Coptic Fabrics

The dominant fiber of Egypt's ancient and late antique fabrics is flax. The common Coptic linen yarn is an s-spun single (yarn spun in a clockwise direction), but z-spun yarns (yarn spun in a counter-clockwise direction), single or plied, are used with certain tapestry styles considered late and perhaps Near Eastern. The typical woolen yarn used during the Coptic period is an s-spun single. Occasionally z-spun yarns, and—in rare instances—plied yarns of two colored strands spun together are found. Silk, imported as fiber or fabric, was a rarity in Egypt. Soft weft (crosswise yarns) fibers of cashmere are found on some imported garments. Cotton and ramie are reported in Coptic and early Islamic fabrics. Precious gold thread can be documented on two separate pieces in French collections.

Linen, which does not readily accept dyeing, is typically undyed: wool readily accepts dyestuffs. Every color of the rainbow can be found in Coptic cloth. Blues were from indigo and woad; yellows from saffron, pomegranate, suntberry, weld, broom, iron buff, and safflower; reds from alkanet root, madder root, kermes, henna, and lac-dye; and purples from lichens and from the glands of shellfish of the Purpuridae family. The accepted theory among Coptic scholars is that wools were dyed in the fleece prior to spinning.

Horizontal ground-staked looms and upright vertical looms were in use in New Kingdom Egypt. The Alexandrian conquest brought warp-weighted looms to Egypt, but they were not extensively used. Pit-looms and upright Roman looms may have been used. There are tablet-woven textiles and sets of tablets that were discovered in Antinoé. Some type of loom with a pattern-making device, a precursor of the drawloom, was in use during the Coptic Period. The one-piece tunics so common in Coptic Egypt must have been woven on looms eight or nine feet wide.

Many types of fabrics were found in Coptic burial grounds: tabby or plain weaves, plaid tabby weaves, tapestries, tabby-tapestries, extended tabby or basket weaves, weft-loop weaves, warp-loop weaves, brocades, tapestries, taquetés (weft-faced compound tabbies), and samitums (weft-faced compound twills), resist-dyed tex tiles, warp-faced tablet weaves, sprang, knits, and some embroideries. Weaving was a guild or government controlled industry, but also always a cottage craft. The technical skills and artistry ranged from the rustic to the sophisticated and sublime.

There came into fashion in the late Augustinian age a "smooth cloth with woolen decorations." This is the quintessential cloth of Coptic Egypt, a combination tabby-tapestry (inserted tapestry) weave used for tunics, shawls, curtains, cushion covers, and large wall hangings. The basic fabric is a slightly warp-dominant tabby of linen warp and weft with an average sett of 56 ends per inch. The tapestry decorations are woven on the same linen warp with dyed woolen and ecru linen wefts. The transition from tabby to tapestry is typically achieved by grouping the warp in sets of two of more. This changes the average sett to 28/2 ends per inch and allows the weft yarns to pack down and completely cover the warp. Tapestry at this sett has a soft and wearable handle, not like the heavy, dense fabric of kilim rugs or medieval wall hangings.

Scholars believe that tapestry weaving came to Egypt with the Greek colonists. The tapestries of Coptic Egypt range in size from mere shreds of warp and weft to wall hangings nine yards long with nearly life-size figures. There are all wool tapestries as well as those of linen and wool. Weavers knew traditional methods of dealing with slits and joins. Early polychrome tapestries shade and blend color areas, while later pieces have separate segments of bold color. Some special techniques were used on the monochrome tapestries. Silhouette-style figures in white linen or dark wool yarn were woven on a mid-value background with a supplementary sketching-weft defining features on the tapestry faces and figures and patterns on a tapestry field.

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