Saturday, May 9, 2015

Greek Hairnet Questions

Because the textile-making technique now known as sprang was definitely used by early Scandinavians, as the Borum Eshøj find and other contemporaneous archaeological finds attest, I have been planning for a while to learn sprang to make myself a hairnet.  However, several minor events combined to cause me to think about a different early culture that probably also used sprang to make hairnets--the ancient Greeks.

When I posted about my Greek head wrap a few weeks ago, one of the issues that came up during the discussion was whether sprang, the ancient net-making art, was used by Greek women for hairnets.  Janet Stephens, hairdressing archaeologist, believes that ancient Greek women wore sprang hairnets.  Her most recent video (to the top left of this post) shows the use of such a hairnet as a 6th century BCE hairstyle. Unusually, most of the nearly five-minute video does not depict hairstyling--it shows Stephens making a simple sprang hairnet on a homemade frame.  The interlinking, though of a very basic pattern, is carefully and elegantly done, with one curious exception.  To understand the significance of this exception, it is necessary to explain how sprang is worked.

Sprang does not use a weft, but consists of twists carefully made on paired sections of a continuous warp thread.  The way it is worked means that the final part of the work appears in the middle of the woven fabric, and it is crucial to secure these middle, unweavable threads so that the piece does not unravel.  (Why this part is unweavable is easy to see from watching Stephens's video.)  Most sprang tutorials suggest fastening a separate thread across the middle section or using a crochet technique called "chaining"  to fasten the center threads together and keep the piece from unraveling.  Stephens simply ties a tight knot around the middle threads, resulting in what I consider to be an ugly stump that sticks up at an odd place on the finished net. 

Seeing Stephens's video raised two questions in my mind:  1) what evidence there is for the wearing of sprang caps by ancient Greek women, and; 2) are there any surviving nets with a "stump" like the one shown in Stephens' video?  To my surprise, I was able to find the beginnings of answers to both questions in a relatively short span of time.  I'd like to share them here, because they might be of interest to people attempting to learn sprang, as well as to people interested in ancient Greek costume.

Evidence for sprang hairnets in ancient Greece.

On JSTOR, "a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources," in the institution's own words, I found an article that has provided me with material that went a long way toward answering my first question.   JSTOR now allows free accounts and searches, even for "independent researchers" like me, and one can read articles from many journals for free on the JSTOR website, but downloading most articles incurs a charge, which can be paid via Paypal.  The other night, I paid to download a copy of an article from the American Journal of Archaeology by Ian Jenkins and Dyfri Williams which discusses the evidence for ancient Greek women wearing sprang hairnets in some detail.*

Jenkins and Williams note that there are not only pictures of women wearing what look like hairnets on ancient Greek pottery, but there are also pictures of women carrying or holding items that look like sprang frames.  The article includes lists of surviving pottery bearing each of the two kinds of images, including the museum inventory/accession numbers and museums where the original pots may be found.  Pictures of some of the pottery showing hairnet wearers I had previously located on the Internet (see below) and posted on Pinterest in my search for nets of the same shape as Stephens's net also appear in the Jenkins and Williams article. 

Even more interestingly, the authors note that there are a handful of woolen sprang fragments in the British Museum that came from tombs near Kertch, in the Crimea.  The tombs date from approximately the fifth century BCE (contemporaneous with the Greek pottery images) through the second century CE, and are located close to the site of Panticapaeum, an ancient Greek city. The British Museum's accession register lists "a quantity of human hair" as being with the fragments, further suggesting that the sprang fragments came from a hairnet; unfortunately, the hair has become lost, making it unclear at best whether the hair was found in such an orientation with regard to the fragments to support the conjecture that the fragments were part of a sprang hairnet.

In short, though there is some primary evidence indicating that ancient Greek women wore sprang hairnets, it is more suggestive than conclusive in nature.

Nets with Tassels or Stumps.

The ancient piece of pottery Stephens shows in her video shows a woman wearing some kind of hair bag or net.  I originally assumed that it would be easier to identify ancient Greek art showing women with hairnets than looking for printed material, so I began my digging for more information about Greek hairnets by looking for images on the Internet, both of Greek pottery of surviving sprang hairnets. 

After doing Google image searches for a while, I recalled that I had recently read an article posted on by Anne Kwaspen about a number of Egyptian hairnets that are now in the Katoen Natie art collection.**  Those hairnets are from Egypt, not Greece, and they date to between the 5th and 7th centuries CE--about a thousand years after the images on the Greek pots, but like the Crimean fragments they were worked in fine wool.  Kwaspen's article has wonderful color photographs of a number of the Egyptian finds, which clearly show that most of them are shaped like rectangular bags.  A few of them, however, end in a tail or stump-like point that resembles a few of the images in Greek vase paintings.*** Stephens's net is the same shape as some of the nets shown in vase paintings--except for the stump.

Although most of the images I saw during my search featured either hair tied with bands or headwear that looked more like the headwrap I've already made, there were at least three images that had a little point, or stump, or tail, reminiscent of the sprang net Stephens made for her video.  However, both the Kwaspen and Jenkins and Williams articles indicate that tails were made by row decreases in working the sprang, not simply by tying the center threads together in a big knot.****

Final Thoughts.

My understanding from these sources is that our evidence for sprang hairnets in early Greece consists mostly of pottery art that appear to show both sprang hairnets in wear and sprang frames.  The period Crimean sprang fragments and the later Coptic nets, though far from solid proof that Greek women wore sprang hairnets, provide additional if indirect support for the hypothesis that they did.

Most of the sprang hairnets found in the Old World do not have points or "stumps"; they were finished differently from Stephens's net.  A few surviving Coptic nets do have tails, but those tails do not look like the "stump" on Stephens' net, and neither Jenkins & Williams nor Kwaspen suggest that tying the center threads together was a method typically used to finish a sprang hairnet.  The fact that the style Stephens achieved with the sprang net she made does not match the period art so well also tends to indicate that the "knot" method for finishing nets was not used by the Greeks. 

Stephens is a hairdressing archaeologist, not a weaver, and she only needed the hairnet she made for a brief video demonstration, not for daily wear.  Thus, her decision to finish off her sprang net in the quickest and simplest way possible is defensible.  Still, if I were in her shoes, I would at least have fastened the drawstrings to the net in such a way that the "stump" would be on the inside (and thus much less visible) when the net was worn.  I would like to use a more subtle (and, hopefully, more period) means of keeping my net for unraveling, if I can manage that.

*     Jenkins, Ian & Williams, Dyfri. "Sprang Hair Nets: Their Manufacture and Use in Ancient Greece," American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 89, no. 3, pp. 411-418 (1985).

**     Kwaspen, Anne.  "Sprang Hairnets in the Katoen Natie Collection," in De Moor, Antoine & Fluck, Cäcilia, eds., Dress Accessories of the 1st Millennium AD from Egypt, pp. 70-95 (Lannoo, Oct. 5, 2011).  Katoen Natie is a corporate sponsor of art through an organization called HeadquARTers, which sells the 1st Millennium book in its gift shop, here.  You can find out more about HeadquARTers here.

***  See, e.g., Jenkins & Williams, Plate 46, Fig. 13 (excerpt of scene from the tondo of a cup by Onesimos in the British Museum).  Interestingly, Jenkins and Williams mention "Coptic hairnets" in their article.  Jenkins & Williams, p. 418.  The article notes that the Coptic nets are identifiable as nets, because "the drawstring occurs invariably on only one side of the top edge" and, in many cases, because of "the presence inside of varying quantities of long hairs."  Id.  I would not be surprised if the nets in the Jenkins & Williams collection are the same as the Katoen Natie nets, though I don't have enough information to establish that as fact.

**** See Jenkins & Williams, pp. 414-15 (suggesting a method for narrowing or decreasing the piece's width in the center section to produce a tail); see also Kwapsen, p. 89 (discussing techniques for narrowing a sprang hairnet at the top).


  1. That's an interesting video! I've never seen tradition of working sprang prone before; sprang looms pretty much uniformly are upright. I've also never seen it worked with hand movements like Stephens uses, much less with a hook.

    I've done a lot of research on this -- with my usual annotated bibliographies.

    A couple of years ago I created two (putatively) Hellenistic hairnets for SCA use. My husband and I have also made and used two simple sprang frames based on ancient Greek vase illustrations. One of my simmering projects is to try making a Greek sphendone (a sort of nape of neck hairnet/headband) on one of those looms.

    I've seen the sprang hairnets with tassel ends on display at the Met; it would be quite simple to set up a warp to make two such where the tassel ends constitute the middle section of the warp. The way the tassel end works is that the warp threads go from being worked individually to being worked in pairs, and then in groups of four, and so on until you decrease down to working your sprang using only a few bundles of threads. The result begins to resemble a fat flat braid. If you temporarily secure the warp and cut it off the loom, the places where the warp loops around the dowels become the drawstring casings and the center of the warp becomes the end of the tassel. Just cut it, tie a knot in it, and you've got something very like the vase illustrations.

    1. Thanks for the tassel explanation, and the Google docs link! I look forward to reviewing your research.

    2. Jenkins and Williams suggest a method for making the middle section into a tail (it involves folding the finished sprang textile over, I believe, and thus makes one net instead of two, though your method sounds simpler to me).

  2. I think if you were going to go with the stump method it would make more sense to put it on the inside = I say this as someone who has baby fine hair that wont grow to sufficient volume (If I twist my never been cut hair into a bun its so fine its goes from voluminous to the size of a walnut) to give the look seen on greek pots. to me the lump on the inside makes sense because for me personally it would become fake hair and add some body. btw, am opusanglicanum, not anonymous, but stupid blogger will never let me comment when I put my id in

    1. Actually, Blogger *is* showing you as opusanglicanum, so it has finally worked. Welcome to the blog!

      My hair is a lot finer than it used to be, so I could do with some artificial volume also. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Agreed about the stump bit. Even if you don't do the crochet-esque finish in the middle to prevent ravelling, you can just as easily weave a single weft across to get the same effect. In either case, a big tie-off and an ugly stump (that looks nothing like the hairnet images) is not necessary.

    1. I also question that the hair would be worn uncontained within the hairnet. Most people I know who try wearing snoods with unbound hair end up with terrible tangles unless their hair is shorter than shoulder-length. I suspect sprang, with its unfixed net structure (as opposed to a knitted or crochetted snood) would be liable to create even worse tangles if worn for more than a video-length. I suspect the hair was bound/put up underneath the hairnet (and probably in a rather more secure style than the twist thing she does her / in her previous Greek video - I notice her models often have a rather stiff-necked pose when displaying the finished style and the twist thing, in particular, I suspect would not actually stay up long if one were doing anything more strenuous than posing - even the motion of brisk walking would be liable to bring it down).

    2. Snoods or nets also tend to look terrible if worn over unbound hair unless the net fits tightly enough to the head-hair combination.

      I also agree with you that the kind of coarse, abundant hair we see on Stephens's model could well defeat the efforts of a hairnet alone to contain it. (You can tie the drawstring as tightly as you like, but without something else to grip it I suspect that the net would tend to slip backward over time.)

      I see why Stephens did her style as hair loose in the net; she was going for the kind of shape you see on this pot: However, I suspect that the actual hairnets used were either: 1) more tightly fitted over the woman's hair, or 2) worn over already bound hair, or 3) both. It's also possible that the drawstring itself was often long enough to draw back over the head and be tied around it, in addition to being tied at the nape; not the string in this image: As we saw in vase images and recreations of the wrapped (both band and cloth headwrap) styles, the same shape will result if the hair is abundant enough.

    3. Oops. Posted the wrong links in my first reply to Panth. The first one should have been:

      The second one should have been:

      Sorry about that!

  4. Hmm. It strikes me that tying off the warp as shown in this video wouldn't be the most secure way to finish the sprang. If the knot came undone, the whole net would unravel. That alone leads me to think the Greeks probably didn't do it that way.

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  6. For my greek woman, I made a hairnet in sprang technique with a woven edge last year I also linked some interesting pictures and an article about ancient sprang.

    1. ...with a more than poor finishing of the middle row I have to add :-) I did another one recently from silk, which I will link in this article probably next week.

  7. Agi: I can't see from the photographs on your website how you finished your net, but it looks good to me! Thanks for sharing them with us.

  8. Two observations about Stephens's use of a sprang net: 1) Her suggested technique (bind the hair with a bodkin and remove it through the mesh) is based upon the idea that the sprang will have a sufficiently open mesh to remove the bodkin through. That can be, but need not be, the case; sprang can make a nearly solid fabric, as some of the Katoen Natie collection caps show. 2) Some of the caps/nets? seen on ancient Greek pottery clearly show strings tied OVER the cap/net, which further refutes the idea that ancient Greek women wore such caps or nets with their hair loose inside.