideas before I got this result.  I started with a wool warp, but the thin wool wasn’t suitable for the warp and kept breaking.  I had to start again with linen warp threads and a wool weft.  Bronze Age wool was structurally different from modern wool, so a Bronze Age weaver might not have had this problem.

So far as we know, Aegean Bronze Age textiles were made on warp weighted looms (as opposed to the ground looms used in contemporary Egypt).  In her 1991 book Prehistoric Textiles, Elizabeth Barber states that the patterns we see in Aegean Bronze Age art were most likely made using supplementary weft floats.  Having made this thing, I completely agree with her.  In fact I think supplementary weft floats might be the only way to reproduce this particular pattern.  I found that other types of weaving like tablet weaving and tapestry didn’t adequately reproduce the pattern on the fresco, and indeed there’s no evidence the Mycenaeans used these weaving methods.

Supplementary warp floats are essentially a type of brocade technique.  The main warp is woven normally in a tabby structure, while the supplementary weft threads “float” over various numbers of warp threads.  In this case the warp floats cover the entire surface of the band with no ground weave visible at all.  This type of weaving is also known as overshot, and it is possible to create very elaborate patterns this way.  Although this pattern looks simple, it is very complicated to weave – or it was for me – because there are five different colours of supplementary weft.  Google overshot weaving and you will find that most of the patterns out there use only one supplementary colour at a time.  There’s a reason for that.

For those who are interested, you can find an introduction to overshot weaving here.  You will notice that page tells you in bold font that your supplementary wefts must be thicker than your ground wefts.  This is something I learned the hard way and it is very important, but it’s easy enough to fix.  Just use two lengths of yarn for the supplementary weft and a single yarn for the ground weft.

Weaving this pattern would have been much easier if I was an experienced weaver and knew what I was doing.  This is actually only the second thing I’ve ever woven, but I imagine the original was made by someone who did have experience.  Nonetheless, I suspect this was a complex and relatively difficult design even by Mycenaean standards.  If you look at frescoes showing Mycenaean and Minoan clothes, you’ll see that the patterns don’t usually have as many colours as this one does.

High-end luxury textiles were extremely important to the Mycenaean economy and were exported in large quantities; see for example M.E. Alberti’s 2007 paper The Minoan textile industry and the territory from Neopalatial to Mycenaean times: some first thoughts, in Creta Antica 8, pp. 243-263 and The Management of Agricultural Land and the Production of Textiles in the Mycenaean and Near Eastern Economies edited by Massimo Perna; Francesco Pomponio, 2008.  Textiles were such big business in the Bronze Age Aegean that Mycenaean Knossos employed 900 textile workers.  

And here are all the HSF details.

The Challenge: Art

Fabric: this is the fabric.  It’s made of linen yarn and two-ply wool.

Pattern: my own interpretation of the pattern shown in the fresco.  In the future I’ll put the pattern up here for anyone who might be interested in seeing it or, god help you, using it.

Year: 13th century BCE

Notions: none.

How historically accurate is it?  Well, that’s a good question.  Sadly, we just don’t know.  We don’t even know for sure the band would have been woven; it might have been embroidered or even painted.  Given the evidence for complex weaving in Europe and the Aegean, I think it was likely woven, but that’s my opinion.

No textiles survive from this time period in the Aegean, so we only have surviving frescoes to tell us what the textiles were like.  Ultimately, all I can say is that I reproduced the design in the picture using materials and techniques that the Mycenaeans used.

Hours to complete: making this little band took me about 6 hours, on top of all the many many hours of research, trial and error, swearing, and unpicking.

First worn: N/A

Total cost: $20 for a couple of balls of yarn.  I already had some of the colours I needed.



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