Blog 106 21/04/2021 A LITERARY WORLD: Minoan Textiles and Costume
A LITERARY WORLD
Minoan Textiles and Costume
The study of textiles is more than just looking at what people wore and used in their daily lives, it is the study of civilization itself. From the very moment when human beings donned a skins to clothe themselves we begin to trace the evolution of mankind. As human beings moved from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer life to a sedentary “settled lifestyle”, civilization changed but more or less continued in the same way for thousands more years until the next big change came along that had a momentous impact on the world – the Industrial Revolution. Until that time, the art of textiles remained mostly women’s work and in particular, work that could be done while rearing children. A settled community meant that along with agricultural developments, crafts developed.
For millennia, we know that women have sat together spinning, weaving and sewing, so why should it have become their craft rather than the work of men. In some cases this was not so, but they are the exception rather than the rule.Textiles are perishable and are not easy to learn about, and there are few literary records devoted to women and textiles. Having said that, we can get a glimpse into their lives from archeology, tombs and wall-paintings, ceramics, and written sources. In this blog, I want to take focus on the Minoans.
By how much the men are expert above all men in
propelling a swift ship on the sea, by thus much, the women
are skilled at the loom, for Athena has given to them beyond
a knowledge of beautiful craftwork, and noble minds.
-Homer, Odyssey, 7.108-11
The Minoans flourished during the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC) and belong to the group of civilizations archeologists sometimes refer to as “island cultures” in that they were protected by sea or as in the case of Egypt, a sea of desert sand. Malta and Easter Island also belong to these categories. Secure in their environment, they were able to develop and prosper.
By 2300 BC, the people of Crete had developed textiles into a major art form. Prior to this, flax had been in use since Paleolithic times, whereas wool as we know it today – woolly sheep as opposed to hairy or kempy ones – was only introduced around 3500BC. The people of Crete turned the herding of these new woolly sheep into a major part of their economy and from this, a flourishing textile trade grew.
Textiles are perishable and are not easy to learn about, and there are few literary records devoted to women and textiles. Having said that, we can get a glimpse into their lives from archeology, tombs and wall-paintings, ceramics and figurines, and a few written sources: in the case of Greece, Herodotus and Homer, to name just two.
The first evidence of weaving manufacture in Crete comes from the archeological site of Myrtos in the south of Crete. Clay spindle whorls were found in many rooms as though women were spinning everywhere, just as they have done in rural Greece for centuries. In one room, archeologists also found evidence of shallow clay dishes specifically designed for wetting linen thread as it is being worked. The ancient Egyptians used such bowls as do the Japanese today. They also unearthed clay loom weights and significantly, these were not scattered throughout the dwellings as were the spindle whorls. For whatever reason, Myrtos burnt down and charred oak beams were unearthed at the site, and because of the way some were found, it is believed that looms with oak beams were set up on the flat rooftops. The looms were the upright ones with clay weights as the weaving loom with heddles that most people associate with cloth-weaving, would not be in use until much later.
As the Minoan trade flourished the people were also able to develop their dying skills too. They exported their woolen textile goods around to the Middle East and other Mediterranean islands, and in particular, to Egypt. The Egyptians mostly wore clothing made of flax which is harder to dye than wool, so naturally, this was a boom market for the Minoans. We can see from paintings in Egyptian tombs from 2000 BC onwards, that the patterns favoured the most were blue heart-spirals with a red diamond between each pair of double hearts on a white ground. Diagonal spirals with red and blue rosettes were also popular. They must have been beautiful because these patterns existed long after the decline of the Minoans.
The colours used were red, blue, yellow and white. Natural plant dyes such as madder will give an orange-red, whereas the red from the Kermes beetle gives an intense crimson. The excavations at Myrtos show that oak was used for timber strongly suggesting the presence of the Kermes beetle. Yellow was obtained from the saffron lily which was found on many Aegean islands, particularly the island of Thera (present-day Santorini).
Vat dyes are more complicated to produce than natural dyes. Indigo Blue is one such colour and it wasn’t widely known for centuries so it’s likely that the Minoans used woad. Woad was already known by the ancient Egyptians, who used it to dye the cloth wrappings applied for the mummies and for years it was assumed to have been Indian Indigo. Woad is a flowering plant and the blue dye is produced from the leaves of the plant. It is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia to Eastern Siberia and Western Asia but is now also found in South-Eastern and Central Europe and western North America. Since ancient times, woad was cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and Southern Europe.
And then there is Royal purple derived from several varieties of sea shells such as murex. Excavations on Crete have unearthed many shell heaps. Each little mollusc produces only a single drop of this beautiful dye so we can only imagine how many were needed to dye a single piece of cloth. Some earthen floors have been found to contain crushed murex shells as aggregate—an example of recycling from about 1500 BC.
When it comes to dress, we get a glimpse of just how beautiful and decorative Minoan costumes were from ceramics, figurines, the paintings in Egyptian tombs, but more so, the wall paintings of Akrotiri on Thera. These paintings show just how advanced the Minoan civilisation had become. The Palace of Knossos also shows the sophistication of the time, but it is from Akrotiri that we see the finer details.
The predominance of female figures in authoritative and ritualistic roles over male ones seems to indicate that Minoan society was, in all likelihood, matriarchal. Certainly, the fact that the men were often away trading meant that women took care of the home and did agricultural work at the same time which gave them tremendous power. For centuries, Cretan men wore simple loincloths, sometimes with fancy borders and always fastened with cinch belts, but it was the women who shone as far as costumes went.In fact they were extremely fashionable and would have been the Parisiennes of their day.
From early figurines of women we see the bell-shaped dress and open-top bodice, also with a cinch belt, but it generally thought that this is a representation. Two famous Minoan snake goddess figurines from Knossos show bodices that circle their breasts, but these striking figures – probably goddesses, priestesses, or devotees – are dressed differently to the way normal Cretan women dressed.
From pieces like the Agia Triada Sarcophagus at Knossos, we see that Minoan women normally covered their breasts and priestesses in religious contexts were probably the exception. The fact that women wore such elaborate costumes leads one to conclude that women did play a very important role in textiles, and society in general. While they wove and created them, the men traded them, especially to Egypt, and this trade brought back not only physical wealth, but ideas, most notably in the fact that the Minoans then started to richly decorate their palaces and villas. These wall paintings show that even the plainest of dresses were striped while the finest have a mind-boggling array of all-over patterns, including interlocking grids of motifs, fringing, tassels and embroidery, which were obviously advanced. Thick sashes, colourful hair-bands, sculpted aprons, hats, and jewelry add to this astonishing array of beauty.
With the decline of the Minoans, textiles and costume changed, reflecting yet another era in civilization. During the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, women lost their social status and by the dawn of the Classical age, rarely went out of the house except for religious festivals and a maidservant did the shopping. With women sequestered, the development of textiles, from a commerce point of view, was taken up by men.
“Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years” Elizabeth Wayland Barber
“The Wall-Paintings of Thera” Christos Doumas
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