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The History Blog

10 Ancient Textiles That Will Blow Your Mind

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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.

1. LINEN TUNIC WITH 4,000-YEAR-OLD HORIZONTAL PLEATS

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.

2. THE OLDEST TROUSERS IN THE WORLD

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.

3. THE OLDEST CARPET IN THE WORLD

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.

4. EGTVED GIRL'S WRAP SKIRT

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.

5. HULDREMOSE WOMAN'S CONTRASTING PLAIDS

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.

6. LADY DAI'S PAINTED SILK BANNER

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.

7. THE DAZZLING PARACAS TEXTILES

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.

8. EGYPTIAN SPLIT-TOE SOCKS

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.

9. WARI FEATHER WALL HANGINGS

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.

10. THE MANTLE OF ROGER II

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.

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11 Classic Facts About Converse Chucks
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iStock

Converse’s Chuck Taylor sneakers have been around since the early 20th century, but they haven’t changed much—until recently. In 2015, The Chuck II—a new line of Converse that looks much the same as the original shoe but with a little more padding and arch support—hit stores. In honor of the kicks' staying power, here are 11 facts about Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  

1. They were originally athletic shoes. 

The Converse All-Star debuted in 1917 as an athletic sneaker. It quickly became the number one shoe for basketball, then a relatively new sport (basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, but the NBA wasn't founded until 1946). By the late 1940s, most of the NBA sported Chucks. They remain the best-selling basketball shoes of all time, even though very few people wear them for basketball anymore. (Many teams switched to leather Adidas in the late ‘60s.)

2. Converse previously made rain boots.

The company started in 1908 as a rubber shoe company that produced galoshes.  

3. The All-Star design hasn’t really changed since 1917.

The updated Chuck II is Converse’s first real attempt to update its flagship product since the early 20th century. The company is understandably reticent to shake things up: All-Stars make up the majority of the company’s revenue, and like any classic design, its fans can be die-hards. In the 1990s, when the company tried to introduce All-Stars that were more comfortable and had slightly fewer design inconsistencies, hardcore aficionados rebelled. “They missed the imperfections in the rubber tape that lines the base of the shoe,” according to the Washington Post. The company went back to making a slightly imperfect shoe.

4. Chuck Taylor was a basketball player and trainer ...

Chuck Taylor in 1921. Image Credit: North Carolina State University via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Taylor was a Converse salesman and former professional basketball player who traveled around the country teaching basketball clinics (and selling shoes) starting in the 1920s. His name was added onto an ankle patch on the sneaker in 1932

5. ... And though he sold a lot of Chucks, he wasn't always a great coach.

Taylor is in large part responsible for the shoe’s popularity with athletes (the company rewarded him with an unlimited expense account), but his training advice wasn’t always the best. As former University of North Carolina player Larry Brown told Spin in an oral history of the shoe:

My greatest memory of Chuck Taylor—probably ’61 or ’62—is that he told Coach [Dean] Smith that he’d make us special weighted shoes in Carolina blue. The idea was that we’d wear the weighted shoes in practice, and then during the games, we’d run faster and jump higher. Well, we tried them for one practice and everyone pulled a hamstring.

6. Converse didn’t intend for their shoes to be punk.

“We always thought of ourselves as an athletic shoe company,” John O’Neil, who oversaw Converse’s marketing from 1983 to 1997, told Spin. “We wanted to sell a wholesome shoe.” The company was still touting its shoes as basketball sneakers as late as 2012, and some of its non-Chucks sneakers still have pro endorsers.

7. The company owns a recording studio.

Finally embracing its role in the music scene, the company launched Rubber Tracks, a Brooklyn-based recording studio where bands can record for free, in 2011.

8. Not all the Ramones were fans. 

Chuck Taylors are associated with punk rockers, especially the Ramones, but not everyone in the band wore them. “Dee Dee and I switched over to the Chuck Taylors because they stopped making [the style of] U.S. Keds and Pro-Keds [that we liked],” Marky Ramone told Spin. “Joey never wore them. He needed a lot of arch support and Chuck Taylors are bad for that.”

9. Chucks were initially only high tops. 

In 1962, Converse rolled out its first oxford Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Previously, it had just been a high-top shoe. Four years later, the company would introduce the first colors other than black and white.

10. Rocky ran in them.

In 1976, All-Stars were still considered a viable athletic shoe. If you look closely at the training montage from Rocky, you’ll see the boxer is wearing Chucks. 

11. Wiz Khalifa loves them. 

The rapper named his record label Taylor Ganag Records, in part due to his appreciation for Chuck Taylors. In 2013, he launched a shoe collection with Converse featuring 12 styles. 

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Adidas, Mari Orr
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Adidas Collaborates With Artists to Create Sneakers for All 50 States
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Iowa
Adidas, Mari Orr

For a recent project from Adidas and Refinery29, artists were given a women’s running shoe to use as their blank canvas. Their only prompt: Design the sneaker to represent one of the American states. The results are as varied and colorful as the nation itself.

As Adweek reports, the initiative, dubbed BOOST the Nation, takes an all-American look at Adidas’s UltraBOOST X footwear line. Refinery29 selected several artists—all women—to put their regional stamp on the plain white shoe. Some have been decorated with state flora. For instance, the Florida sneaker sports a tropical frond and the shoe for North Carolina is embellished with Venus flytraps. Food is also a popular theme: Wisconsin cheese, Maine lobster, and Tennessee barbecue have all been incorporated into sneaker designs.

Each sneaker is one-of-a kind and only available through auction. All proceeds raised will go directly to Women Win, an organization dedicated to bringing sports to adolescent girls around the world. The auction runs through Tuesday, July 11, with current bids ranging from $110 to $2000. Check out the artists’ handiwork that's for sale below.

Sneaker designed to look like a peach.
Georgia

Checkered running shoe.
Indiana

Adidas, Jen Mussari

Yellow running shoe with cracker tag.
Wisconsin

Sneaker designed to look like a mountain.
South Dakota
Adidas, Mari Orr

Sneaker decorated with wheat.
Oklahoma

Adidas, Jen Mussari

Sneaker embellished with fake roses and leaves.
Kentucky

Pink running shoe with lobster claw.
Maine

[h/t Adweek]

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