Monday, 30 June 2008

An Evening Lecture

In early June, I attended a lecture at my local Guild called "Textiles and Clothing in Greek and Roman Society" and here is my account of it, written for the Guild newsletter:

Dr Clemence Schultze, Lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University, visited the Durham Guild in June and gave us a fascinating insight into the history of ancient clothing. [Some additional research for this article is from the web].

Textiles in the ancient world were primarily spun and woven by women. Socially, weaving was seen as a symbol of feminine virtue and industry as depicted in the myth of Lucretia and was held in high esteem as a wifely occupation. Women worked alongside maids which led to skill-sharing between women of all ranks during their many hours at the loom. High value was placed on certain types of items such as soldiers’ clothing. One interesting difference: In Greek society, women wove privately and virtuously in the women’s quarters whereas in Rome, it was seen as a social activity and carried out publicly in the atrium.

Weaving mythology also revolved around deception and competition. Penelope, the loyal wife of Odysseus - aka Ulysses- used her weaving to keep unwanted suitors at bay in her husband’s long absence. She began weaving a shroud, saying that she would choose a suitor when it was finished. It was a trick though (and a good one, kept up for three years!) as she would secretly unpick part of the shroud at night then weave it again the next day. Another story tells of Arachne, a shepherd’s daughter, who boasted that none could match her weaving talent and challenged Athena to a competition. During the ensuing contest, she offended Athena and was ultimately turned into a spider, condemned to hang and spin for eternity as punishment. Competing with peers to determine one’s social esteem seemed to be a particularly Greek custom.

Dr Schultze discussed how information about ancient textiles and clothing was gathered, and noted the challenge of making accurate translations from Latin and Greek to gain meaningful results.

Surviving literature from the ancient era consists mainly of technical documents which give scarce mention to arts and crafts since male scholars didn’t regard them as significant. One exception was the scholar Pliny whose life’s work, the Encyclopaedia of Natural History, survived over the centuries. Pliny wrote, for example, about dyeing processes and the best sheep wools for weaving. Other records also survive from this period including those describing textile offerings made to the goddess Artemis, detailing their garment type, pattern, colour, fabric type, and form. Fibres used for weaving in the ancient world included wool, linen, silk, hair (horse, goat, human etc), cotton, hemp and other plant fibres. Knitting, however, was not known to the ancients.

Art from the period such as sculpture, mosaic, vase and wall painting gave more clues. Dr Shultze showed us a range of slides depicting clothing and women weaving at the loom. She commented that women in those days were so skilled that they were able to accurately estimate the weight of raw fibre needed to create a final garment. Original traces of paint on a ‘Peplos Kore’ statue (a statue of a girl or maiden) give clues as to the rich colours used in the fabrics. Archaeologists have uncovered valuable artefacts such as needles, whorls, bone tablets, as well as fragments of woven cloth which have escaped deterioration. Indirect evidence from archaeology - pottery with textile impressions, metalware with the trace of the textile in which it was once wrapped - also indicate spinning and weaving techniques. Additionally, warp-weighted looms were used in Scandinavia until the early twentieth century. Studies of this living tradition helped researchers understand how the looms of the ancient world operated.

Dr Schulze described some of the types of clothing worn at the time. The peplos, an overfold pinned to your shoulders, gave a blouson effect. The chiton, a tube shaped garment, had sleeves created by multiple loops, ties or toggles. Sewing was generally avoided as needles were crude. The toga was developed around 90BC. It involved a lot of cloth, the length of which was generally three times the distance from shoulder to ground of the wearer. It was a roughly semi circular shape with a woven curved border - cutting was avoided - and rank was indicated by adding a coloured border.

Unlike the Greeks, Romans used clothing symbolically: for them clothing was costume. Whereas simple clothes were worn at home, the toga was a status symbol to be worn in public. Looking dignified in such a cumbersome garment took practice. It marked one out as male (enhancing one’s physique), moneyed (you could afford someone to help you put it on), and as a free Roman citizen. Women also wore a version of the toga, a long tunic called a stola. It was generally worn over a tunica, the basic full length item of clothing worn by all women. Either garment could have an instita, or border, along its lower hem, and the palla, a type of shawl, was draped around the shoulders.

During a Q&A session, some Guild members speculated on whether men would also have woven cloth, particularly larger, heavier items such as sails, perhaps using hemp or coarse linen, and whether family businesses may have specialised in such areas.

Dr Schultze is currently teaching a new module called “Clothing the Body, Garbing the Past”. The evening finished with an invitation to Guild members to view the display of current student projects: their ‘process portfolios’ which recorded the planning, research and reflection involved in recreating items from the ancient world, as well as the dyed samples, garments, footwear and other items themselves.