The trace of embroidery in Old Texts


In the absence of tangible remains to get an idea of the embroideries of the past, Ernest Lefébure, director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, uses ancient texts to tell us about it… in 1888.
Extracts and references taken from Broderie et dentelles.

Greek texts:
In Orestie, Aeschylus (-525 / -456 approximately) describes how Agamemnon on his return from Troy refused to put his feet on a richly embroidered fabric made in his honor, so beautiful was it.
The Greeks arriving in Mesopotamia were visibly amazed by the beauty of the Persian embroidery: some fabrics were covered with gold and precious stones, others were extremely fine (muslin) embroidered with flowers (Strabo, Book 15, chapter 1).

Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria (-686 / -628) – British Museum – Note the delicacy of the embroidery on his tunics

Aristotle, in his Ancient History in Book 19, relates that the soldiers of Alexander the Great discovered cotton in India around – 333. Not knowing what to call it, they spoke of it as “tree wool” or “Wool produced by nuts”.

Fine linen sheet (- 1492) Egypt / Weaving thread (-1295 / – 1070) Egypt – MET New York

Latin texts:
Greek myths, taken up by Latin authors, are not stingy with descriptions either.
The Greeks attributed the invention of embroidery and weaving to Athena (Minerva among the Romans). She was a very talented artist, but a young human girl, Arachne, seemed to overshadow her with her talent. Vexed, Minerva transforms her into a spider (Ovide, Metamorphosis).

Homer mentions this art in The Iliad: “In her palace, Helen embroidered a large fabric as white as alabaster, depicting the battles of the Trojans and the Greeks. Some men demonstrating their talent for training horses, others in their bronze breastplates; all fighting out of love for her. ”

Lekythos (oil amphora) in terracotta (-540), attributed to Amasis- MET, New York
Scenes related to fabric manufacturing

Homer again, in The Odyssey, reports that Odysseus’s mantle was made of “fine purple linen, closed with a gold brooch. The front of the coat is embroidered with a dog hunting scene. The animals are embroidered in gold and represented so well that they look real. ”

From a fairly comprehensive description provided by Virgil in The Aeneid, one can easily imagine that embroidery had reached a very advanced level in the art of reproducing nature. Aeneas offers Cleanthes a superb garment: “A gold woven weapon rib, edged in waves all around with two bands of the finest purple. The embroidery represents the young Ganymede in the forest of Mount Ida. This prince pursues deer fleeing in front of him with arrows. We see him full of enthusiasm and breathless. And at that moment the eagle of Jupiter falls from the clouds, removing him in its talons. ”

In India, the delicacy of cotton weaving inspired the most poetic names: abrawan (running water), bafthowa (woven air), shubanam (evening dew). Lucain in The Pharsale recounts Caesar’s visit to Cleopatra. She organized feasts and shows. The dancers were dressed in veils so thin they were barely visible. It was probably cotton muslin.

The secrets of silk, originating in China, were jealously guarded. It was not until the Roman conquests that it appeared in the West. And for many centuries it could only be bought and not made. It was Virgil who seems to have been the first Roman author to speak about it in his Georgics (-29). In the time of Tiberius (-42 / + 37), silk was sold literally at a golden price: a kilo of silk for a kilo of gold.

Finally, Lefébure mentions Pliny the Elder according to whom the invention of the golden threads is due to King Attalus (Natural History, book 8). True or not, what is important to note here is that it is quite normal for such a prestigious author as Pliny to mention gold thread embroidery.

Achilles and Ajax playing dice – Amphora painted by Exekias (-540) – Vatican Museum
The capes of the two men are obviously covered with very fine embroidery
Plaque with Royal Family, Chandraketugarh, 1st century BC, MET New York. You really have to see the delicacy of the fabrics, especially the woman’s skirt.

Hebrew texts:
According to Egyptian tradition, the invention of linen weaving comes to us from Isis. But it remains reserved for the ruling and priestly classes. The Hebrews, who cohabited for a long time with the Egyptians, use it in the same context: in the Bible, Exodus, chapter 28 we find long descriptions of the clothes of priests, from their shape to their colors, including their decorations. “These are the garments they will make: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, an embroidered tunic, a tiara, and a belt. They will make sacred garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that they may exercise my priesthood. They will use gold, fabrics dyed in blue, purple, crimson, and fine linen. They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet thread, and of fine twisted linen; it will be artistically worked.

Ezekiel (chapter 28) launches into a long description of the goods passing through Tyre, mentioning among other things the embroidered linen from which the inhabitants made sails. Embroidery was listed along with precious stones: “Because of the large number of your products: carbuncles, purple, embroidery, byssus, coral and ruby”.
King David sang of the beauty of the golden threads in the Psalms.
In the War of the Jews, Flavius Josephus describes the veil presented by Herod in -19 to adorn the temple. It was 23 m long by 6 wide, embroidered in all colors to represent the stars, the universe and the elements.

The dress of the High Priest,

We only have our imagination left to get an idea of all these lost wonders …

Fragment of a painted tile from the palace of Ramses II: torso of a Mesopotamian captive (-1279 / -1213)

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