ancient Egyptian textiles – The Kelsey Blog

ancient Egyptian textiles

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

In last month’s Ugly Object post, we explored some of my feelings about the interior decorating schemes of Roman Egyptians. But while I could not happily collect their colorfully painted god and goddess figurines, I would acquire this month’s Ugly Object in a hot second. For me, this sprang bag only just barely qualifies as something we could legitimately write about in this blog feature, and then only because it is so moth-eaten and frayed.

red and green woven bag
Sprang bag made from dyed wool. Egypt. 1st–4th century CE. H. 30 cm. KM 11666.

Made with red, green, and cream-colored wool, this bag is truly a special item. It is featured in our current exhibition, Ancient Color, because it’s so colorful. I enjoy the bold color choices, but I’m even more impressed by the many beautifully executed construction details.

In describing non-woven archaeological textiles at the Kelsey, we often use the word “sprang” to refer to looped or twisted yarn construction like we see in this bag. But unlike our “sprang” socks, which were made using a single-needle technique that is similar to knitting, this bag was made using a twisty, warp-only technique that is sort of like braiding and sort of like weaving.

This bag was made by a master sprang craftsperson. The red, green, and cream yarns interact to create complex patterns, but there are also very cool structural details that contribute to a sense of depth and ornament.

close-up of woven bag
Detail of the border of the sprang bag.

At the top of the bag — as I hope you can see in this detail of the top left corner — the yarns are bundled and held in place with twisting at top and bottom to create an openwork effect. The colored yarns are then carefully twisted to create a highly patterned border along the top edge of the bag, before the green and cream yarns begin a pattern of alternating cable-like and chevron designs.

Here is a closer look at how the green and cream yarns are gathered and twisted as one unit to create what I’m calling a cable-like effect, since this is similar in appearance (and structure) to a cable in knitting.

sprang bag detail
Detail of two “cables” in the sprang bag.

If we sold replicas of this bag in the Kelsey’s gift shop, I’d pick one up today. This bag is both exceptional and exceptionally fragile. It’s very rarely on view, so I encourage you to come see it for yourself now at the Kelsey!

Fragment of a somewhat coarse orange sprang cap with a row of blue/black stitches along one edge.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2018

by Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object takes the cake for being both incredibly interesting and really, really ugly. What exactly is this rather scraggly looking textile fragment? We’re not entirely sure, although its report suggests that it might have once been part of a cap.

Scrap of wool sprang textile, possibly from a cap. 18.5 x 8.5 cm. Roman period. Karanis, Egypt. KM 12797.

This bit of cap — discovered at Karanis, Egypt — was made using a technique called sprang or nålebinding, an ancient precursor to knitting in which loops of yarn are interlinked using a single needle. Are you a yarn enthusiast or experimental archaeologist and want to try the technique for yourself? Check out Suzanne’s 2016 blog post about an ugly sprang sock, which features links to pages detailing how to knit/link your own ancient sock.

There are other cool things about this sprang fragment, one being its color. We suspect it could be an organic red dye, although analysis would be needed to confirm this. Rose madder, a red colorant derived from the processed roots of the madder plant, was used frequently as a pigment in Roman Egypt and might have been used to color our cap frag. Another cool thing is the black overcast stitches that run along one edge. These could very well be part of the cap’s original construction, or perhaps an ancient repair.

This and other less frequently seen Karanis textiles will be on display in the upcoming Kelsey exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, which explores the sources, uses, and scientific investigation of color in the Roman world.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2016

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology


Woolen sleeve from a child’s tunic. 2nd–4th century AD. KM 13995.


This month’s Ugly is a hideous but sweet little specimen: the ripped sleeve of a child’s tunic. It looks pretty bad. It’s the kind of raggy little thing which, if you found it in your house, you’d probably throw away. And in fact, that seems to be what happened: when University of Michigan excavated Karanis, Egypt, in the 1920s, the team found this in the ancient town’s street.

This grotty little rag will soon be featured in the exhibit Less Than Perfect, on view at the Kelsey August 26, 2016, through January 8, 2017. The exhibit explores three themes: failed perfection, deliberate imperfection, and — my favorite — restoring perfection. The sleeve occupies this latter category, because of the elbow patch designed to extend the life of the garment.

Was the sleeve ever perfect? This seems debatable to me, but its seamstress did take care to make it attractive. The rolled hem is nicely finished with an overcast stitch in a contrasting red thread, and the elbow patch or applique (originally twice as big as what remains today) has an interesting woven design in blue and cream.

Today, of course, the wool has yellowed, the sleeve is ripped, the seams have failed, and half the original patch is missing altogether, as is the rest of the tunic. But I can imagine that someone treasured it for a long time, before finally giving up on the garment and throwing the remains in the street. Come see this cute-ugly bit of ancient detritus for yourself!



Ugly Object of the Month – February

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Our galleries are closed at the beginning of this month as we install a major exhibit from Pompeii, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero. So I’m taking this opportunity to feature a favorite Kelsey ugly object that is rarely on view: an ancient dirty sock. In the photo below, you see the part of the sock that would cover your toes and the front part of your foot (the heel and ankle are missing).

Knitted Sock. Wool. 2nd – 4th c AD. KM 22558.

The sock was excavated at Karanis, Egypt, during the University of Michigan’s 1928 field season. This object is hideous, accessible (who doesn’t have daily experience with dirty socks?), and interesting. It’s obviously old, stained, and worn, with a large hole in one toe. But it’s also a very cool, very early form of knitting called single-needle knitting or nålebinding.

I could tell you more about this technique, but why not try it yourself by making your very own ancient-Egyptian-style sock? The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London did this in 2009 and 2010, in an experimental archaeology project called “Sock It!” Scholars used ancient techniques to recreate a pair of socks just like this one. Click here to read their blog about the project, and here for instructions and a pattern to do it yourself. February is a great month to make yourself a cozy pair of ancient ugly socks!

Analyzing an Egyptian Textile Fiber

BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

Child’s garment, KM 22602.
Child’s garment, KM 22602.


Here in the conservation lab, we’ve been busily preparing for the upcoming exhibition Ancient/Modern: The Design of Everyday Things. One of the objects in the exhibition is this child’s garment, excavated from the site of Karanis, Egypt, in the 1920s and ’30s. The dry Egyptian desert creates excellent preservation conditions — so much so that even fragile organic materials like this textile can survive for 2,000 years.

Last month, Kate Carras wrote about her favorite textile fragment from Karanis. Her favorite fragment was made differently from the garment shown above, but the materials are the same: wool yarns. You might wonder, how do we know for sure what kind of yarn it is? How do we know that it’s not linen or cotton?

In the case of this garment, there was a meticulous analysis of the weave pattern and yarn structure in the object’s records but no identification of the fibers present. Knowing the fiber type is important for conservators because it helps us make good decisions about how to care for the textile. When we want to identify the fibers that make up a yarn, we carefully take a tiny sample of the fiber to examine with a microscope.

(left) Photo-documentation of the blue warp sample location. (right) The labeled sample temporarily mounted on a glass slide with water.

We mount the sample on a glass microscope slide by placing a drop of water over it and a glass coverslip atop the water. The water serves both to improve the optical properties during examination and to hold the fiber in place.

What are we looking for? Different types of fibers have different surface clues, or morphological features, that tell us whether they are wool or hair (from an animal), cotton, linen (from the flax plant), or another type of bast fiber (also from plants). In this case, it looks like the samples are all wool.

(left) Dark blue warp fiber, magnified at 200x. (right) Fiber sampled from a pink weft, also magnified at 200x. The scales suggest that the fibers are both wool.
(left) Dark blue warp fiber, magnified at 200x. (right) Fiber sampled from a pink weft, also magnified at 200x. The scales suggest that the fibers are both wool.
A beige weft sampled from the proper right sleeve, magnified at 50x, also wool.
A beige weft sampled from the proper right sleeve, magnified at 50x, also wool.

The first clues that the fibers are wool are the small, jagged lines (called scales) visible on the surface.  The second clue is a feature called the medulla — the central air space that travels the length of the fiber shaft.

In this image, the medulla is faintly visible as a slightly darker column traveling down the center of the fiber (50x).
In this image, the medulla is faintly visible as a slightly darker column traveling down the center of the fiber (50x).

Though time did not permit us to investigate further, other methods can be used to narrow down the source even further, to a class of animals — for example, goats or camelids.

Identifying the fibers used in a textile contributes to archaeological research, determines what conditions are best for a textile’s preservation, and helps direct future conservation treatments.


My Favorite Artifact

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. We wondered, “Which artifacts move our staff?”

 BY KATHRYN (KATE) CARRAS, Entrance Monitor, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. A self-confessed “fiberholic” with two degrees in textile studio art from Eastern Michigan University, in her spare time Carras spins, knits, weaves, crochets, embroiders, and knits dolls from her own patterns. She is currently learning rug-hooking and Japanese braiding (kumihimo).

Fragment of woven wool tapestry.

Favorite Artifact. Small fragment of woven wool tapestry. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 10534.

Why. “I first saw this textile fragment when I worked on a Karanis textile cataloging project for former Kelsey curator Thelma Thomas. The image — which may be a lion or some other creature — looks more like something out of a Pac-Man game. As a spinner and weaver, I appreciate all the textiles in the museum, but this little cartoon character is special.”

About Artifact. This small tapestry fragment features the motif of an animal that appears about to eat a red/purple object. The design is somewhat oval with an outer ring of yellow crested wave motif on the red/purple backgrounds.

The ancient weaver used light brown wool for the warp (set of vertical threads) and the weft (set of horizontal threads), along with a lighter yellow, red/purple, and blended yarn of red/purple and blue. Although the weft in the plain brown weave shows damage on the fragment’s edges, the colors remain vivid and still show luster.

This piece was one of approximately 3,700 textile fragments excavated by University of Michigan archaeologists during their 1924–1935 Karanis expeditions. Historic textiles from the Roman period and later antiquity are rare in many parts of the world, but Egypt’s dry climate fortunately preserved great quantities of them.

Background. Museum namesake Professor Francis W. Kelsey began a series of excavations in Egypt that were intended to find artifacts and documents in an archaeological context to illustrate daily life in the Greek and Roman world. These excavations began with the site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim), extensive ruins of an abandoned town of the Greek and Roman periods. The University of Michigan spent eleven seasons at Karanis, where the team unearthed a wealth of material of everyday life. Thousands of these objects were given to the University by the Egyptian government, and the artifacts are now housed at the Kelsey and the papyri at the Papyrology Collection at the University of Michigan Library.

Find It. Currently not on exhibit, this fragile textile is protected in our climate-controlled collections storage. Scholars should contact Kelsey Collections Manager Sebastián Encina at for further information.

Learn More. The book Textiles from Karanis, Egypt, in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology: Artifacts of Daily Life, by Thelma K. Thomas, is available for purchase in our gift shop or online from our distributor, ISD.

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