Project 1 – Selecting and Identifying, Exercise 1.2 – Substance and Story

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

Aim –

This exercise aims to help you find out more about your chosen textile pieces through observation and further research

I found this exercise massively more involved than I thought I would, and really enjoyed it because of that (or maybe I’m just putting off the drawing again). It’s amazing to me how much information you can gather, and therefore meaning, importance, emotion etc. about a seemingly ‘dead’ object just by scratching the surface. I’ve really enjoyed doing this research into my objects, and could have carried on going down rabbit holes indefinitely – I feel so much closer connected to them now, and to the people who made them many hundreds (and thousands) of years ago.

I ended up with a dozen pages of scribbled notes which I’m sure are very boring and nonsensical to anyone except me, so wanted to draw up a kind of summary here, with the best of the links I found.


What is the textile made from?

Sandal Bases – Linen/papyrus, plaster, natural pigment

Sock – Dyed wool

Mummy – Linen, plaster, wood, human remains, natural pigment

All information for the make-up of these items came from their accompanying plaques in the museum, where they are cared for by being kept in a regulated environment with controlled light, heat, and humidity.

What methods have been used in its construction?

These are ‘cartonnage’ – a material used in adorning and containing mummified bodies. Waste papyrus (or sometimes linen fibres) were soaked in plant gum, then set to the required shape to dry and harden. Next, the pieces are covered in gesso (chalk powder and gum) and finally painted with natural pigments. They have been handmade, but it’s impossible to know by who – the preparation of a mummified body was undertaken by a large number of people.

This sock has been created by a method of making fabric with short lengths of yarn and a large, flat needle, called ‘nålbinding’. This technique predates knitting by a long way, but was much more time-consuming and complex (although the ‘coptic stitch’ used to make items in this area and era is almost identical to knitting, and has often been mistaken as such). It has been worked in stripes of red, yellow, and green – all of which would have been achieved through the use of natural dyestuffs. Cochineal, Kermes, Lac, and Madder were often used to attain red, Henna, Safflower, Saffron, and Weld for yellow, and then overdyed with Indigo or Woad for green.  This item was also handmade, but there is no indicator to identify a maker by name.

Linen bandages have been torn from larger pieces of fabric, then intricately wrapped around a solid form to achieve the final design. Interestingly, researchers still don’t know how some of the more decorative designs were achieved (so, these artifacts of Ancient Egypt still hold some secrets!). The wrappings were probably treated with resin or starch to maintain their protective qualities – security of the body was of utmost importance in the mummification process. The surface decoration has been achieved through the manipulation of the fabric itself – folding and wrapping to give an appearance of depth and intricacy. Gilded plaster studs at the centre of each ‘nest’ give the impression of luxury and security.

Where is the textile from?

‘Provenance unknown’ – A lay-person like me has to trust the information given by the collection holder. I assume that if their information says ‘unknown’ there mustn’t be any distinguishing features, although they can be placed in time to the Ptolemaic Period (332 – 30 B.C.). During my research I found that the core of cartonnage pieces was often made from recycled sheets of inscribed papyrus – some pieces of cartonnage have been deconstructed to study these papyri, which can give valuable information about contemporary people and culture, local area, and historical context. Of course this means the destruction  of the original  piece, although techniques are being developed to scan the inscriptions noninvasively. Until then I suppose provenance remains ‘unknown’.

This sock was uncovered in Oxyrhyncus, an Egyptian city and archaeological site, and dates from the Byzantine period (395 – 641 A.D.). The split-toe style (to allow you to wear a toe-post sandal) is characteristic of Egypt in this time and several comparable examples have been found.

This mummy is from Faiyum, an Egyptian city. The finished object is so distinctive that the kind of funerary portraits which forms part of it has come to be known as a ‘Faiyum portrait’. The combination of traditional Egyptian mummification techniques mixed with Roman artistic sensibility makes for an evocative hybrid.

What problems have you encountered in trying to find out this information?

For all three items my primary research is limited by the information provided by the museum. In all cases I wanted to know more about the history, construction methods, and personality of the objects. Fortunately they all have good precedent and other, comparable examples have been easy to find by searching other museum catalogues etc. These often provide other snippets of information which could be applied to my own items, such as stylistic decisions, typical fibre composition, use and purpose etc.

As far as traceability is concerned it is practically impossible to attribute any of these items to one particular artisan, or even a named group – items like the cartonnage sandal bases and the mummy were often prepared like piece-work by a number of individuals, all of whom (unfortunately) remain anonymous. However, as with the cartonnage, sometimes the materials used (although at the moment hidden) can give us valuable information about contemporary society. Otherwise, researchers are fairly certain that weaving and spinning was women’s work, whilst growing and harvesting flax, and tending sheep was undertaken by men. Maybe with the development of new technologies we’ll be able to uncover even more information hidden in these items, and eventually be able to give proper credit to their creators.


What other visual indications can you glean from closely examining the textile samples? If the textile has been made into a product, what can you learn from further visual examination?

The sandal bases were never intended for physical use (or even to be seen by living eyes) – they were purely ceremonial and symbolic. Making shoes out of paper to be useful in the afterlife reminds me of the Chinese tradition of burning ‘joss money’ (facsimile money, but also luxury goods, houses, cars, servants etc. made from paper) to send them to spirits in the afterlife – the earthly representation was never intended to be practical. The cartonnage is much too delicate to be actually walked upon, but has lasted the test of time relatively unscathed, and age is shown more by style and location of excavation than wear and tear. There are a couple of cracks in the surface of the plaster, but it’s unclear whether these were obtained during their time as part of the mummy dressing, or since excavation with handling, curating and display. Cartonnage pieces like this were often inscribed with magical or symbolic imagery, and/or the name of the deceased – this was thought to aid the spirit of the dead towards their own tomb in the afterlife.

I find this object more interesting when looking for wear and tear – it is not worn from use. This could be because it was placed new with the grave goods, or perhaps was made for the child during life but never had a chance to be worn? It reminds me of the famous micro-story, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ This little sock is delicate from age, and has survived remarkably well considering the perishable nature or wool and its attraction to insects, also its colouring from natural dyes which can sometimes degrade natural fibres, but here are still vivid. It can be placed in time by the techniques used in its construction – nålbinding is a much older skill than knitting, and is also found as the construction technique used in similar artifacts. 

This object has more extensive signs of wear, which probably occur through handling and transport. The structure itself is sturdy, as the wrappings consist of many padded layers, sometimes wrapped around a wooden or cartonnage shell. The golden studs have the appearance of strong and sturdy metal, reinforcing the whole, but are in fact made from delicate plaster. They appear suspended in the wrappings and have probably been glued there – many are missing. Of course, this object was not intended to be handled or moved at all after completion and burial. The style of the encaustic portrait, and the geometric wrappings place this mummy in time. The date can be narrowed down even further by examining the hairstyle, dress, jewellery etc. – I found a similar example dating from 117 – 138 A.D. In this piece discolouration gives away some of the age, the main wrappings which would have been undyed linen (light cream) and the bands across the chest and legs (originally red) are now a dirty, brown colour. There is no visible evidence of repair or alteration – fortunately this mummy survived intact long enough to see the invent of CT scanning which removes the need for destructive examination.

Are there any elements of the design, detail, decoration, or construction of the textile sample that indicate a story behind the textile or product? (This could be anything from the use of traditional motifs to t-shirt slogans)

Symbolic use of colour was important in ancient Egypt, with some strong themes and meanings running through the choice of colour both in sacred and magical illustrations, and in everyday use.

  • Red – life, but also evil and destruction, fire, blood, vitality, energy, danger
  • Yellow – the sun and eternity, sometimes lightened with white to represent the sacred
  • White – purity, sacredness, cleanliness and clarity, associated with everyday life (because of the colour of undyed linen) but also the transcendent nature of life
  • Black – death, darkness, the underworld, life, birth, resurrection, and fertility (due to the colour of Nile silt). For the Egyptians black bore no connotation of evil

As mentioned earlier, some examples of cartonnage contain inscribed papyri used as filler material which can contain a whole story of its own, but this is generally hidden. These sandal bases are decorated with red, yellow, black, and white pigments. This fits well with their symbolic meanings – red for (after)life and vitality, yellow for the eternity of the afterlife, white for the sacred nature of mummification, and outlining everything, Osiris’ own colour – black, for death and resurrection.

It’s interesting to me that while the sandal bases are only decorative and would never withstand actual use, this little sock would. I wonder why some objects were symbolic and others literal? There’s a kind of irony in the idea that the symbolic sandals which would crumble at the first step have lasted so much better intact than the tough woollen socks that could have walked for miles. Socks of this type were worked from the toe up to the instep, then joined to the heel and lastly the leg. I know from experience that toe-up socks are much easier to custom fit, and wonder if these had been specifically fitted for this child, or bought ‘off the peg’. Their multicolour stripes are so charming, they are much more exciting than adult socks which have been found worked in only one colour. Perhaps the use of colour is significant here too – there are red and yellow as for the sandals, but also green which was interchangeable with black, obviously linked to new life and growth – the afterlife was sometimes called ‘the field of reeds’, or ‘the field of malachite’. 

Apparently, the fabric used for mummy wrapping was provided by the family and friends of the deceased. If you were well-off you might get fabric which had been used to dress a sacred statue on a holy day. Otherwise, and most often, wrappings were made from a mixture of old clothes, sheets, household textiles etc., all made from linen. These were then torn into bandages. Because linen was the predominant fibre in ancient Egypt (wool was considered unclean, cotton and silk didn’t appear until later, and animal skins were taboo and reserved for exclusive use by priests) everybody wore it, regardless of social standing or wealth. Clothing styles were of course different, but once reduced to bandages, even that distinction is removed. True egality amongst the dead! This textile has been treated to last with resins and other chemicals during its assembly. Again, there is terrible irony in a piece of fabric surviving years of daily use, then recycled as wrapping material to last thousands of years, only to be discovered, excavated and misused abominably. The desecration of mummified bodies in more recent history is abysmal – ground up and used as medicine, ‘mummy un-rolling’ as entertainment, as paint pigment (!), dismembered and  displayed around the house, used as fertiliser… the list goes on. Even if this doesn’t bother you on an ethical level it’s surely catastrophic archaeologically and anthropologically. The casings of the body are, of course, totally personalised – their final shape depends on the body at the core, their style depends on the culture and time the deceased belonged to, and it is completed with a lifelike portrait of the deceased in their prime. 

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in textiles and within the broader spheres of design and art. Textiles have a special role to play, as we can attach memories, experiences and sensations, particularly to the wearing of textiles or their close proximity.

It’s tricky to build up an image of the user, as this element of their ensemble is displayed in isolation. All I know for certain is that they were an adult, I don’t even know gender. I don’t feel particularly nostalgic about this item, I suppose most things about it are completely removed from my experience of life (I don’t even get to wear sandals that often). Although they don’t spark nostalgia in me, there is something immediately human about this item – the shape and idea of footprints – walking in someone else’s footprints/shoes, being able to see the path someone has taken from the past to the present. We have all tried our parents’ shoes on as a child – there’s a longing to stand in the past, present, and future all at once.

I find it much easier to imagine a wearer of this item – it is such a ubiquitous item, evocative of comfort, security, and warmth. It makes me totally nostalgic, both for my own little feet back in the mists of childhood, and for little feet I have known (and sometimes made socks for). I think this was definitely at play when I chose this item. The sandal bases had sparked a thought about ‘standing in the past’, but this sock crystallised it. I feel this item speaks loudly to all those who make with their hands – whether in fibre arts, textiles, or further afield. This is a beautiful and neat example of good and lasting design, and how confident craftsmanship can last the ages and inspire the future, never losing touch with its humanity.

It’s a little bit easier than with the sandal bases to build a story of this person, but the information we have is still so limited. We can gather general information about the average member of society at the time, but not about this individual. He was, however, an individual. His wrappings remind me of quilted blankets, or a padded sleeping bag, and the care which has been taken to wrap him is clear, adding a certain amount of comfiness and cosiness to his journey to the afterlife – he has been tucked in. 

Useful links / References

Examples of other Egyptian woollen socks

Egyptian woollen sock in the British Museum


Nålbound Egyptian sock pattern

About Cartonnage

Cartonnage processing

Mummy preparation

Cartonnage sandals with decoration

Cartonnage sandals with scorpions

Cartonnage feet with sandals

Fragment of mummy wrapping

‘Re-rolling’ a mummy

Use of colour in ancient Egypt

Use of textiles in ancient Egypt

Analysing pigments

Use of natural dyes in ancient Egypt



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