Linen was the most popular cloth for ancient Egyptian clothing. There are rare examples of both sheep's and goat's wool garments and of palm fiber clothing found in the archaeological record. But Egyptians of all ranks and classes wore various grades of linen clothing in all periods. The flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) was the source of Egyptian linen. There is good evidence that flax grew in Egypt as early as 5000 b.c.e., but flax was not native to Egypt and might have originally been imported from Syria. The flax plant matures in three months from seed to flower. After its blue flowers died, the Egyptians pulled the plant from the ground rather than using a sickle to harvest it. The dead flowers are the source of the seeds and they remained part of the plant until the whole stock dried. Then the cultivator removed the seeds either by hand or using a tool called a rippling comb. The seeds were planted for the next crop. Workers then retted the plant by alternately wetting it and drying it in the sunlight. The retting process loosened the fibers inside the plant stem. Preparation for spinning the fibers included washing, drying, beating, and combing. The plant fiber then would be turned into thread by spinning it. The Egyptians used hand spindles consisting of a stick used for a shaft and a whorl that acted as a weight to stretch the fiber and kept the spindle moving at a constant pace. Spinning twisted the fibers of the flax stem together to form a longer piece of thread. Spinning also included a process called attenuation that fully extended the fiber. Twisting then added to its strength. Finally the spinner wound the thread onto a shaft. The resulting linen thread was both strong and elastic.
LETTER FROM IRER TO HER MASTER
introduction: Weaving shops were frequently part of a household in ancient Egypt. The following letter concerns difficulties that the woman responsible for supervising the weavers faces without adequate food supplies for payment. In this letter, Irer blames her master directly for her problems. Moreover, she has additional responsibilities to serve as a priestess at a temple. The letter illustrates the difficulties in administering a household weaving shop. The letter writer observes certain conventions of Egyptian epistles. Because Irer writes to her social superior, she calls herself "your humble servant" and calls the recipient, "the lord l.p.h." The initials indicate the ancient Egyptian formula, "may he live, may he prosper, may he be healthy" that follows any mention of such a social superior in writing. Words in square brackets are restored in this somewhat tattered papyrus. When followed by a question mark, it is a best-guess as to what the text originally said.
What the lady of the house Irer sends:
This is a communication to the lord, l.p.h., to the effect that all business affairs of the lord, l.p.h., are prosperous and flourishing wherever they are. In the favor of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khakheperre (Senwosret II), the deceased, and of all the gods as [I, your humble servant, desire]!
[It is] a communication to the lord, l.p.h., about this neglectfulness on the part of the lord, l.p.h. Are you all safe [and sound? The women weavers(?)] are left abandoned, thinking they won't get food provisions inasmuch as not any news of you has been heard. It is good if [the lord, l.p.h.] takes note.
This is a communication to the lord, l.p.h., about those slave-women who are here unable to weave clothes. Your presence [is demanded(?)] by those who work at(?) the warp-threads so as to be guided(?). I, your humble servant, couldn't come myself owing to the fact that I, your humble servant, entered the temple on the twentieth day of the month to serve as wab -priestess for the month(?). [So] may the lord, l.p.h., bring them (food supplies?) with him. It is a case of paying attention to that other(?) woman Heremhab when coming [for the(?)] Asiatic. the lord, l.p.h., should spend sometime here since [not] any clothes [have been made] while my attention is being directed to the temple, and the warp-threads are set up on the loom without its being possible to weave them.
This is a communication for the lord, l.p.h. It is good if the lord, l.p.h. takes note.
Address: the lord, l.p.h., Good luck(?)! [from the lady of the house Irer].
source: "Letter from the lady of the house Irer to her Master," in Letters from Ancient Egypt. Ed. Edward F. Wente (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990): 82–83.
Weavers used spun thread to make cloth. They removed spun thread from the spindle once it was finished and strung it on a loom, forming the warp. The warp was the system of parallel threads kept under tension on a loom. The weft is the system of threads passed over and under the warp to form cloth. Egyptians used both horizontal and vertical looms to weave. Horizontal looms rested on the ground with the warp stretched between two beams. Pegs in the ground held the beams in place. A predynastic tomb (before 4000 b.c.e.) in Badari, a village in Upper Egypt, contained a representation on a bowl of a horizontal ground loom. Vertical looms leaned against walls. An upper beam could rest on limestone blocks set up against house walls. Such looms could be up to five meters (sixteen feet) high, allowing for long pieces of cloth. Each loom supported the four main patters of weaving in ancient Egypt. The simplest form was balanced tabby, where there are an equal number of warp and weft threads per square centimeter or inch. The Egyptians also wove faced tabby weaves. These weaves include either more warp (warp-faced) or more weft (weft-faced) threads per square centimeter or inch of fabric. They also made tapestry weaves, a process where the warp and weft were different colors. Often in tapestry, a weft thread did not reach from one end of the warp to the other, but was interwoven in the place where the color was needed to form a pattern. Known tapestry from tombs seems restricted to the royal sources. Though not a separate weave, the Egyptians also added loops of threads to the warp in a process called weft-looping. The resulting cloth resembles modern towels. The Egyptians used weft-looping to create delicate patterns.
The Egyptians had names for several different qualities of linen. An inscription in the tomb of Rekhmire, a vizier in the time of Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 b.c.e.), refers to royal linen, bleached linen, fine linen, and close-woven linen, among other types. Some archaeological examples of linen also have symbols on them in ink that Egyptologists believe refer to the quality of the material. Differences in quality refer to fineness of the cloth. Some examples from the tomb of Tutankhamun are nearly transparent. Thus artistic representations of "see-through" costumes are likely to be accurate. Another quality that set certain linens apart was color. By the First Dynasty (3100–2800 b.c.e.) the Egyptians used brown thread to weave cloth. Excavators found red cloth fragments at Meidum, the site of Sneferu's pyramid (2625–2585 b.c.e.). In the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.) colored cloth is even more common. The Egyptians used both ocher and plant material to make dye. Ocher is an iron oxide (the technical name of rust) mixed with clay. Naturally occurring ocher is yellow, but heating it transforms the color to red. Thus ocher could be used to produce either yellow or red cloth. A number of Egyptian plants could also produce red dye. These include madder root (Rubia tinctorum), safflower (Carthamus tinctorum), henna (Lawsonia alba or L. inermis), and alkanet (Anchusa tinctoria). Blue dyes also came from plants. The Egyptians probably made it from woad (Isatis tinctorum), which is found in Egypt. Yellow dye came from safflower and pomegranate (Punica granatum). Imported dyes found in Egyptian textiles include indigotin that creates blue, and alizarin that creates red. These dyes, much like the flax plant, most likely originated in Syria, and the Egyptians imported them. Thus textiles other than natural linen color must have been relatively expensive and available only to the wealthy.
A CARPENTER'S CORRESPONDENCE
introduction: Clothing was an essential element in a person's pay if he or she was too poor to have servants who could weave cloth. This letter written by a carpenter in the reign of Ramesses V (1150–1145 b.c.e.) illustrates the way ordinary Egyptians thought of clothing as payment.
The carpenter Maanakhtef greets the carpenter Kenkikhopeshef: In life, prosperity and health and in the favor of Amon-Re, King of the Gods! To wit:
I have reached Hu (Hu-Sekhem). Both Amenmose and Pahemnetjer as well have taken very good care of me in the way of bread, beer, ointment, and clothing. As soon as my letter reaches you, you shall send me a wooden door as well as a cubit stick. Then shall Amon give to you. Farewell!
source: Maanakhtef, "Letter to Kenkikhopeshef," in Letters from Ancient Egypt. Ed. Edward F. Wente (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 167.
The vast majority of textile workers in ancient Egypt were women. Representation of weavers, laundresses, and even the flax harvest depict women doing this work. Yet the supervisors were all men. The exception to this division of labor was the male weavers who operated the vertical looms. Women dominated horizontal weaving while men were responsible for the heavier vertical looms. Regardless of who worked the looms, almost every sort of Egyptian home had spinning and weaving workshops. Small houses in the village at Kahun in Middle Egypt, dating to the time of Senwosret II (r. 1844–1837 b.c.e.) and later, were production sites for small-scale spinning and weaving. The larger the household, the more women would be assigned to textile workshops. Nobles' estates, royal palaces, harems, and temples (gods' houses) also contained workshops staffed by large groups of women. Among the papyri that refer to cloth are two examples from the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.). In Cairo Papyrus 91061, a man named Nakht wrote to a man named Aau that the weavers had finished a bolt of cloth and that he had sent it already. This papyrus thus suggests that cloth was shipped long distances within Egypt. A list of 38 servants in Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 includes twenty weavers. This list suggests through the titles that weavers could specialize in particular kinds of cloth. From these papyri, many scholars have also concluded that cloth played an important economic role in Egyptian life. Egyptians needed cloth for their own clothing but also used it as an offering to the gods. From archeological evidence, it can be seen that cloth could also be used to pay wages in-kind. Cloth was produced both in private domestic settings and in large institutions such as palaces and temples and was a vital cog in ancient Egyptian economy.
J. Allgrove-McDowell, "Kahun: The Textile Evidence," in The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Rosalie David (London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1986): 226–252.
Rosalind Hall, Egyptian Textiles (Aylesbury, England: Shire, 1986).
Elizabeth Riefstahl, Patterned Textiles in Pharaonic Egypt (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1944).