As I wander through the numerous museums in and around London, and view the exhibits and artifacts , I see lots of intricate pottery in the collections. A lot is known about pottery because it is an art form that is durable and can withstand being buried for centuries. But textiles are fragile and often all that is found is small fragments, that are often overlooked by the archaeologist. When textile fragments are found they are carefully cleaned. They are brought out on display in museums for short lengths of time and then stored in carefully controlled vaults to help preserve them from the elements.
When I do come across the textile pieces I get quite excited, I look at them carefully and then often wonder, “Now, how did they do that?” Lots of questions come to mind whenever I look at an ancient textile.
As weavers and handspinners, we appreciate the work that can go into a piece of fabric. We know what was involved in the processing of the cotton, hemp, linen or wool. The work that was needed to clean and scour the fleece, or to harvest and rett the flax, and then hours involved in handspinning the yarn.
If the garment was dyed, then what was involved in the dye process? The dyeplants would have been gathered in season, and prepared for the dyebath. The yarn would have been mordanted and then dyed.
And if the piece was woven, what type of loom was it woven on? How many shafts? Is there a pattern? The warp would have been carefully planned and calculated. What was its use? Who was it for? How many threads per inch? How should the yarn be spun? At what twist? The weaver of this cloth of ancient time would have had many of the same thoughts in mind as we do now when we plan our projects.
During an afternoon touring the British Museum, in London, I noticed this handwoven cotton top. On closer examination, I realized that the V-neck had no sewn selvages, so I think it must have been shaped on the loom.
This particular piece of work has been on my mind for some time. How was it shaped? How could I duplicate this piece of work? I had an idea and to test my theory of the shaping of the neck of this garment, I tried it on the end of a hemp warp that I had on my loom.
I tested the weaving for the neckline, but still have further questions and things to explore at another time. There is some sort of pattern at the bottom egde of the garment. And how was the fringework done?
3rd-4th Century ADFrom Qasr Ibrim
This section of undyed cotton formed part of a garment resembling the modern ‘bikini’
British Museum, London, UK
On closer examination, it looked like the V-neck had no sewn selvages, so I think it must have been shaped on the loom.
To test my theory of the shaping of this garment, I tried the technique on the remaining yardage of a hemp warp that I had on my loom.
I had previously woven a couple of hemp shawls on this warp and had about a yard of warp left to weave.
3 ply white and natural hemp, random warp dyed with Cochineal, Madder
Sett: 10 epi
Starting at one of the outside selvages (left side), I cut one warp thread at the selvage (at the back of the warp) and wove it as weft to the opposite edge (right side). I changed sheds and wove it back across 3 ends, to make a clean edge finish.
Working from the right side this time, I cut one warp thread on the right selvage edge at the back of the loom, and wove it across to the left selvage. I changed sheds and wove this back 3 warp threads.
I continued on in this fashion for about 1 -2 inches, cutting 1 warp thread at a time and weaving it across and tucking it back into the edge. The weft ends can be cut after the warp is removed from the loom. Sometimes I find it easier to trim them as I am weaving.
To start the beginning of the V-neck, I cut 1 warp thread from each side of the warp and using it as a weft yarn, wove it to the centre of the warp. I changed sheds and then wove the warp thread back to the outside edge, tucking it in as before.
Then I cut 2 warp threads from the centre of the warp (at the back of the loom)
Treating them as a weft yarn, I wove them to the outside edge, changed sheds and wove them back to the centre.
I then continued on weaving, alternating with cutting the 2 outside edge warp threads and the next 2 centre threads.
The weft threads can be trimmed as you are weaving, or can be left and trimmed after the fabric is off the loom. I have trimmed the weft threads on the right side of this but left them on the left side.
The British Museum
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times
New discoveries about the textile arts reveal women’s unexpectedly influential role in ancient societies.
Twenty thousand years ago, women were making and wearing the first clothing created from spun fibers. In fact, right up to the Industrial Revolution the fiber arts were an enormous economic force, belonging primarily to women.