Saturday, November 23, 2013

Byzantine Textile Decoration

After my last post about my himation project, I did a bit of digging for information about how Byzantines other than royals and courtiers might have decorated their clothing.  

As I'd expected, other than the Levantia site with which I'm familiar I found almost nothing on the Internet that was relevant.  Then I managed to get my hands on this short article from a back issue of Archaeological Textiles Newsletter:
Linscheid, Petra. Early Byzantine Textiles from Amorium, Anatolia. Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, No. 32, page 17.
"Early Byzantine", when it appears in the academic literature, usually means somewhere between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE, which is not the period of concern for my himation project.  To my delight, Ms. Linscheid's article discusses a textile find that can be dated to a particular event in 838 CE--placing it at the early end of the Middle Byzantine period, and making it relevant for my purposes.

According to the article, the town of Amorium was the capital of a Byzantine province and thus an important location.  It was besieged by the Arabs in 838, and the textiles about which Ms. Linscheid writes date to that event. 
Thread--direction of spin/ply*

The find in question consists of numerous carbonized fragments, none of which was larger than a postage stamp.  Because they were carbonized (perhaps by a fire that ignited or was set during the siege) it is impossible to ascertain the color of the original fabrics, but details of weave and thread twist are ascertainable.  The fragments represent pieces of at least 21 different textiles, all but one of which were made from Z-plied, S-spun thread.

Of particular interest to me, given that I'm still trying to decide how to ornament my himation once it is completed, were the article's comments on evidence for ornamentation of the detected textiles:
If and how the textiles were decorated, is still an open question.  On one of the coarser, balanced tabbies, a curved line of twining or embroidery was observed.  Further study is required before one can tell whether this is a decorative or constructional feature. 

In addition, traces on the same fragment of what might be brocading will be analyzed more thoroughly.  Five examples of non-woven techniques were recorded:  two loose three-strand braids, similar to the example of braided fringe, and three twisted cords.  (page 18).
Drawing of embroidery from Oseberg ship textile.**
This evidence, slight though it is, suggests some options for decorating the himation.   A few years ago, I taught myself (with a lot of advice from my commenters!) how to make a three-strand fingerloop braid in order to trim my Hedeby apron dress.  Maybe I could reverse-couch a strand of fingerloop braiding, or plied cord, along the bottom edge of the blue linen collar strip (and along both edges of the strips on the sleeves) and couch a line of loops like the looped embroidery found in the Oseberg ship (pictured on the right).   I could manage, I think, to satin-stitch a small cross inside each loop, probably with a color that contrasts with the color of the cord.

I found a site called The Bead Center, based in New York City, that sells a beautiful, twined linen cord in many different colors, but they will only ship if you order $50 USD worth of products, and I don't get to NYC very often.  I have some crochet cotton in my stash.  Unfortunately, it's rather thin, and none of the colors--black, wine, and turquoise--look all that promising.  The turquoise might work from a design perspective, but I'd rather have a color that's more obviously period.  Maybe my local Jo-Ann's will have a thicker crochet cotton that will serve, and I can get a skein of embroidery floss there as well.

Meanwhile, I have sewn my blue linen around the collar and down one-side of the slit on the left side of the neckline.  All I need to do is sew the linen on the other side of the slit, attach a button and loop, and the neckline will be done!  If I can track down suitable cord, I might even be able to trim the tunic by December 2 also.

EDIT:  I should never make any statements here without checking a source, ever.  It appears that during the 9th and 10th centuries, at least in northern Europe, stem stitch and split stitch were used in embroidery, not satin stitch. See this article and also this article. At least couching (sewing threads of different types down onto a fabric as decoration) is period!

*    Illustration from Wikimedia Commons.
**  Drawing by Tone Strenger.  Image found in "The Textiles Found On The Oseberg Ship," by Anne Stine Instad, translation webbed here.


  1. Cathy, don't despair. Stem stitch is also known as outline stitch and the hand motions to do it are very similar to the backstitch you already use regularly. See for a good diagram. If a single line doesn't make a bold enough statement, you can do multiple vaguely-parallel lines.
    Regards, Beth S

  2. Hi, Beth, welcome! And thanks for your comment.

    I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I avoid back stitch almost as much as I avoid running stitch. Whipstitch is my friend, and I use it for everything that I can get away using it for.

    That said, I've concluded that my only viable recourse for ornamenting my himation is embroidery, so I went out to Walmart and bought some suitably colored DMC cotton embroidery floss today, a development I plan to blog about shortly. So I will be teaching myself stem stitch and/or chain stitch Real Soon Now. We'll see how I fare.