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Greek (and Roman) Fabric
I'm going to write a short essay on ancient Mediterranean textiles to see if I can elicit agreement of disagreement while I try to find weavers to manufacture this stuff--and to help anyone who wants to recreate them. I am not a weaving expert or a textile expert--but as a veteran of many periods, I can say that until you get textiles right, your clothes will never look quite right. Some people call us "thread counters." Yep--that's right. Because all wool is not the same, nor is all linen the same.

Mostly, I'm going to reference John Peter Wild's essay 'The Romans in the West, 600 BC-400AD" in the Cambridge History of Western Textiles Vol. I, pp 87 and following. I've also used Graham Sumner's "Roman Military Dress" which is very useful for Greek reenactors as well as Romans, especially in his dissertation on why wool and wool alone was what most military tunics were made of--because I think that the same applied to Greece.

Let me say right here--there's much to know about Greek and Roman linen--there's several surviving textiles from the period 500-330 BC--but in the main, as they have a simple tabby weave and simple selvedges, and so do most modern linens, so they aren't the replication nightmare that wool is.

Anyway, if this level if detail interests you, read on!

I've added a set of illustrations of weaving techniques from the "Medieval Weavers" site [url:3dy7pd7i][/url] to provide weaver diagrams of the weaves that were commonest throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. I've added a photos of a 4th C. textile that show some of the complexities involved.

Right now, I have my unit's textiles woven to order in Nepal. The Nepalese weavers do a good job, but cannot do the more complex weaves and can't do the borders (selvedges) and stripes with as much complexity as I would like. I'm working with them and with various Indian fabricators to get correct textiles. if someone has already done this, please tell me! I have no intention to make money (I have a job writing books Smile )

So--here goes.

Ancient textiles for Roman and Greek reenacting have four main problems in reproduction.

First, they were historically woven in a few patterns (yes, other patterns existed, but were not common and wouldn't be found in a legionary tunic or a citizen hoplite's chiton, either!). Many weaves used today are simply not correct. While almost all linen is still woven mainly in a plain tabby, just as in the ancient world, wool fabrics had greater variety then. Archeology has shown us plain tabby wool, half and full basket wool, and most commonly, 2/2 diamond twill. Roman diamond twills are characterized by higher warp than weft thread count, Z-spun yarn warp combined with S-spun weft and a pattern unit often of ten warp by nine weft threads. Smaller numbers of warp-chevron herringbone 2/2 twills and plain 2/1 Twills. Fabrics range from course to extremely fine half-basket weaves and diamond twills. I've pasted in illustrations of the commonest, but there's four or five more worth looking into.

[Image: 4117579317_eb6c1b21ed_o.gif]

The reinforced selvedge is, after the pattern and weave, the next most difficult thing to recreate--but utterly essential for your impression. The flat woven starting border characteristic of the warp-weighted loom has been recorded in a few instances. Selvedges tended to be plain and occasionally hollow; however wrapped and reinforced selvedges occur... in Italy where the Mediterranean influence is strongest [in other words, throughout the Greek and Roman world].

Ancient fabrics are often pinned into the selvedge and/or worn with the selvedge as the "hem" or edge of the garment. When a pin is put through soft wool, it can tear the fibers; when soft wool is sewn, it can pull through. Ancient fabrics could be very light precisely because they had either reinforced selvedges or corded or tablet woven edges--always woven in and seldom applied by sewing (and then, I think, only in used garments. Not that there's anything wrong with imitating a used garment for a soldier).

An illustration of the various Greek and Roman selvedges from the Cambridge History should be here


Note that a common solution which would be very useful; to both Greek and Roman reenactors would be "corded" material, and another would be "hollow" selvedges.

The third complication for ancient textiles is colour. Fabrics in the ancient world were sometimes dyed. Red--in all shades--dark blue (indigo) and pale blue (woad), various yellows, and various greens were all easily available, and "royal" purple from murex dye is well-known. However, the commonest colors in the ancient world would have been undyed natural wool and bleached wool. In both Greece and Rome, most textiles that were worn every day were either bleached or unbleached wools with stripes of a dyed color woven in. In Greece, these stripes ran parallel to the selvedge edge, anywhere from one inch in from the edge to four inches in from the edge, with widths from very narrow (1/2 inch) to quite wide (two inches). In Greece, we seldom see more than two stripes--as noted, running parallel to the selvedge.

Roman material is often more complicated, with a pair of clavi bands woven in that run 90 degrees off the selvedge--tangentially to the selvedge. These bands were apparently, most often dyed red in military garments. Sometimes they are more thickly woven than the body of the tunic. Sometimes the whole piece of fabric is dyed, and the clavii or woven stripes are dyed a contrasting color before weaving--so in Greece, some men had red cloaks with white or natural stripes, or with black or blue stripes, while from Rome, we still possess a red tunic with woven in blue clavii.

In both Greece and Rome, the stripes or clavii could also be embroiders--either in their entirety, like some of the better quality Pashmina scarves, or embroidered finely over a dyed and woven in stripe. Patterns of such embroidery are very complex--scenes of hunting, patterns of vine leaves--and yet, both Greek and Roman reenactors would, I suspect, pay top-dollar to have them done, and I know the skills to do them exist in India. I've seen Indian textiles with such fine embroidery in shops here in Canada, but I can never find a "source".

Finally, and perhaps hardest of all, most fabrics were woven to order and to size in the ancient world. Rather than weaving a bolt of fabric and cutting it, ancient weavers would make a piece to the "finished" size, and modern recreators are forced to require the same, or the garments will never quite look right. The hang of a Greek chiton (tonic) is largely dependent on the softness of the wool and the LACK of sewing in the ends. Sewing stiffens the fabric. Ancient "tailors" did not "hem" fabric at all--they used the selvedges and the weaving ends to "end" their garments. As late as Late Rome (5th C AD) tunics were woven, sleeves on, in halves and stitched together so that the "selvedge" was the hard-wearing cuffs and collar and long hem. The tunics were woven to shape as well as size. Graham Sumner's book is very strong on this.

To save time, we've decided that our Greek chiton cloth should come in three sizes--60 inches by 90 inches, 40 inches by 90 inches, and 50 inches by ninety inches. These three sizes should clothe almost every man and woman, and the 60 x 90 inch size will also make a good cloak for both Roman and Greek reenactors.

I'm trying to get some Indian companies interested in weaving to order for reenactors. If anyone thinks I'm way off base with the above assertions, please tell me soon--but also please cite a discreet archaeological source and best of all send a photo, as what I've written above isn't an opinion (or perhaps I should say, isn't my opinion! Smile ) but a synopsis of the state of scholarship as I understand it. Textile historians have a pretty wide knowledge of the period, and while few, if any, finds are provably "Roman military" or 'Greek hoplite", the recurring themes in weaving and selvedge rendition have to suggest some commonality.

I know that I haven't referred to the much more elaborate Late Roman stuff. Late Romans have cuff bands and clavii and round or square decorations that will require even more weaver cooperation..

[Image: 4117593851_14c7ab2a58_o.jpg]

Still, pre-330 BC Greeks did this too--tapestry woven "embroidery", cut work, etc. As well as embroidery itself, especially in metallic thread. Lots of stuff to out-source, in fact...
Qui plus fait, miex vault.
Excellent. If we can't get the cloth right, the clothing goes to hell in a hand cart.
John Conyard


A member of Comitatus Late Roman
Reconstruction Group

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