Thursday, 18 September 2014

Egypt and the Aegean: sewing techniques

Fragment of linen. From the Fayum, c. 5000BC Bolton Museum 1929.56.109. Photograph by Jana Jones
Egyptian linen from 5000 BCE, image from the Bolton Museum.  Note the scale bar - this is very fine linen!

When reconstructing Aegean Bronze Age clothes, I rely heavily on the kind of techniques that were used in Egypt around the same time.  The reason for that is simple: we have evidence from Egypt.  We know nothing about the techniques used in the Aegean, because no textiles survive in that region.  We do know a bit about ancient Egyptian sewing and textile manufacture techniques, because we have surviving examples even from the Old Kingdom.

Because these Egyptian garments are so well preserved, we can tell how they were made.  The Egyptians used a very simple range of seams, sewn with either running stitch or whip stitch.  Sewing thread was usually undyed, but there are some dyed examples.  Either way, sewing thread didn't necessarily match the colour of the cloth it was used on.  Here are some examples of seams and hems from Egypt:

Illustration from Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, 2000, edited by Paul Nicholson and Ian Shaw, page 283.

Egyptian needles were made from copper, bronze, silver, or fish bone.  Thorns (and, I suspect, fish bones) could be used as pins, but the Egyptians didn't generally use pins.  They held the two pieces of fabric together with their fingers as they sewed.  Scissors weren't available until the first century CE, but I use 'em anyway.  My commitment to historical accuracy doesn't extend to cutting pieces with a flint knife.

Of course, the problem with using Egyptian techniques to make Aegean clothing is that this approach relies on assuming Aegean techniques were similar to Egyptian ones.  This assumption may not be correct, since even a cursory look at art from the period shows that Aegean clothes and textiles were quite different from Egyptian ones.  We also know that textile production methods in Egypt were quite different from those employed in the Aegean.

Ancient Egyptian clothes usually involved draping a rectangle of cloth round the body.  The cloth was woven to size and did not require much in the way of seams or hems.  Aegean clothing, however, utilised curved pattern pieces that had to be cut out of the fabric piece.  This meant raw edges that had to be prevented from fraying.  Flat-felled seams weren't common in Egypt, but they do a good job of stopping raw edges from fraying, so it may be that this type of seam was more common in the Aegean.

In spite of these important differences I still think Egyptian sewing techniques are probably the best indication of how Bronze Age Aegean garments were constructed.  They are techniques that can be used to manufacture a wide variety of items, including the types of clothes shown in Aegean art, and there is plenty of evidence for trade between Egypt and the Aegean during the Bronze Age.

For information on Egyptian sewing techniques (and all sorts of other interesting stuff), see Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, edited by P. Nicholson and I. Shaw.  It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2000.

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