Clothing: Leather and Textiles
Clothing: Leather and Textiles
Preparing Leather. Leather used in making footwear came from various animals and was prepared by scraping and tanning. Color could be added to the leather, but since dyeing material of any kind could be expensive, much footwear was left in the natural color of the leather. The process of preparing leather for use in clothing and dyeing produced terrible smells, and therefore tanneries seem to have been located around the margins of Roman cities, at least as far as the archaeological evidence in Rome and Pompeii shows. In Rome, the tanning industry was located across the Tiber, away from the heart of the city. In Pompeii, it was near one of the city gates away from the center of the city.
Materials and Coloring. Wool was the most common material used for clothing, and it came mostly from domestic sheep. In the early days of the Republic, most wool was used without dyeing, the only color variation being the result of naturally occurring differences in the color of the
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wool right off the sheep. Southern Italy was the center of the wool industry in Italy, but as Rome continued to come into contact with other nations and cultures, by the late Republic Romans began to use the wool of sheep from other parts of the world. The spinning of wool into yarn or thread and the weaving of cloth were occupations almost every Roman girl learned from the women of her family.
Fabrics. Linen was always produced in Italy, but a finer product was available from Egypt. Spain and Sicily also had thriving fabric industries and provided Italians with another source of linen and other fabrics. Cotton was also known from eastern civilizations, and so too was silk. Silk remained the most expensive of fabrics, and therefore most silk was sold in thread form, which was then interwoven with other kinds of threads.
Fabric Dyes. Most clothing was white but could be decorated with simple details, particularly around the borders. The ancients used a vast array of plant, animal, and mineral extracts to make dyes for their clothing. Materials and equipment used for making dyes were expensive, and the dyeing process required great amounts of water and fuel. Therefore people would not have made dyes and dyed their cloth at home. Rather, dye shops specialized in providing such services. The most expensive color to produce was purple, and was often associated with the elite classes of Roman citizens. By the time of the Empire fabric and color had become indications of the wealth of those wearing them. The spectrum of luxury colors continued to grow in the Empire, and the rich continued to pursue the newest and most expensive colors in a gaudy display of materialism.
Fullers. Special tradespeople known as fullers operated shops where cloth was cleaned, shrunk, and softened. Fullers also laundered and repaired soiled and worn clothing, as well as re-dyed faded clothes. Alkaline soil was used as a type of soap to launder cloth and clothing. Urine, too, was an important chemical for the cleaning of woolen garments. Fullers washed clothing by treading upon the items in large vats, a practice that existed not only in Italy but also in other areas of the Empire. Fullers bleached white fabric by means of burning sulfur. Clothing to be bleached was stretched on a wicker frame while still damp, then subjected to the fumes of the burning sulfur, and then washed a second time.
The foul odors of the fullers’ shops must have been proverbial, for Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) draws an unfavorable comparison between the smell of a woman he calls Thaï’s and the fuller.
Thaïs smells worse than the veteran crock of a stingy fuller, recently broken in the middle of the road.
Source: Martial, Epigrammata 6.93.1–2, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
Judith Lynn Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante, eds., The World of Roman Costume (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).
Lilian M. Wilson, The Clothing of the Ancient Romans (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1938).