Due to the Coptic custom of burying them with the dead, and to the aridity of Egyptian graves, there are remarkable number of Coptic textiles survive today. The textiles are commonly linen or wool and use the colors red, blue, yellow, green, purple, black and brown. The dyes were derived from madder, indigo, woad, saffron, the murex shell, and the kermes insect. The first looms used were horizontal low-warp; vertical high-warp looms were introduced later. The basic garment was the tunic, which would become the dalmatic. Some tunics were woven in one piece. They were decorated by clavi, a stylistic import from Rome.
The cultures which most influenced the Coptic period of Egypt include the ancient Egyptians, the classical Greeks, and the Romans. The influence of these cultures is visible in Coptic art. For example, many Coptic textiles incorporate some ancient Egyptian symbols and motifs, including the ankh, the cross-like symbol for life. The ankh was used as an alternate form of the Christian cross, and some textiles incorporate both symbols. However, Coptic art in general shows the stronger influence of the Greeks and Romans.
It is very rare for ancient textiles to survive in the archaeological record because fabrics decompose easily. Many Coptic textiles have survived because they were preserved in the dry desert tombs of Egypt. The large number of Coptic textiles located in museums and collections throughout the world make the Coptic period one of the most fully documented eras in textile history. However, the Coptic period of Egypt is often overlooked in favor of the more studied periods of the ancient pharaohs and the Arab conquest.
The name Copt derives from the Arabic word “Qibt” for Egyptian, which was taken from the Greek word for Egyptian, “Aigyptos.” The term “Copt” originally referred to the native Egyptians, as opposed to the Greek or Arab invaders. While later “Copt” became a religious designation referring to Christian Egyptians, the Coptic period is considered to be confined to the first millennium of the Christian era, when Christianity thrived in Egypt. Thus, Coptic textiles are the products of the Egyptians, who may or may not have been Christian, and who lived in the beginning of the Christian era.
The Uses of Fabrics
Textiles had various uses in Coptic Egypt. The household uses of textiles included bed sheets and covers, towels, napkins, tablecloths, and carrying sacks. Textiles were used both in households and in public and church buildings as decorative curtains and hangings.
The most common use of textiles was as apparel. The standard form of clothing in Coptic Egypt during Roman times was the tunic, a rectangular shirt-like piece of cloth that fit over the head, and was sometimes fastened at the waist by a belt. Textiles were also used for belts, cloaks, and shawls as well as for burial garments. When mummification was outlawed in the fourth century, the Copts stopped wrapping the bodies with linen strips and began using regular clothing in which to bury the dead. Other textiles such as shawls, bed covers, and curtains were probably used as external wrappings of the dead.
For both the pharaonic Egyptians and the Greeks, clothing was indicative of social and economic status. Clothing continued to distinguish between social strata for the Romans. The Roman citizens wore togas and non-citizens wore tunics. For the Copts, tunics were made of plain wool or linen and were decorated with either a single vertical band (clavus) that ran down the center of the garment, or two decorated vertical bands (clavi) that extended over each shoulder down to the knee area or the bottom of the garment, on the front and back. The clavi were decorated and were generally purple. Tunic decorations derived from the army’s use of decorations to designate rank during the Roman era.
During the Byzantine period, the tunic evolved into a variation called the dalmatic. The dalmatic was wider and longer and was decorated with round ornaments (roundels) on the sleeves or at the knees, sleeve bands, and neck bands, as well as the clavi. The Byzantines made new regulations to restrict the use of the more luxurious items of silk, purple dye, and gold thread to the imperial classes. The lower classes made imitations on the use of imperial styles, like dyeing red over blue to make an imitation purple. The Copts sometimes removed the colored ornaments from the old and worn-out clothes to reuse them on new clothes.
Textiles rarely survive in the archaeological record given their organic nature and their rapidity of decomposition in wet and acidic conditions. It may seem remarkable that the Coptic textiles have survived, given their old age. But they survived because of the burial practices of the Copts and the dry climate of Egypt. By burying the dead fully clothed in the dry sands of Upper Egypt, the textiles were conserved. The textiles that were preserved were woven for everyday use rather than explicitly for burial garments. Many of the surviving textiles have been mended and patched, which testify to the fact that they were worn and used during life and were not just burial garments.
The Technology of Egyptian Weaving
Materials: Linen and Wool
The two most common materials used by the Copts were linen (made from flax) and wool. The Egyptians used linen from pharaonic times onward. Linen was favored because it is strong and durable. The fibers are smooth and not easily abraded. Flax flourished in Egypt with the fertilizing annual floods of the Nile. Linen could be woven in different levels of quality, from a very fine, sheer fabric, to a thick canvas-like fabric. Around 300 BCE, cotton was introduced from India, silk from China and sheep were imported. However, linen continued to be the most favored fabric because silk was very expensive. During pharaonic times the Egyptians did not use wool because it was regarded to be ritually unclean. Linen garments were also cooler than wool garments, which was important in the hot climate of Egypt.
However wool became common about the time of the Roman conquest, around 30 BCE. The Romans liked wool and since Egypt was a major center of textile production for the Roman Empire, wool increased in use. Wool has an advantage over linen in that it is easily dyed, while linen must first be soaked in an acidic mordant in order to take on a dye. Wool and linen were used both alone and in combination together in the same textile. Most commonly, weavers used linen as the background or main material, as in the shirt of a tunic, and wool as the material for the colorful narrow bands (clavi) that descend from the shoulders of the tunic and for the ornaments on the sleeves and at the knees of the tunic.
The dyes used in the textiles can aid in the dating of textiles because, in general, the earlier Coptic textiles were monochromatic, while the later textiles (from around the sixth century) had more varied colors.
The Copts used dyes made from animal and vegetable compounds. The colors first used by the Copts were purple, red, and yellow. The dyes may reflect the Roman custom of color usage, whereby certain colors indicate social status. Purple was a preferred color, but it was time consuming and expensive to produce. The purple dye was made from the secretions of the purple-shell. This mollusk was only found offshore of Syria, and great quantities were needed to make the dye. Purple was restricted to the court circles in Alexandria, although there were other imitation recipes to make purple dyes.
Red dye was procured from the madder root and the female coccus insect during early times. Yellow dye was obtained from weld and saffron, and blue dye was obtained from woad and indigo. Later on the colors used also include green, which was made by dyeing yellow over blue.
Reconstruction of the type of looms the ancient Egyptians used can be made from the wall paintings of tombs from the Middle Kingdom and from the burial gifts of miniature models of weavers’ workshops. The oldest type of loom appears to have been a horizontal low-warp loom that was attached to the ground with pegs to stretch the fabric. Around 1650-1500 BCE a vertical standing high-warp loom which used weights to stretch the warps was introduced. During the Roman era, the foot-powered draw loom came into use. The draw loom permitted fast mechanized weaving of intricate patterns.
Techniques of Coptic Weaving
The development of pattern weaving is one of the important achievements of the Coptic weavers that distinguishes their textiles from those of the Ancient Egyptians. Patterned textiles were brought into the mainstream around the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in the fourth century BCE. Some Greek textiles were patterned and featured the use of dyed wool. Patterned textiles were valued because their production was quite labor intensive.
Coptic textiles are characterized by the “S-twist” of thread. After washing, the natural flax fibers have an inherent sense of rotation, in the anti-clockwise direction. Therefore, when they are spun into thread, they were twisted in this direction, which is called “S-twist.” Wool does not have a tendency to rotation, so it followed convention that wool was also spun in the “S-twist” technique.
The Egyptians used the weaving techniques of tabby weave, half basket weave, and looped or soumak. Tabby weave is the simplest form of weaving, consisting of horizontal threads (weft) interweaving with vertical threads (warp). Soumak had the effect of making distinct outlines of the designs. Other techniques they used were brocading and tapestry. The tapestry technique allowed wool decorations to be woven into the surrounding linen. The Copts invented the flying shuttle technique, which uses a second shuttle to insert an extra linen weft thread into the fabric.
While during the pharaonic era weavers were associated with temples, Coptic weavers were organized into small workshops in towns, under the supervision of the state. During various phases of history, the weavers were under the control of the Ptolemies, Romans, and Arabs. Alexandria had an imperial center of textile manufacture during the fifth century, and was a trading center from that time onwards. Interestingly, while it was mainly women who were weavers in pharaonic times, it is males who are documented as weavers inthe Christian era. When the vertical loom was invented, it was mostly operated by men. Men turned textile making into a commercial industry, although textiles continued to be made domestically.