Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Reconstructing a possible Minoan silk dress

Last time I posted, I talked about evidence for silk in the Bronze Age Aegean.  I thought it would be interesting to see what a Minoan style silk dress looks like, and by happy accident I can make it fit the most recent Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge: Terminology.  This challenge is about picking a term defined in Leimomi's big glossary of historical textile terms and making something with it.  Now, I wanted to take a modern fabric term that we use today, and see how it relates to the kind of fabrics we see on the Akrotiri frescoes.

"Gauze" is the term I'm going with here.  That's because I want to try copying this:


"The Necklace Swinger," girl age 16 - 18 in procession
Image found here.

Like the veil I talked about in the last post, this dress is made of a very fine, sheer fabric that may have been silk.  Alternatively, the picture may represent very fine linen.  I've never seen linen that fine, so off I went to The Fabric Store and bought two meters of the finest silk gauze I could find.

This style of dress was called a heanos by the Mycenaeans.  I've seen people describe it as a blouse, but it was a full-length garment.  Look carefully at the bottom of that picture and you will see it peeking out underneath her kilt.  This heanos is a bit unusual in that it's loose and doesn't have the shoulder seam covered by a decorative band you see in most cases - here's a good example of what they usually look like:


Typical figure-hugging heanos with shoulder seam.  Image from here.

They are the same type of garment, but they're clearly made differently, using different fabrics.  I would guess that the first one is a loose fit for practical reasons.  The heanos was T-shaped and made from two pieces of cloth with a single long, curved side seam under each arm.  Because this seam is cut on the bias it stretches, and if the heanos is close-fitting it needs to be fairly strong.  I suggest the fine, gauzy fabric of the blue heanos wasn't strong enough to be made into a tight garment.  The threads are clearly delicate, and if it was an open weave the structure may not have been very stable.

So how does my reconstruction compare to the picture?  Well, here it is with a kilt:


The kilt was made for one of 2013's Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges.


And here's how my gauze compares with the original:




That's definitely the same level of transparency we can see in the Akrotiri fresco.  Of course, the fresco is a stylized painting and not a photograph, but it doesn't surprise me that the Minoans could produce fabric as fine as what we have today.  Highly sophisticated textiles have been produced in Europe since the Neolithic and like Egyptian art from the same period, Minoan art is considered to be quite reliable in terms of showing us what kind of clothes Minoan people wore.  The difficulty with Minoan art lies in determining whether it shows everyday clothes, or clothes worn on specific occasions by specific people.

Here's the heanos without the kilt:





HSF details as follows:

The Challenge: Terminology

Fabric: Two meters of silk gauze, plus silk taffeta scraps for the decorative edging.

Pattern: I've used the heanos pattern developed by Bernice Jones (see New Reconstructions of the "Mykenaia" and a Seated Woman from Mycenae in the American Journal of Archaeology, July 2009).  I've adapted Dr. Jones' pattern to make a loose fitting heanos without a shoulder seam.

Year: 1650 - 1550 BCE.

Notions: Silk thread and two tassels made from rayon.  I didn't have any appropriate silk and I can always swap them out for silk ones later.

How historically accurate is it?  It's as accurate as I could get it, but there are some problems there.  For starters this is silk from the Bombyx mori moth.  If the original was made of silk it would have come from a moth in the Saturnia genus -  what we now call wild silk or tussah silk.  We don't, of course, know if the original was silk.  It may have been linen.  As I said, the sleeve tassels are rayon.

Inevitably, there's a certain amount of conjecture involved in reconstructing something like this.  We can never know for sure exactly how close my reconstruction is to the original.

Hours to complete: Maybe 8 or so.  I'm neither especially quick nor especially good at hand sewing.

First worn: Lots of times for fitting and refining the pattern.

Total cost: $44.

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