The History Blog
The History Blog

10 Ancient Textiles That Will Blow Your Mind

The History Blog
The History Blog

Textiles made of organic fibers are easily destroyed by the ravages of time, as anyone who dragged around a favorite childhood blanket for years knows all too well. Insects, microorganisms, water, fire, and regular old wear-and-tear all destroy fabric, sometimes leaving behind only the most meager of scraps. When it comes to archaeological textiles, only in exceptional circumstances—very dry desert environments; very wet, waterlogged environments like peat bogs; and frozen environments like glaciers—can cloth beat time at its own game. Here are some textiles that laughed in the face of entropy.


Louvre Museum via The History Blog 

There's plenty of linen to be found in ancient Egyptian tombs, but completely intact garments with horizontal pleats still crisp are rarer than hen's teeth. This long, slim-fit tunic was found in a Middle Kingdom tomb in Asyut on the west bank of the Nile, balled up in a coffin next to a skeletonized mummy of indeterminate gender. It dates to around 2000 BC and likely belonged to the person it was buried next to. Besides being a great rarity, this textile is also harboring a secret—the secret of how in the world those pleats were made. They're not stitched. It may have been some sort of stamping process applied when the linen was wet, but that would be some impressive stamping, given that the pleats held even after being balled up and entombed for 4000 years.


M. Wagner, German Archaeological Institute via The History Blog

Discovered in the vast Yanghai cemetery near Turfan, northwestern China, these wool pants date to 1122-926 BC and still look fly as hell. Zig-zags decorate the lower legs and a handsome rhombic meander pattern embraces the knees. The ingenious ziggurat-shaped crotch piece, with its double lines of dark brown, is as snazzy as it is practical for the horse-riding nomad who prefers to avoid genital chafing in style. These are the oldest trousers in the world, as far as we know, courtesy of 3000 years spent in a gravel desert that's 122°F in the summer and -20°F in the winter.


Hermitage Museum via The History Blog

The Pazyryk carpet, woven about 2500 years ago using the symmetrical double knot technique, was found in the grave of a Scythian aristocrat in the frigid, arid Altai Mountains of Siberia. The once-bright blue is a tad on the olive side now, the crimson more like burgundy, and the formerly sunny yellow a brownish gold, but it still dazzles with color and pattern. Twenty-four crossed stylized lotus buds grace the central square. Around them is a rectangle of 44 griffins, framed by another with 24 handsomely antlered fallow deer. Next is a border of crossed lotuses in alternating colors. They're framed by the widest border, featuring 28 men on horseback against a red field. The last rectangle closes the show with a display of almost 100 griffins.


National Museum of Denmark via The History Blog 

Egtved Girl was just a teenager, albeit a very wealthy, well-traveled one, when she died in 1370 BC. She was buried in a hollowed-out oak placed in a barrow outside Egtved, on Denmark's Jutland peninsula. Her body was almost entirely decomposed when her grave was excavated in 1921, but her long blonde hair survived perched atop her pristine clothing. She wore a short, woven wool tunic top and a corded wool skirt 15 inches long that was wrapped around her waist twice. The look was accessorized with a wool belt featuring a large bronze disc with a central spike that would make a rodeo champion feel painfully inadequate.


National Museum of Denmark via The History Blog 

Huldremose Woman was found in a peat bog on Jutland about 100 miles southwest of Egtved Girl's final resting place. She'd been buried there around the 2nd century BC, but thanks to the magical anaerobic environment of peat bogs, her soft tissues were preserved even down to her stomach contents. So was her outfit: a long plaid skirt, a plaid scarf (both wool), and two sheepskin capes, the outer one colorblocked with a light wool collar topping a dark-brown wool body. A couple of thousand years in a bog turned the skirt a mustard color and the scarf a chocolate brown, which gives them an Agatha Christie weekend-at-the-country-estate look today, but pigment analysis has found that the skirt was originally blue and the scarf red.


Hunan Provincial Museum via The History Blog 

The T-shaped painted silk funerary banner was one of many silk textiles found wrapped around the body of Xin Zhui, the Marquise of Dai, when her tomb and those of her husband and another relative, possibly their son, were excavated at the archaeological site of Mawangdui in Changsha, China, in the early 1970s. Xin Zhui outlived them both, dying in 163 BC, and her tomb is the best-preserved of the three. Her body survived in exceptional condition, as did the rich textiles that adorned it.

This banner was carried at her funeral before being deposited in her coffin. The painting is a rich representation of Han Dynasty mythology. The heavenly world presided over by the fire dragon is on top. In the middle is Lady Dai rising upwards toward the heavens with three of her maids, while her family prays for her soul's safe journey. At the bottom is the underworld where grotesques and sea creatures guard her dead body.


Gothenburg Museum of World Culture via The History Blog 

When embroidered ponchos, turbans, headbands, and other assorted wraps from an unknown Peruvian culture suddenly began to pop up in private collections in the early 20th century, archaeologists had to bribe looters to lead them to the spot: the Paracas peninsula in Peru, where the salty sands had preserved mummy bundles shrouded in layer upon layer of increasingly large, riotously colorful textiles. Made from cotton and the wool of camelids between 500 BC and 300 AD, the textiles were a group effort from the Paracas people, who used natural dyes to produce more than 200 different shades, and embroidered every stitch by hand with cactus thorn needles. Widely looted, smuggled, and mistreated even by museum professionals in the century since their discovery, the surviving Paracas textiles still stun with their color, craftsmanship, and variety.


Victoria & Albert Museum via The History Blog 

The sands of the Greek city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt famously preserved a collection of papyri so huge that scholars have still only gone through 15% of them. The sand also kept a pair of flame-red wool split-toe socks from 250-420 AD in flawless condition. The socks were knitted using the ancient technique of nålbindning, a single-needle sewing method that long predates the two-needle knitting we know today. The toe configuration indicates they were worn with sandals, because fashion faux pas or not, thick wool socks that tie at the top are actually a really good idea when trudging around a hot desert in open shoes.


Metropolitan Museum of Art via The History Blog 

Neither desert, bog, nor permafrost is responsible for the survival of the glorious wall hangings of the pre-Incan Wari people of Peru. Pots get the credit this time. Ninety-six hangings were found rolled-up snugly in humaniform ceramic jars, their macaw feathers kept intact in brilliant color for at least a thousand years. An average of seven feet wide and two-and-a-half feet high, the hangings were made by painstakingly knotting each feather to a string and then stitching the string onto a plain weave cotton backing in overlapping rows. We know they were used as wall hangings, rather than cloaks or blankets, because there's a strip of woven camelid fibers with braided ties on the corners running along the top of each piece. Rothko, eat your heart out.


Alexander McQueen via The History Blog

It may or may not have actually belonged to Roger II, Norman king of Sicily from 1130 to 1154, but this mantle was made at his court and is certainly fit for a king. The mantle shape of traditional Byzantine liturgical dress may indicate a Byzantine origin for the shimmering crimson samite base, while the gold embroidery was crafted by Arabic artisans in Palermo. Divided by a stylized date palm, each half of the panel depicts a lion attacking a dromedary, a symbol of the Norman House of Hauteville's conquest of Muslim Sicily in 1072. The embroiderers did us the great courtesy of noting exactly where and when they did their work, in the Kufic inscription along the curved hem:

"Here is what was created in the princely treasury, filled with luck, illustration, majesty, perfection, longevity, superiority, welcome, prosperity, liberality, shine, pride, beauty, the achievement of desires and hopes, the pleasure of days and nights, without cease or change, with glory, devotion, preservation, protection, chance, salvation, victory and capability, in the capital of Sicily, in the year 528 AH [1133-1134 AD]."

It looks pretty great belted and paired with thigh-high boots, too, as Alexander McQueen proved in his final collection, alas left uncompleted by his premature death in 2010.

Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pop Culture
Glove Story: The Freezy Freakies Phenomenon of the 1980s
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Kids who grew up in the northeast in the 1980s were pretty invested in a fad that might have gone unnoticed in warmer parts of the country. Cajoling their parents at department stores during shopping trips, hundreds of thousands of them came home sporting a pair of Freezy Freakies—thick winter gloves that came with a built-in parlor trick. When the temperature dipped below 40°F, an image would suddenly appear on the back part of the material.

Swany America Corporation, which made, marketed, and distributed the gloves, released more than 30 original designs beginning in 1980. There was a robot, a unicorn, rocket ships, ballerinas, rainbows, snowflakes, and various sports themes, though the “I Love Snow” image (below) may have been the most popular overall. At the height of Freezy mania, Swany was moving 300,000 pairs of gloves per year, which accounted for about 20 percent of their overall sales.

A Freezy Freakies glove before and after the temperature change
Freezy Freakies

“Boys loved the robot design,” Bruce Weinberg, Swany’s vice president and a former sales director for Freezy Freakies, tells Mental Floss. “Above 40 degrees, the image would disappear.”

The secret to the $13 Freakies was thermochromic ink, a temperature-sensitive dye that's been used in mood rings and heat-sensitive food labels and can appear translucent until it's exposed to warmer temperatures. Swany licensed the ink from Pilot, the Japanese-based pen company, after Swany CEO Etsuo Miyoshi saw the technology and thought it would be a good fit for his glove-focused operation. (Though they experimented with making luggage in the 1990s, Swany has predominantly been a manufacturer of higher-end ski gloves.)

Weinberg isn’t sure how Miyoshi settled on the “Freezy Freakies” name—the president is now retired—but says Miyoshi knew they had a hit early on. “After a few seasons, they could tell they had a winner product,” he says. Swany even put advertising dollars into TV commercials, a rare strategy for glove-makers not named Isotoner.

Pilot was able to adjust the temperature at which the ink would become transparent, or vice versa. If kids were impatient, or if it happened to be during the summer, Weinberg says it wasn’t uncommon to find Freezy Freakies stuck in the freezer so they could materialize their art design. “At trade shows, we’d do something similar with some ice or a cold soda,” he says. “All of a sudden, some ice cubes would make it change, and buyers would think that was really cool.”

The Freakies were such a hit that Swany licensed jackets and considered changing the name of the company to the same name as the glove. It’s probably just as well they didn’t: While Freakies lasted well over a decade, by the 1990s, things had cooled. In the new millennium, Swany was down to selling just a few hundred pairs a year. Color-changing ink for coffee mugs or beer cans was more pervasive, wearing down the novelty; knock-offs had also grabbed licensed cartoon characters, which Swany was never interested in pursuing.

The brand was dormant when a company named Buffoonery approached Swany in 2013 to license Freezy Freakies for a crowdfunded revival. This time, the gloves came in adult sizes for $34. The partnership has been successful, and Weinberg says Buffoonery has just signed an extension to start producing kids’ gloves.

“Parents will probably want matching ones for their kids,” Weinberg says. And both might still wind up in the freezer.

Live Smarter
The Very Disgusting Reason You Should Always Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them

It’s sometimes assumed that clothing with a price tag still dangling from the sleeve can skip an initial wash. Someone else may have tried it on, sure, but they didn’t run a marathon in it. Why not just throw it in the closet as soon as you get home?

One big reason: lice. As The Independent reports, Donald Belsito, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told NBC's Today show recently that clothing fresh off store racks can harbor infestations of lice, scabies, or fungus.

You might be familiar with head lice as the dreaded insects that occupy the scalp and give school health monitors cause for concern. Head lice can be transmitted via clothing and other fabrics, and anyone who tried on a shirt or dress before you did can be a carrier. While they only live for one or two days without a blood meal, that’s still enough time to cause problems if something is being tried on frequently.

Scabies is far more insidious. The mites are too small to see, but the allergic reaction they cause by burrowing into your skin to lay eggs will be obvious.

Both scabies and lice can be treated with topical solutions, but it’s better to kill them by washing new clothes in hot water. A good soak can also get rid of formaldehyde, a common chemical used in fabrics to help ward off mold in case stock gets wet in transit. Formaldehyde can cause allergic skin reactions. For all of these reasons, it’s best to hit the washing machine before those new pants ever hit your hanger.

[h/t Independent]


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