Thursday, 25 September 2014

Hera's veil

HSF challenge 18 is Poetry in Motion, and when I think poetry I automatically think Homer.  In this case I'm thinking of the passage from book XIV of the Iliad where Hera is getting dressed up for the night so she can pull a fast one on Zeus.  She completes her ensemble with a newly made white veil that shines like the sun:

κρηδμν δ' φπερθε καλψατο δα θεων
καλ νηγατέῳ: λευκν δ' ν ἠέλιος ς
          -Iliad, book XIV

Nice and transparent, just like the Akrotiri picture.

To figure out what a Bronze Age Greek veil might look like, I used the veiled dancer fresco from Akrotiri.  The fact that the Iliad was written down in its current form almost a thousand years after the Akrotiri frescoes were painted isn't actually a problem, because the Iliad is set in the Bronze Age and contains plenty of Bronze Age elements.  For example, warriors in the Iliad have massive tower-like shields which were long since obsolete by the time the poem was written down, and these tower shields are shown in the Akrotiri frescoes.

Veiled virgin:73 x 100 = 300 euro
The picture I based my veil on.  Image found here.

The Akrotiri veil is yellow, of course, while Hera's is white.  This isn't surprising - yellow wouldn't be appropriate for Hera.  Yellow was associated with unmarried women in ancient Greece, and Hera is (among other things) the goddess of marriage.  I did keep the blue borders at each end and the little carnelian beads, because a plain white rectangle is boring, but I had to guess at the size of the veil.  I settled on 200 centimeters by 90 centimeters based on the fresco.

The stripes at each end of the veil could either have been woven into the fabric, or stitched on.  I tend to think they represent a decorative band that was separate from the main fabric and stitched into place, which seems to have been a common way of decorating Minoan and Mycenaean clothes.  Allow me to refer you to my previous blog post, where I talk about weaving a sample of decorative band from Tyrins.

I didn't weave bands for Hera's veil.  I was already intending to sew some 300 carnelian beads onto it and was uneasily aware that I wouldn't enjoy the process.  Instead I stitched two stripes of blue silk taffeta to the ends of the veil.  You do often get plain bands in a contrasting colour, especially in Mycenaean art.

When I sewed the bands on I made a really interesting discovery: the blue silk is stiffer than the white gauze, and it holds out the ends of the veil when they hang down.  Without this stiff edging the fabric would just bunch up.  This is exactly what we see in the picture from Akrotiri, and is another reason why I think the picture shows separate cloth bands stitched to the ends of the veil.

HSF details...

The Challenge: Poetry in Motion

Fabric: Two meters of white silk gauze and scraps of the same blue silk taffeta I used on the Akrotiri dress.  See this previous post for a summary of evidence for silk use in the Bronze Age Aegean.

Pattern: None.  It's a rectangle.

Year: The Iliad isn't set in a specific year, but the Akrotiri fresco I based the veil on dates from 1650 to 1550 BCE.

Notions: Silk thread and lots of 3mm carnelian beads.

How historically accurate is it?  Well, it probably isn't too bad, although the silk comes from a different type of moth to the ones they had in the Aegean.  One thing that's almost certainly not accurate is the small rolled hems along each side.  The original would have been woven to the desired width, but the selvages of my silk were very clearly the product of a modern jet loom and at least little rolled hems are plausible for the period.

Hours to complete: Maybe 8 or so.  I lost count.

First worn: In front of the mirror to see how it draped.  I can neither confirm nor deny that I made a tit of myself posing like the Akrotiri girl during this process.

Total cost: I think about $32.  I can't remember how much the beads were, but I think they were somewhere around $12. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Egypt and the Aegean: sewing techniques

Fragment of linen. From the Fayum, c. 5000BC Bolton Museum 1929.56.109. Photograph by Jana Jones
Egyptian linen from 5000 BCE, image from the Bolton Museum.  Note the scale bar - this is very fine linen!

When reconstructing Aegean Bronze Age clothes, I rely heavily on the kind of techniques that were used in Egypt around the same time.  The reason for that is simple: we have evidence from Egypt.  We know nothing about the techniques used in the Aegean, because no textiles survive in that region.  We do know a bit about ancient Egyptian sewing and textile manufacture techniques, because we have surviving examples even from the Old Kingdom.

Because these Egyptian garments are so well preserved, we can tell how they were made.  The Egyptians used a very simple range of seams, sewn with either running stitch or whip stitch.  Sewing thread was usually undyed, but there are some dyed examples.  Either way, sewing thread didn't necessarily match the colour of the cloth it was used on.  Here are some examples of seams and hems from Egypt:

Illustration from Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, 2000, edited by Paul Nicholson and Ian Shaw, page 283.

Egyptian needles were made from copper, bronze, silver, or fish bone.  Thorns (and, I suspect, fish bones) could be used as pins, but the Egyptians didn't generally use pins.  They held the two pieces of fabric together with their fingers as they sewed.  Scissors weren't available until the first century CE, but I use 'em anyway.  My commitment to historical accuracy doesn't extend to cutting pieces with a flint knife.

Of course, the problem with using Egyptian techniques to make Aegean clothing is that this approach relies on assuming Aegean techniques were similar to Egyptian ones.  This assumption may not be correct, since even a cursory look at art from the period shows that Aegean clothes and textiles were quite different from Egyptian ones.  We also know that textile production methods in Egypt were quite different from those employed in the Aegean.

Ancient Egyptian clothes usually involved draping a rectangle of cloth round the body.  The cloth was woven to size and did not require much in the way of seams or hems.  Aegean clothing, however, utilised curved pattern pieces that had to be cut out of the fabric piece.  This meant raw edges that had to be prevented from fraying.  Flat-felled seams weren't common in Egypt, but they do a good job of stopping raw edges from fraying, so it may be that this type of seam was more common in the Aegean.

In spite of these important differences I still think Egyptian sewing techniques are probably the best indication of how Bronze Age Aegean garments were constructed.  They are techniques that can be used to manufacture a wide variety of items, including the types of clothes shown in Aegean art, and there is plenty of evidence for trade between Egypt and the Aegean during the Bronze Age.

For information on Egyptian sewing techniques (and all sorts of other interesting stuff), see Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, edited by P. Nicholson and I. Shaw.  It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2000.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The infamous pineapple

HSF challenge number 17 is Yellow, and it was probably inevitable that at least one of us would knit a pineapple bag.  Reticules knitted to look like pineapples were a popular 19th century accessory and are well known among the historical costuming crowd.  What may be less well known is that there is a nice, modernised version of an original 1860s pattern available here.

The writer of said pattern, Franklin Habit, has this to say about the pineapple: “I knew with sick certainty that I would have to make one”.  See, this guy gets me.  I felt exactly the same way about it.  But once I’d deciphered the abbreviations, I found the pattern is actually very simple.  All it requires is a bit of manual dexterity and the ability to count.  It’s fun, and even weirdly addictive.

The original pattern called for four shades of green and four shades of yellow yarn, but as Mr. Habit correctly observes wool doesn’t come in that many shades these days.  Not a problem.  I wasn't planning on buying wool anyway because I already had some white lace weight wool lurking around at home.  I dyed skeins of wool in brownish-green, emerald, and yellowy green.  Didn’t like any of them.  Overdyed them with green.  Still didn’t like them.  Overdyed them again with blue.  Finally, I had three similar shades of green that I quite liked.  That took care of the leaves, but there was none left for the bottom of the bag so I had to make up another dye batch when I got to the bottom.

Being lazy, I didn’t make four shades of each colour.  The yellow is all one colour, but I made it variegated because I thought that would look more lifelike.  It’s fair to say the variegated dye effect didn’t come out quite how I would have liked, but it’s okay and it is a nice sunshiny yellow.

I dyed my wool using food colouring.  It’s essentially the same thing as the acid dyes you can buy to use on wool (and other protein fibers).  The main difference is price.  Do your research and don’t be fooled into buying something you might already have in your kitchen cupboard.

HSF details as follows...

The Challenge: Yellow

Fabric: Lace weight wool, plus a scrap of yellow silk for the lining.

Pattern: Franklin Habit's pineapple pattern, available here.  I made mine a bit smaller than Franklin's; this is easy to do because the pattern is just a 16 stitch repeat.  Any multiple of 16 stitches will get the job done.  However, Franklin and I have different interpretations of the pattern, which says to put a drawstring "at the termination of the top leaves".  Franklin puts his drawstring at the top of the leaves, while I put mine at the base of the leaves where they attach to the fruit.  This is purely a matter of personal taste.

Year: 1860s.

Notions: The pattern gives instructions for beading the bag if you want to, but I didn't.

How historically accurate is it?  Not bad at all.  Perhaps 9/10.

Hours to complete: No idea.  I did it on the train in the mornings.  Wellington must be the only city in the world where you can knit a pineapple in public without anyone even seeming to notice.

First worn: Not really applicable.

Total cost: $9 for a set of needles.

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.