Ancient textiles in Attica during the classical period

Ancient Athenian artisans had acquired a high level of expertise in textile manufacturing, allowing them to create unique fabrics by employing a variety of techniques.

Pyramid-shaped loom weights from the Pnyx and detail of fabric from Koropi in stereoscope © ARTEX

By Stella Spantidaki
Archaeologist & President of the Hellenic Centre for Research and Conservation of Archaeological Textiles, “ARTEX”

Over the last decade, archaeological textiles, which had previously largely been ignored by European archaeologists, have evolved into a new discipline, which is captivating scholars’ attention throughout Europe. For many years, the prevailing view was that the climate in Greece was not conducive to textile preservation and for this reason excavations of that kind were scarce. This view, however, changed when several textile remains were found in the excavations carried out during the construction of the Athens Metro. Fragments, of very small dimensions mostly, had been preserved in mineralized form. Mineralized textiles can now be studied using a new method developed in the Louvre Laboratory, which combines optical and scanning electron microscopy. So far, 26 textiles originating from Attica and dating back to the classical era have been recorded, all of them providing valuable information about their creators’ expertise, and more generally about the society they were produced in.

Texts, inscriptions, iconography (of ceramics and sculpture), as well as tools for spinning and weaving, constitute other sources of evidence. During that period, textiles were manufactured in houses and workshops. Clothes and household textiles were manufactured by the women of every house, who were responsible for all the stages of the manufacturing process, from beginning to end. Meanwhile, textile manufacturing was an important artisan activity, which took place in workshops. These were populated mainly by male workers, both free citizens and slaves, however, according to written sources, certain women who had been freed from slavery also worked as spinners. Nevertheless, to this day, all textile excavation findings come exclusively from burial environments, and are therefore not representative of the entire textile production. Their characteristics witness the requirements for funerary textiles of the time, which were quite specific and defined by law. This is why we can observe a great uniformity in their technical characteristics, such as raw materials and weaving techniques.

Pyramid-shaped loom weight from the Pnyx © S. Spantidaki

It is well known that the raw materials used were mainly comprised of wool, flax, hemp, cotton and presumably wild silk, although the latter has not yet been confirmed by excavations. As regards the textiles’ colours, written sources suggest a variety of dyes, both of plant and animal origin, of which only one has been identified in Attica’s textiles: Tyrian Purple. Four textiles (one from Kalyvia, one from Maroussi and two from Keramikos) show different hues of Tyrian Purple, the most expensive pigment of the ancient world, extracted from three types of sea shells. However, apart from the traditional dyeing method, which involved immersing the fibres, the threads, or the finished textile in a staining solution, traces of black and red drawings were discovered on a fabric found in Koropi.

Initial selvedge of the textile from Kalyvia, Attica. The first seven threads of the purple dyed weft are noticeable © ARTEX
Detailed view of the textile from Koropi in the stereoscope. The left image shows traces of red dye on the surface of the threads, while the right shows traces of black pigment © ARTEX

The Ancient Greeks were also familiar with the technique of encaustic painting (or hot wax painting) on fabric. The basic textile manufacturing techniques in Ancient Greece were spinning with a spindle, as regards the shaping of the threads, and the warp-weighted loom technique, as regards the process of textile manufacturing. Iconographic studies of the textiles suggest that, in the classical era, there must have been two types of vertical looms; one was very wide and used for manufacturing large-sized textiles, while the other was narrower, intended for the fabrication of smaller textiles made of thin threads. Alongside this traditional technique, others also existed for weaving smaller textiles. One was the “sprang” weaving, a type of weave recognizable by its characteristic single thread direction, while the card weaving technique was performed on a specific type of loom, which was very small in size.

Ampulla depicting a vertical, wide loom, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One other technique involved manufacturing a type of textile widely depicted in classical ceramic art and sculpture, known as “curled” fabric or “crepe”, which was manufactured using tightly twisted threads with a spiral appearance, giving the finished textile its typical look. However, the study of spinning and weaving tools found in five different archaeological sites of Attica confirms that Classical Era Athenians preferred very thin and translucent fabrics; a preference also proven by the study of iconography and of written references to garments known as “amorgina”, which accented the female figure. The fabrics appear to have been made of high quality flax, carefully processed and refined with olive oil, an ingredient used to enhance the threads brilliance. Although, in order to make threads of such fineness, the like of which has so far been found only in the royal textiles of Egypt, special processing was required during the preparation of the fibre. In Egypt, a special technique was employed in order to make such threads, namely “splicing”, through which the fibres were joined together without the aid of a spindle.

Detailed view of fabric 3 from Koropi in the stereoscope. Observe the tightly twisted threads © ARTEX

In Greece, the earliest use of this technique is dated to the 5th century BC, by a translucent linen fabric that was found in a tomb, in Keramikos. The fact that the fabric found in Keramikos exhibits a Z-twist of the threads, as in most Greek fabrics, instead of an S-twist, as in the Egyptian ones, allows us to speculate that the manufacturing of this fabric was performed by Greek artisans, if not actually in Greece. In the classical period, the appearance of fabric was not so much determined by the intertwining of fabrics as it was by the techniques of textile ornamentation. These included all ornamentation techniques, such as embroidery, tapestry and supplementary weaving. Textile production constituted one of the most important economic sectors of classical Athens and the studying of its organization therefore offers a wealth of information about the very structure of that society.

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