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Coptic Textiles - Coptic Wiki


[Throughout their long history, Egyptians have practiced the art of weaving. The Coptic period has yielded enormous numbers of textiles displayed in many museums and private collections all over the world. These textiles have come mainly from archaeological excavations of burial grounds and akwam (mounds containing antique objects).

The pieces attest a variety of uses, functional as well as ornamental (see COSTUME, CIVIL; COSTUME, MILITARY). Coptic textiles are rich in iconographic images (see BIBLICAL SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART; CHRISTIAN SUBJECTS IN COPTIC ART; MYTHOLOGICAL SUBJECTS IN ). To the present day, certain towns in Egypt such as Naqadah, Isna, Akhmim, and others, are still known for unique kinds of textiles. Some of the weavers still keep their looms in their homes. This entry is composed of five articles by various authors:

Types of Fibers Manufacturing Techniques Organization of Production Iconography of Woven Textiles Iconography of Resist-Dyed Textiles]

Types of Fibers

Coptic weavers used yarn made from four types of fibers all known from the pharaonic period or the Greco-Roman era. They were linen, wool, silk, and cotton.


Wild flax, the source of linen, grows all around the Mediterranean, but no trace of it has been found in Egypt. Nevertheless, it was cultivated there from the most remote periods; it was probably introduced from western Asia. Flax became and remained the characteristic Egyptian textile fiber during the whole of the pharaonic period. Beginning from the time of the Ptolemies, it was rivaled by wool, but it remained widely used for linen cloth or for the warp for textiles woven in wool.

Since the techniques of harvesting and treating the fibers underwent practically no development during these periods, we can easily reconstruct the different operations on the basis of the numerous representations painted in Egyptian tombs and on the testimony of ancient authors such as Pliny in his Natural History.

Flax seeds were sown in the middle of November, when the Nile floodwaters had receded. The plant was harvested in different stages of its growth according to the use that was to be made of it. When still in flower it yielded green stalks, whose soft fibers were utilized in the manufacture of byssos, a Greek term for linen that was applied to the fine linen cloths of very high quality that clothed important persons and wrapped mummies. Yellowed stalks furnished stronger fibers but made the weaving less fine. Very mature and tough stalks served for the making of cordage and matting.

The stalks were gathered by hand and bound together according to size to form bundles, which were then exposed to the sun. After they were dried, they were put through a process of dressing. The seeds were separated from the stalks by means of a wooden comb with long, fine teeth. To isolate the fibers, the bundles were untied and steeped (retted) in water for some ten days. The fibers were then pounded with a mallet and thereafter combed (carded) to separate the fibers and remove those that were too short or parts that were too tough. Damaged fibers could be used for making cheap clothes, wicks for lamps, or cordage. The fibers ready for spinning were made up into bundles or balls and kept in earthenware pots or in baskets. The distaff, a stick holding the quantity of fibers intended for spinning, seems only to have appeared in the Roman period.


Although many classical authors such as Herodotus, Pliny, Apuleius, and Plutarch report that the Egyptians felt an aversion for wool, because they considered it unclean, it is probable that it was employed in very ancient times. In any event, samples of wool have been discovered from as early as the predynastic period, and the walls of tombs present again and again pictures of flocks of sheep, whose fleeces were undoubtedly not disdained.

In the Roman and Christian period, however, wool was widely appreciated. Egypt has not yielded any information on the preparation of wool, but it is easy to describe the operations in the light of what took place in other countries. Shearing was accomplished either by pulling the wool off the sheep with a comb or with a metal tool in the form of scissors. The wool was washed and beaten with clubs to remove the impurities. This process at the same time separated the fibers and allowed the wool to be carded more easily.


The use of silk probably spread in the Roman world at the period when Rome conquered Syria and a part of western Asia. The Greeks knew of the existence of the silkworm, which eats mulberry leaves and spins itself a cocoon, in which it metamorphoses into a moth. They also knew of the simple process of immersing the cocoons in hot water and unwinding their long silk thread and then joining several together and winding them on a spool (Forbes, 1956, Vol. 4, pp. 50-58). But Greek production of silk was never so significant as the importing of silk thread and fabric from the Far East. For a long time the silk trade was the monopoly of Sassanid Persia, which imported silk from China and sold it in the Roman Empire in the form of thread or fabric at exorbitant prices. That is why many people resorted to smuggling in order to obtain the precious thread at a lower price.

For its part, China jealously guarded the secret of the manufacture of silk. According to a legend, perhaps partly true, a Chinese princess at the beginning of the fifth century smuggled into Chotan some silkworm eggs and some mulberry seeds hidden in her headdress. In 557 two monks brought silkworm eggs to Constantinople, thus beginning a celebrated and flourishing industry. It was, no doubt, Byzantine military officers and high officials who introduced silk into Egypt. From the fifth century, there was an imperial gynaikeion (factory) at Alexandria that wove silk for the court of Byzantium. Other large cities with a Greek population, such as Akhmm or Antinoopolis, may have had workshops weaving silk. Nevertheless, it is very probable that numerous items must have been imported that were already woven.

It would even seem that people in Alexandria developed the practice of importing silk fabric in order to unravel the threads to use them in making new articles to fit the taste of the day. This was certainly a long process that called for great dexterity.

However that may be, the tombs of this period have yielded a quantity of silks with typically Sassanid decorations—horsemen placed face-to-face, animals enclosed in geometrical tracery, the tree of life, palmettes, and hearts. Embroideries in silk on linen, presenting scenes from the New Testament, such as a Nativity in the Louvre Museum, Paris, or an Annunciation and the holy women at the tomb, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, witness to a clearly Byzantine influence. At Akhmim there have been discovered clavi (vertical, ornamental bands) woven in silk and appliqued down the front of linen or wool tunics, no doubt of local production. It appears, further, that the iconography of the silk fabrics strongly influenced the weavers in linen and wool, for we frequently find compositions or themes drawn from the Sassanid repertoire. In addition, this fashion for Persian motifs was no doubt in part stimulated by the Persian occupation of Egypt from 615 to 618.


Cotton is the down adhering to the seeds enclosed in the pods of the cotton plant, and its production requires shelling, beating, and carding.

Native to India, Abyssinia, and Senegal, cotton was known in Egypt from the Greek period on. Herodotus mentions a “cuirass” of Amasis of the twenty-sixth dynasty, the decoration of which was made in part from “wool from a tree.” Pliny reports that Egyptian priests wore cotton garments. The oldest known cotton goods, dated at the beginning of the first century A.D., were found at Meroë in the Sudan and at Karanog in Nubia. It was perhaps from there that cotton fabrics were exported to Egypt, although no trace of them now remains. We must, in fact, await the Arab conquest in the seventh century for the actual cultivation of cotton to be introduced into the country. Nevertheless, if the Arabs preferred cotton, the Copts continued the traditional manufacture of fabrics in linen and wool. It is possible, however, that they employed cotton for some as yet undetermined purposes.


  • Forbes, R. J. Studies in Ancient Technology. Leiden, 1956.


Manufacturing Techniques

Textile manufacture consists of a number of techniques— spinning, dyeing, and weaving. These may be quite simple or of considerable sophistication.


Spinning is the general term for three operations by which the fibers are joined together to form a thread—drawing, twisting, and winding. Linen, wool, and cotton must of necessity be spun, but silk, already in long threads, can be woven without spinning.

Spinning Without Implements. Fibers can be spun without implements by rolling the fibers between the fingers, between the palms, or more commonly between palm and thigh to leave one hand free for drawing out the threads before twisting them.

Spinning with Implements. For spinning with implements, a mass of fibers is attached to a spindle, a tapered wooden stick that is notched or hooked at one end and weighted by a whorl (disk) of wood, stone, bronze, or ivory at the other. The weaver can allow the spindle to hang free at the end of the fibers, turning of its own weight, or she can hold it in one hand, rolling it on her thigh. As the spindle turns it draws out the fibers with a torsion that makes a thread, or yarn.

When the thread becomes inconveniently long, it is wound on the spindle’s notch or hook. The most skilled spinners handle several spindles at one time. Even today in the Egyptian countryside women can be seen spinning on their doorsteps while carrying on a conversation. It is not known when the spindle first appeared. Although most shafts have vanished, a quantity of whorls dating from 5000 B.C. have been discovered in countries on the shores of the Mediterranean.

There has been much discussion of the direction of the torsion of the fibers, Z or S; that is, to the right or to the left. R. Pfister had established that the Z torsion was peculiar to India and the Middle East, while the S torsion was characteristic of Egypt. It has subsequently been ascertained that these two ways of spinning were common to both geographical areas. In fact, it seems rather that the direction is to be attributed not to geography but to the natural torsion of the fiber when it is steeped or simply to the technique peculiar to each spinner.


Dyeing took place at different stages of manufacture depending on the fiber. Linen was dyed after it was spun, wool before. Finished clothes were rarely dyed, although white garments were bleached as a final operation.

Three documents, containing recipes for dyeing wool, provide valuable information on the coloring materials and the techniques of dyeing used in the ancient world: a papyrus preserved in the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden; another at the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities, in Stockholm, dated at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century; and a collection attributed to Bolos Democritos of Mendes, who lived at Alexandria toward 200 B.C., the oldest copy of which, dated from the end of the tenth century, is in the National Marcan Library, Venice (MS 299).

To this information may be added the fruits of archaeological research and chemical analysis. At Athribis (Atrib) in the Delta, for example, a dyer’s establishment has been discovered, one room of which was occupied by nineteen pits still covered with traces of dyes. The analyses of Coptic textiles in the Louvre deriving from Antinoopolis, made in the 1930s by R. Pfister, have made it possible to determine the nature of a number of dyes, and his results in large measure confirm the ancient writings.

Coptic textiles in general consist of a weft of wool on a warp of linen. Since linen is difficult to dye, it remained untreated. Only the wool was dyed.

The actual operation of dyeing was preceded by two stages essential for the dye to take proper hold of the thread.

The first was washing to remove the fatty substances naturally contained in the wool. Dyers used a detergent (soda, potassium, asphodel or some other alkaline plant, soapwort, or urine fermented to release ammonia).

The second stage was mordanting, or treating with an appropriate salt or caustic, in order that the dye might adhere to the fibers. The caustic most often used was an aluminum salt, alum, employed with an acid auxiliary. But salts of iron, such as acetate or sulphate, were also used.

The final stage consisted of plunging the skeins of thread or fibers into the dyeing vats.

The coloring materials, of vegetable or animal origin, offer an extremely rich chromatic palette. The most resistant reds were obtained from madder, the root of Rubia tinctorum. In weaker proportion it yielded rose. Archil, a lichen originating from the eastern Mediterranean, was also used for a range of red to violet. Although little employed in Egypt because of their high price, the eggs of the female Kermes, an insect of Oriental origin, afforded scarlet dyes, brilliant and very stable, used for dyeing precious garments.

Cochineal, an insect related to the Kermes and imported from Armenia, produced red. Another source was lac, a sort of resin secreted by the lac insect and harvested from trees. The insect was imported from India into Egypt when relations with Armenia, Byzantium, and the north were interrupted by the Arab invasions in the middle of the seventh century. Because of this fact, it is important for the dating of Coptic textiles.

Blue came from woad (Isatis tinctoria), which was cultivated in the in the Christian period. The majority of blues, however, were obtained by macerating the leaves of the indigo plant: Indigofera tinctoria, imported from India, and Indigofera argentea, which grows wild in Nubia, at Kordofan, at Sennar, and in Abyssinia. Purples, ranging from lilac to violet-blue and from blue- black to black, were achieved by the use of indigo over a base color of madder, or conversely, in varying proportions. In the same way, yellows, which were obtained from Persian berries (from a Rhamnus plant), were transmuted on an indigo base into various shades of green.

The famous true purple deriving from the Murex, a shellfish of the eastern Mediterranean, was perhaps employed by the Egyptians. Nevertheless, Pfister found no trace of it at the time of his analyses, no doubt owing to the fact that this extremely costly coloring would have considerably increased the price of Egyptian fabrics (Pfister, 1935, pp. 16, 28, 31, 36, 41).

By playing on variations in the proportions of the dyestuffs or by utilizing one caustic or another it was possible to obtain all these colors, of manifold shades and sumptuous hues, which are characteristic of Coptic textiles.


A loom is an apparatus for holding a set of parallel threads, the warp, through which other threads, the weft, are interlaced at right angles. The origin of weaving on a loom in Egypt is extremely old. Specimens of textiles and woven basket work from Neolithic times have been found at the same time and on the same sites, such as al-‘Imarah and al-Badari. A dish from al-Badari in red earthenware with a white pattern shows skeins hanging from a thread, waiting to be used on the loom represented lower down.

The warp is prepared by stretching the threads either on pegs fixed to the walls or on posts driven into the ground. These bundles of thread can then be attached to the loom.

Horizontal Loom. The horizontal (low-warp) loom is the oldest known in Egypt. It was used exclusively until the end of the Middle Empire and sporadically thereafter. It reappeared in the Roman period, with many improvements added. The warp was stretched between two beams, fixed to four pegs on the ground. The threads of the warp were divided into two layers formed by the odd threads being attached to one stick or bar (the heddle rod) by small loops and the even threads being attached to another stick (the shed rod).

When the heddle rod was raised, a space (shed) was made between the two layers of warp through which the weft thread, often attached to a shuttle, was passed. Before the weft was returned, the shed rod was raised to create another shed, thus locking the weft in place. While the shed was changing the weft was beaten in, or beaten up, against the previous weft with the help of a wooden comb. The separation of the layers of warp threads (shedding) could be regulated by means of wooden pins.

Vertical Loom. The vertical (high warp) loom was used during the New Empire. It was probably introduced by the Hyksos invaders from the east at the end of the Middle Empire, which is why it is thought to have been invented in Syria or Palestine. It offered the same characteristics as the horizontal loom, but the parts were placed vertically, which made it more manageable for the weaver, who did not need help in order to operate the heddle and shed rods. It practically displaced the horizontal loom and was used until the present time.

Warp-Weighted Loom. The warp-weighted loom was a vertical loom in which the warp was kept taut, thanks to a series of weights made of stone or hardened clay. Weights that must have belonged to this kind of loom have been discovered in Egypt since the time of the New Empire. It is to be noted that a modern loom with weights, adapted as a horizontal loom, was still in use recently in the village of Maharraqah in Middle Egypt.

Treadle Loom. The treadle loom was a horizontal loom, in which the layers of warp threads, hanging through a harness, were moved by pedals (treadles). Each time a pedal was pressed, a layer of warp threads was moved up or down, opening a shed for the shuttle to pass. Spanning arms regulated the spacing and tension of the threads, while a more efficient batten (instead of a comb) allowed the threads to be beaten up each time the shuttle passed. Such looms permitted the use of more layers of warp and thus more intricate patterns.

It was perhaps this kind of loom that occupied the eight loompits found at Dayr Epiphanius in Thebes in the sixth century. We do not know whether such techniques existed in pharaonic times. In any case, this system seems to have been adopted in Alexandria about the first century.

Drawloom. The drawloom was a horizontal loom which had in addition to treadles a second method of raising the layers of warp threads, operated by means of a system of cords hanging at one side of the frame and forming the “simple” or “draw.” Helpers (drawboys) were responsible for pulling the cords, which were previously selected. The cords to be operated at the same time were bound together by a fine cord to form a large loop. The loop so formed was attached to another cord that itself was looped round a vertical cord. The background of the fabric depended on the action of the drawboy, while the weaver seated at the loom made the pattern using treadles. The pattern was virtually in existence when the set of the loops was completed.

It was on this type of loom that the figured materials that required the use of many layers of warp threads were made. This technique was probably invented in China for the manufacture of the richly patterned silks for which the Chinese were famous. Alexandria seems to have been the first great textile center in the West to have used the drawloom. In fact, classical writers mention the “figured Alexandrian materials” that were particularly appreciated in Rome: “But weaving with a very great number of warp threads, what is called damask, was undertaken by Alexandria” (Pliny, Natural History 8. 74. 2). On these looms one could weave either a continuous pattern or repeated motifs over the whole surface of the fabric. Damasks have no “wrong side”; that is, the colors of background and pattern are interchangeable. A series of fabrics in linen and wool, with a complex geometrical, plant, or figured pattern, found at Antinoopolis, seem to witness to the use of the drawloom, no doubt at Antinoopolis itself.

Tablet loom. A tablet loom used from ten to a hundred square tablets, or plaques, of bone, wood, leather or cardboard, pierced with holes. The holes might be in the four corners of the tablet or more numerous. The warp threads (of dyed wool) passed through the holes and were gathered and tied together at each end. Each time the tablets were twisted, to create a shed, a weft thread (of natural linen) was passed through, holding the twisted warp threads in position. The weft thread would thus be entirely covered by the twisted warps, which made the pattern. This loom, slow but simple to use, permitted the making of decorative braids, which could be sewn on to the edges of garments.

The oldest known example of braiding is a geometrically patterned border found in Thebes dating from the time of Hatshepsut in the Eighteenth Dynasty. A sizeable number of braided strips and a number of tablets used in such braiding have been discovered at Coptic sites. A. wrote of an embroidery kit he discovered in Antinoopolis at the end of the nineteenth century: “This kit includes . . . a complete set of square tablets in sycamore wood, pierced by a hold at each of four corners, the purpose of which is hard to specify at present” (Gayet, 1900, p. 6). The Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, have twenty-five tablets of the embroidress Euphemiaan from a tomb excavated by Gayet in Antinoopolis. The Louvre has seventeen tablets probably found in Antinoopolis.

Weaving Techniques

A vast number of Coptic fabrics have come to light, and a mass of documentation has been discovered. These sources make possible a precise study of the weaving processes used in the manufacture and decoration of Coptic textiles. Coptic weavers used a variety of techniques.

Plain weaving. Plain, or tabby, weaving is the simple weave described above in which the weft passes over and under alternate warps the full width of the piece of fabric. It was used for linen, wool, and cotton and could produce cloth varying from very fine to coarse.

Tapestry Weaving. Tapestry weaving is a kind of plain weaving on a high-warp or low-warp loom in which many colored wefts, usually wool, are interlaced with undyed warps (wool, linen, or silk) according to the requirements of the design to produce a fairly heavy fabric. Most tapestry was executed in louisine, a taffeta weave (a variety of plain weave) in which fine warp threads and heavier weft threads present a corded or ribbed effect. The technique made it possible to produce motifs or whole scenes in monochrome or multicolor.

Fine detail and an illusion of three-dimensionality could be achieved by means of the flying shuttle, which laid additional threads over the basic tapestry-woven motif.

Tapestry could be used for decorative panels to be appliquéd on a plain woven fabric, or canvas, or for a whole fabric. When the first Coptic fabrics came to light, their relationship to the technique of French Gobelin tapestries led to their being called Coptic Gobelins.

Tablet Weaving. In tablet weaving, as described above, colored warp threads passed through pierced tablets are twisted and then held in place with a natural weft thread to produce strips of braid, ribbon, or belting. A famous example of this technique is the girdle of Ramses II, from the New Empire (length: 5.7 yards [5.20 m]; width: 4.9 inches [12.7 cm] to 1.9 inches [4.8 cm]) preserved in the Merseyside County Museum, Liverpool.

Bouclé Weaving. In bouclé (looped-pile) weaving, the weft thread passes at regular intervals around little rods to form loops. Once these loops have been stabilized by the gathering together of the weft threads, it is possible to withdraw the little rods and start the operation over again. The result is a heavy, shaggy fabric such as a ninth-century example showing the Triumph of the Cross, in the Louvre, and a fourth-century example showing cupids in a boat, in the British Museum, London.

This type of rough-textured fabric could be of Mesopotamian origin and suggests the kaunakes cloth resembling fleece worn by Ebih-il the Steward, dating about 3000 B.C., now in the Louvre. According to E. Cherblanc (1937), the technique of boucle fabrics was an Egyptian invention, which was later adapted in the East for the manufacture of carpets. Nevertheless, in Egypt the most ancient example dates from the Eleventh Dynasty and comes from Dayr al- Bahri.

Embroidery. Needle-embroidered fabrics are much rarer in Egypt. In the Brooklyn Museum, there are four fragments, of unknown origin, dating from the fifth to sixth centuries. One shows an angel front on, holding a goblet and a palm; the others have birds and a vase. These embroideries in flax and wool are executed with chain stitching. Examples preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Louvre in silk on a linen canvas show a Christian iconography: the Last Supper, what appears to be the Adoration of the Magi, what appears to be the Adoration of the Shepherds, the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene, the Annunciation and Visitation, angels (Victoria and Albert Museum), and the Nativity (Louvre). The composition and style of these fabrics are clearly Byzantine (fifth to sixth centuries), and therefore they are not, properly speaking, Coptic art. Moreover, their restricted number in Egypt tends to confirm the foreign origin of this technique.

Sprang. Sprang, a word of Scandinavian origin, originally described any loose-textured fabric but now is specifically restricted to the technique of plaiting (braiding) tensioned threads. Fabric is made by crossing manually or with a needle the tensioned threads of a chain fixed at both extremities, each row being temporarily kept in position by a rod. This technique, which is similar to that for lace making, can be recognized in a significant batch of bags and hair nets found in Egypt.


  • Burnham, H. B. “Bolton ‘Quilts’ or ‘Caddows.’” de liaison du CIETA (Lyons) 41-42 (1975):22-29.
  • Cherblanc, E. Le Kaunakes. Paris, 1937.
  • Du Bourguet, P. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Paris, 1964. Forbes, R. J. Studies in Ancient Technology, Vol. 4. Leiden, 1956. Gayet, A. Notice relative aux objets recueillis à Antinoé pendant les fouilles exécutés en 1899-1900. Paris, 1900.
  • Kendrick, A. F. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying-Grounds in Egypt. London, 1922.
  • Pfister, R. “Teinture et alchimie dans l’orient hellénistique.” In Seminarium Rondakovianum, Vol. 7. Prague, 1935.
  • Staudigel, O. “Tablet-Weaving and the Technique of the Rameses- Girdle.” de liaison du CIETA (Lyons) 41-42 (1975):71-100.


Organization of Production

The study of the organization of Coptic textile production is based on Greek and Coptic documents, public and private, written on papyri or ostraca. Literary texts contain some useful pieces of information but are decidedly less helpful than the documents. The remains of ancient fabrics, which are of basic importance in other respects, cannot tell us much as regards the organization of production.

Stages of Production

Textiles in Coptic Egypt, as in earlier periods, were made at home by women and their servants mainly for household needs and in shops by professional craftsmen working for the market. Either way, there were several stages of production, which were more or less specialized.

First came the treating of the raw linen or wool, the dyeing, and the spinning of the thread. Treating of fibers and spinning were generally carried on by women at home, along with their other chores. Sometimes highly specialized workmen took part in this stage of production, but it was rather rare and concerned only linen. Silk thread was imported during the Byzantine epoch and not produced until the introduction of sericulture in the Arab period. Cotton was rare. It was unusual to have wool or linen dyed at home, even for home-woven fabrics. Dyeing was usually done by specialists who had properly equipped workshops, dyes purchased from merchants, and a good knowledge of techniques.

Second came the actual weaving process. The weaver produced fabric in the size of the clothes or other articles to be made from it.

Third was finishing. Various processes such as fulling (working wool to give it a tight, smooth texture), bleaching (lightening), shearing, and embroidering were used depending on the raw material and type of fabric. These tasks were carried out by professionals.

Finally, garments, hangings, cushions, or other articles were sewn. Sometimes sewing was entrusted to tailors, but usually that was not necessary.


The proportional shares of domestic and commercial manufacture cannot be defined. Home production is rarely described in the sources and therefore is insufficiently known, although it certainly played a significant role in production. It may be presumed that fine-quality, decorative fabrics—luxury goods—such as those now in museums were made by professionals in specialized crafts, although home production cannot be excluded.

The majority of people professionally manufacturing fabrics were the craftsmen working on their own and at their own risk. They owned their tools and had easy contact with their customers. Usually all members of the family were engaged in the work. Of great help were the apprentices, whose wages most probably increased with their years of service. There is evidence of this practice in earlier periods, and there is no reason to suppose the custom was changed. Hired workers were employed very rarely, for only an exceptionally difficult situation (most frequently debts) could force an adult specialist to give up his independence. This did not apply to fulling and dyeing, which required appropriately equipped workshops and qualified craftsmen. Most individuals did not have the qualifications or equipment to work on their own. Slaves were rarely engaged in workshops in the Roman period and only sporadically in the Coptic period.

Thus, the Coptic production structure, inherited from the past, was maintained despite significant economic and social changes. In the Coptic period there were a certain number of craftsmen dependent on great landowners, but it was a rare phenomenon. The Egyptian elite purchased textiles from craftsmen, just like other inhabitants. There is no information about the existence of the imperial weaving workshops, either in rural areas or in Alexandria. There is a lack of evidence on the activities of larger workshops employing many specialists. The church did not play any significant role in the production of textiles. In some monasteries and hermitages weaving was common but on a limited scale.

In all the specialized crafts, their practice was hereditary. This was not the result of the state’s intervention but rather the effect of the general character of economic life, such as little territorial and social mobility, the convenience of inheriting tools and customers from one’s father, and the ease in acquiring the necessary professional training. Skills were either passed by father to son or were acquired during apprenticeships lasting two to three years but sometimes even eight years. During the Coptic times the custom of sending one’s son away for several years to another specialist in the same branch of production was probably common. A man’s professional capabilities were thus expanded by the experience gained in another family. It seems that a craftsman having once acquired his profession could not abandon it. Nothing indicates that the state would in any way determine the number of specialists in a given branch in a given locality, but such a possibility cannot be excluded.

Craftsmen belonging to the same specialization and living in the same area would establish a guild. There was no compulsion to join, but in practice everybody joined. Guilds were established not only in cities but also in villages, where they constituted a significant proof of the development of a given specialization. Such corporations of craftsmen in Byzantine times did not resemble medieval guilds in Europe. They were not engaged in regulating the size of production, prices, or access to the profession. They were, above all, associations assembling craftsmen to face the state. They were engaged in paying taxes and fulfilling the orders and other services imposed on them by the authorities. They also organized social and religious life; their members could expect their comrades’ help in difficult situations.

Such craftsmen must have belonged chiefly to the Coptic- speaking population of Egypt. Greeks, no doubt numerous in Alexandria, could have also inhabited the towns in the rural areas. There was probably no difference between the living standards and methods of work between the Greeks and the Copts. Although the country’s elite was mainly Greek in Byzantine times, the division into Greeks and Copts did not coincide with the division into rich and poor. One wonders if the fabrics made by Greek weavers differ from those manufactured by Copts, or if they bore any signs of ties with the Hellenistic tradition. The answer to the question, always hypothetical because of the lack of reliable sources, depends on the evaluation of both the character and function of in times when the Greeks were still living in Egypt. Such differences probably did not exist. One has to remember that the form of fabrics depended also, and maybe above all, on the customers’ taste.


According to the papyri, most textiles were made to order for a particular customer, who specified the size, color, and ornamentation of the item. One may presume that cartoons (drawings) of ornaments were in use as samples. Their use is taken for granted by all researchers, although not even one such sample has been preserved, and written sources are silent on the subject. Attempts to find this information in papyrus collections have not brought any results so far. Frequently the customer brought his own thread to the weaver. Most probably the system of placing orders pertained mainly to the more costly, luxurious fabrics, for a craftsman could not waste manufacturing time and consume expensive materials for items he was not sure of selling. With his small stock of material resources, many unsold goods meant catastrophe.

That contacts between craftsman and customer were common is also indicated by scanty mention of garment merchants, whereas information about yarn merchants is more frequent. The fact that spinners worked at home instead of in a few large workshops meant that weavers in larger cities could not have had direct contact with them. Because weavers sold their products on their own, merchants could act only as intermediaries in transactions with customers, namely the inhabitants of larger cities or even other countries. Export of Egyptian fabrics, quite considerable during the Roman period, largely diminished later due to general impoverishment and the difficulties of navigating the Mediterranean.

The Roman state became an important customer; it required above all garments for the army. (It is not known if these garments were only for detachments stationed in Egypt.) The state owned textile workshops and it required some craftsmen, in the shops or at home, to fill orders according to the quantity of textiles planned by state authorities. They were provided with raw materials obtained partly from taxes in kind, collected from private craftsmen, and partly by purchase with money taxes from the general population. Such tax money also paid for their labor. In principle, craftsmen were not more burdened than other taxpayers, but in practice they were paid little and payment was delayed. Some of the in-kind taxes were in the form of fine-quality linen goods, which were probably offered as presents to favored individuals and institutions, such as the church, or were sold.

Centers of Textile Production

Those people who are under the impression that a great number of fabrics originated mainly from two ancient centers, Panopolis (Akhmim) and Antinoopolis, will be surprised by the statement, well documented in written sources, mainly papyri, that various branches of the textile craft existed in all localities known today. These include not only of nomes (metropolises) but also villages. Most probably the production of luxury fabrics was concentrated in cities, where richer, more sophisticated customers lived, and where craftsmen could specialize more narrowly and thus produce fabrics that were technically and artistically superior. But there is no sure evidence that the village craftsmen did not also participate in luxury production.

Although direct evidence is largely lacking, the great city of Alexandria may be presumed to be among the outstanding cities in textile production (M. A. Marzoul, 1948-1949, pp. 111-35).

The necropolises of Panopolis and Antinoopolis have supplied a considerable part of the fabrics that are conserved in museums.

In the first century A.D., Panopolis had the reputation of being an old production center of linen fabrics (Strabo The Geography 4. 913). Papyri, mainly the text published by Z. Borkowski in 1975, confirm considerable concentration of various specialists there in the fourth century. In the Byzantine era it was a medium-sized city, in which the Greek elite developed a rich and intensive cultural life. At the same time, it happened to be one of the more important centers of Coptic culture.

Antinoopolis was established in 130 A.D. as a Greek polis (city) and became a provincial capital, but during Byzantine times, its Greek character was blurred due to the influx of Coptic population—there the weavers were surely Copts—and the consolidation of the Coptic elite. In general, historians of art tend to overestimate its size and the importance of its ties with Greek culture, but it did not differ from other cities of administrative rank, such as Arsinoë in the Fayyum. Written sources do not confirm that Antinoopolis played a more significant role than other cities in the production of textiles. The richness of textiles found in its necropolises reflects the wealth of its inhabitants, and if there are significant stylistic differences between fabrics found there and those from Panopolis, a subject of discussion, then one should not consider them a reflection of cultural differences between the two cities.


The complexity and degree of specialization of Coptic textile production may be indicated by the special terms found in the sources, some of which are borrowed from Latin.

Weaving Proper

γέρδιος (gérdios), general term signifying the weaver (υφάντης [hyphantes] is very rare)

λινούφος (linouphos), linen fabrics weaver, a term that declined in favor of στιππουργός (stippourgos) (στίππιον, σίππιον, which previously meant tow, in the Byzantine era became a synonym for λίνον)

λανάριος, λαναπουργός (lanarios, lanapourgos), specialist in wool fabrics

βαρβαρικάριος (barbarikarios), manufacturer of brocade

βρακάριος (brakarios), manufacturer of trousers

ταρσικάριος (tarsikarios), manufacturer of fabrics that were a specialty of Tarsus

καυνακοποιός, καυνακοπλόκος (kaunakopoios, kaunakoplokos), manufacturer of fabrics with projecting long locks and thread tufts

ουηλάριος (ouelarios), manufacturer of gauzes, such as for curtains

ταπητάριος, ταπητας (tapetarios, tapetas), manufacturer of rugs

τριμιτάριος (trmitarios), manufacturer of fabrics with a three- thread warp

τυλοπλόκος, τυλοφάντης (tyloplokos, tylophantes), manufacturer of pillows.

Other Aspects of Textile Production. βαφεύς, κογχιστής (bapheus, konkhistes), dyer γναφεύς (gnapheus), fuller

εριοκάρτης (eriokartes), person who sheared off the surface of material

ηπητής, ‛ράπτης (epetes, rhates), tailor

λινοπλυγτής (linoplygtes), specialist in treating raw linen ποικιλτής, πλουμάριος (poikiltes, ploumarios), embroiderer caht (saht). cast (sasht), weave

s]t (shtit) and upant/c (ypantes), weaver


  • T. Reil’s older book, Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Gewerbes im hellenistischen Aegypten, Borna-Leipzig, 1913, is not sufficient today because of the influx of new sources. It is replaced by works of F. Dunand, “L’Artisanat du textile dans l’Egypte Lagide,” Ktema 4, 1979; E. Wipszycka, L’Industrie textile dans l’Egypte Romaine, Wroclaw, 1965; I. F. Fikhman, “Egipiet na rubieze dwuch epoch,” Remieslenniki i riemieslennyj trud w IV-seriedinie VII, Moscow, 1965. The basic theses of Fikhman’s book were presented in an article by the same author, “Grundfragen der handwerklichen Produktion in Ägypten,” Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte 4, 1969. Cf. also E. Wipszycka’s extensive review of that book in Journal of Juristic Papyrology 16-17 (1971). Further sources include Z. Borkowski, Une Description topographique des immeubles à Panapolis, Warsaw, 1975; and M. A. Marzoul, “Alexandria as a Textile Centre,” de la société d’archéologie copte 13 (1948-1949):111-35.


Iconography of Woven Textiles

Coptic textiles are rich in iconography, but that richness is less the result of the number of themes presented than of the variety of detail, brilliant color, and iridescent effect. Most decorated textiles were produced by the tapestry weaving of brightly dyed wools, although tablet weaving and boucle weaving were also used. The survey of subjects offered here does not claim to be exhaustive.

Like all complicated movements spread over a period of time, this iconography evolved in different ways during the approximately ten centuries (third to twelfth) that it lasted. Some subjects have the advantage of being depicted many times; others make only an occasional if not a single appearance. Among those subjects present at the beginning, some, prominent for a period, later disappeared, while new subjects came forward. But others, among the oldest, were used throughout the period. All those that lasted, whether a short or long time, were altered in either external appearance or meaning. This survey will follow a chronological development.

The subjects of this iconography varied according to the kind of article they adorned. Scenes depicting people commonly appeared on the hangings or panels for walls and the orbicula (roundels) and square panels that decorated tunics and shawls.

Busts are shown in small panels along with some animal or bird; at the end of the last period some even appeared on tunic cuffs between two decorative motifs. Ornamental themes generally appeared on neck openings, plastrons (biblike trimmings), clavi (vertical bands), tunic or coat cuffs, cushion covers, and shawls.

Proto-Coptic Period (Third through Mid-Fifth Centuries)

In the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, the Egyptians substituted the forms of Greek and Roman gods for those of their own pharaonic gods. There is no trace of the pharaonic heritage other than the evocation of the Nile god, seen from an Alexandrian and Roman angle. Christian themes were virtually nonexistent. Greco-Roman and decorative themes were predominant, especially as developed in the Greek city of Alexandria. To this preliminary period belong Dionysiac characters such as Dionysus himself in the State Museum, Berlin (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) and the Abegg Foundation, Riggisberg; the bust of the goddess Gaea, in the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad; the Nile god, in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; and the fish and other important fragments originally from ANTINOOPOLIS that are now in the Guimet Museum, Paris, and the Louvre.

The Proto-Coptic period picks up some of the characters in its own more stylized way, as well as many others of very varied appearance. They include the Parthian horseman, the centaur, the Three Graces, Victory, Eros the archer, Nereids riding a sea creature, the four seasons, and even the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh. One of the most important is Dionysus. He is found either face-to-face with Ariadne, each as a bust on a separate panel as in the fifth-century group in the Louvre, or in bacchic scenes with whirling dancing girls, some holding castanets. Square panels are occupied by mythological scenes with several characters. Scenes of farm work enliven a series of orbicula belonging to the Brooklyn Museum. The country scenes in which the shepherd predominates are found on clavi and wide ornamental bands found in the Louvre.

The putti (cupids), deriving from the Roman art of Pompeii, are represented in different activities, such as a small group of steersmen on boucle material in the British Museum. They are more often used for decorative purposes, as in an important fragment of a fourth-century hanging in the Louvre, where they are grouped like grape pickers or musicians in scroll patterns.

Certain animals and plants are associated with mythological characters: we find a dog and a panther with the huntsman; a clump of grass in the country where the Parthian horseman rides; a fish in the water cleft by a boatload of putti or crossed by a Nereid on a sea creature; and a lamb or a ewe with the shepherd. However, animals and plants may be treated for their own sake. Examples on clavi include chasing of animals, evocative of a hunt (a dog after a lion, or a panther tracking down an antelope); multicolored vine branches or scrolls containing figures; interlaced alternating stems; intersecting squares; and panels with an open flower or a leaf in vertical position shown in full and generally in a reddish purple color that is extensively used in this period. Finally, entwined or alternating plant stems, as well as geometric motifs (meanders, interlacing swastikas, intersecting squares, broken lines in the Greek style) form the outer or inner border of the field that these subjects occupy.

For the most part, the characters conform to their Alexandrian models, as much in their attitudes as in the emblems appropriate to them. They are placed in their traditional relationships to one another. The Parthian horseman, with his body sideways and his head full-face, rides his rearing horse above a small desert animal (usually a hare) or a dog, and makes the gesture of blessing, except in those cases in which he is confused with the hunting horseman. The dancers—either in a group of a man and a woman, or singly, especially the dancing girls—are shown facing front. The gods are most often in the form of a bust, the head turned slightly three- quarters. Each appears with his or her special attributes: Dionysus is crowned with myrtles; the Three Graces are in their habitual grouping; a hovering Victory is shown with laurel wreath; and a Season is treated as chubby-headed.

Already in this period, the realistic or naturalistic aspect characteristic of Alexandrian style is rivaled by a simplification— sometimes partial, sometimes complete—of subject and composition, as well as of form. This new style replaces, more or less, the illusion of sculpture created by the hatching (fine criss- crossed lines) produced by the flying shuttle. It is satisfied with indicating outlines, whether in the features of the face, or in the contours of muscles or limbs. It separates surfaces by color or line, creating a two-dimensional effect. The subject becomes impersonal and tends to be decorative rather than realistic. Details such as clothes, furniture, plants, and animals increasingly fill the empty spaces.

Coptic Period (Mid-Fifth through Seventh Centuries)

The Coptic period is marked by a greater richness of both subject and detail, and consequently of variations on the same subject. Exploitation of the weaving technique flourishes. The reddish-purple color, while still used extensively, is now augmented by other colors.

It is strange that in this period when became more and more predominant in Egypt, so that it reached almost the whole population, Christian subjects are rare, to the point of being limited almost entirely to symbols (the Alpha and Omega, the crux ansata [ankh], the labarum [a Roman imperial standard], and the Byzantine cross), which are often lined up on one piece of cloth. There are very few examples of pieces with a Christian figurative subject. The explanation may be wear and tear, which usually ends in disappearance, or the fact that so many surviving Coptic materials, generally the garments serving as shrouds for the dead in Coptic cemeteries, have suffered damage. One beautiful hanging from the sixth to seventh centuries in the Cleveland Museum of Art represents Mary with the Child, enthroned between two angels and with a border of a series of apostles’ heads. It is one of the rare examples of a genre that may have been rich in the most varied subjects. Some Christian hangings apparently decorated surviving pagan sanctuaries, for example the fifth-century Judgment of Paris in the Hermitage or those scattered with horsemen and plants in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and the Coptic Museum, Cairo. Seventh-century panels show Dionysus with a figure suggesting Isis in the Louvre and a Nereid in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The clothes, or decorative elements originating from them (tunics and shawls and sometimes cushion covers), form the great mass of Coptic materials that have come down to us. The Greco- Roman mythological motifs that decorate them are a remnant from the preceding period, but the profusion and variety of detail are peculiar to this new stage. Nonetheless, there are fewer scenes with persons, while single characters of allegorical or symbolic importance predominate. The constant themes include the Parthian horseman, the huntsman, and the centaur (who tend to become confused); the seasons, with details of dress adapted to each one; the Three Graces; and especially the cycles of Aphrodite, Dionysus, and the Nile god. To be exact, the divinities themselves are seldom represented; characters from their trains—sea nymphs and tritons, dancing girls and putti—are multiplied. Characters are often changed from one category to another. Thus the Nereid may appear with arms uplifted, as if at prayer, or outstretched, shaking castanets or holding a piece of fruit or a bird; or extended above a Triton; or holding a sea creature by the tail. The putti provide the greatest variety of figures: winged or not, crouching, sitting, running, swimming, dancing; arms stretched out, holding cymbals, a plant, a piece of fruit, a goblet, a bird, a pedum (shepherd’s crook), a stone, three balls, a vase; chasing an animal, swimming after a duck whose feet they are holding, or swimming and pushing a medallion bearing a head. The dancing girls and the busts offer a comely variety in the portraits. The female dancers are treated singly or are placed beside a male dancer; they are used so often that they count among the most common subjects.

The decorative themes—geometric, architectural, vegeta, and animal—are not any fewer. As in the preceding period, they may be used to decorate clavi and occasionally cushion covers, sometimes forming a border surrounding a field occupied by the figurative subject.

The predominance of pagan themes raises a question. The clothes found in Coptic tombs are for the most part those of Christians. The Egyptians who used them as shrouds (i.e., the Copts) would undoubtedly have been sensitive to the anathemas of the fifth-century Bishop Asterius of Amaseia in Pontus against the ornamentation of the clothes of Christians with subjects borrowed from pagan mythology. We have to understand the turn of mind typical of the period. During Greco-Roman times, when gods of Greek, and then of Roman, origin were substituted for the Egyptian gods, the pagan Egyptians saw a new outward appearance for their native gods, and Isis-Hathor. The substitution was duly established in the seventh-century tapestry in the Louvre (cited above) that includes Dionysus and an Isiac character. There is every possibility that a similar substitution was made by the Christians in the persons composing the train of Dionysus and Aphrodite: putti, Nereids, and dancing girls. Proof seems to be offered in a fabric in the Louvre representing a Nereid whose nimbus (a frequent attribute of characters in pagan mythology) bears a cross. The sixth-century Shawl of Sabine in the Louvre, originating from Antinoopolis, provides an excellent example. Beside a square panel and an orbiculum with subjects from pagan mythology (Artemis the huntress and Bellerophon’s victory over the Chimera, respectively), another square shows Daphne sinking into a tree to escape pursuit from Apollo, and holding out toward him, like a defensive weapon, a cruciform plant.

Therefore, the ornamental motifs, animal and vegeta, as well as those of the hunt, in their turn take on a new meaning, which could no longer be the evocation of the Elysian Fields and the “blessing” of the Parthian horseman to the Beyond, but rather of Paradise.

Coptic Period Under Islamic Rule (Eighth Through Twelfth Centuries)

As the times of the pharaohs withdrew still further into the past, a revival of their themes could not be anticipated. And so, on a fabric in the Louvre, the form of an eye (Udjat) near the stem and bulb of a plant shows simply the decorative adaptation of a subject met among ancient and abandoned monuments. It occurs only once.

Figurative Christian subjects are always a feature of hangings in churches or the homes of the pious. Those that have survived date from the ninth century, a period of relative well-being for the Coptic community. The Triumph of the Cross, conserved in the Louvre, is outstanding. It is of bouclé material, with a glorious cross potent issuing from an ankh, flanked on the right by what seems to be Balaam’s Prophecy and, on the left, by Jonah rising from the ketos (sea monster), which hangs directly above the Iranian tree of life in an Eden of plants and playing animals.

Some Christian subjects of the same period appear on other pieces, particularly on panels. One such panel in the Detroit Institute of Arts shows the bust of a holy person. Saint George and the dragon decorate a tunic in the Louvre. On a cuff in the Victoria and Albert Museum Christ is depicted in the center of a circle, flanked by the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. In several examples, dispersed among different museums, we find the theme of Joseph sold by his brothers, in its various episodes, either as groups on imposing orbicula, no doubt from shawls, or singly on clavi or cuffs.

But the immense mass of ornamental pieces from garments continue to display the range of examples of Alexandrian origin. There one always finds elements taken from the cycles of Dionysus and Aphrodite, although in the course of these four centuries, their style became purely decorative at the expense of the figurative. The iconography remained Christianized, as much because of the episodic acceptance of Christian subjects as of the presence of small crosses on subjects of pagan origin. But there is no lack of persons—notably dancing girls—of plants, open flowers, fourfooted animals, and birds. Details of clothing reflect the new cultural influences. In the ninth and tenth centuries, a period of much contact with Constantinople, these influences resulted in reproductions of richly ornamented Byzantine vestments. In the tenth century, dancers wearing Oriental Islamic clothes appear on textiles.

It is noteworthy that during the ninth century, Coptic weavers, who had the monopoly of this craft, put heads with Alexandrian features on fabrics intended for Muslims. In the tenth century, on pieces made in the Fayyum, they used characters and subjects of their own patterns.

If it is true that the word qabat (the plural of “Copt”) was applied to fabrics woven in a certain technique by Copts, then the iconography, with all its original characteristics, was Coptic. The influence of that iconography went beyond the Muslim world, even as far as India.


  • Beckwith, J. “Les Tissus coptes.” Les Cahiers Ciba 7 (1959):2-27. Bourguet, P. du. Catalogue des étoffes coptes, Vol. 1. Musée National du Louvre. Paris, 1964.
  • Kendrick, A. F. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, 3 vols. London, 1920-1922.
  • Wulff, O. K., and W. F. Volbach. Spätantike und koptische Stoffe aus ägyptischen Grabfunden in dem Staatlichen Museum. Berlin, 1926.


Iconography of Resist-Dyed Textiles

Another technique of producing a motif in a textile, perhaps of Alexandrian origin, was resist-dyeing. Parts of the textile were treated to resist the subsequent dye so that they remained in their natural color. The images on all these resist-dyed textiles bear names and sometimes even inscriptions.

Pagan subjects are treated in a number of resist-dyed textiles: the Veil of Antinoë, which has Dionysiac motifs, in the Louvre; the Tapestry of Artemis from al-Ashmunayn at the Abegg Foundation; and a fragment of a hunting scene in the Hermitage Museum. A rather important group of tapestry fragments with Christian subjects belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum. These fragments measure between 10 inches (25 cm) and 3 feet (1 m) on a height of about 12 inches (30 cm). A number of subjects are treated. In the Annunciation, Mary is seated in profile, busy with her spinning. In the Nativity, Mary is lying on a bed as was Semele in an Alexandrian fabric, which may have served as its prototype. The Child is lying in a manger, with an ox at one side. An Old Testament subject is the law being given to Moses at Sinai, in which Christ, in the bush, follows Moses with his gaze. In the same fragment, the woman with the issue of blood is being healed. It also treats of Lazarus; he appears with his wrappings at the entrance of the tomb. Another theme is Christ in the Garden of Olives, though this identification is conjectural, since it is based on the reading of Judas’ name. Above a group of apostles appear the names of Thomas and Mark; the names cause this scene to be interpreted as the Communion of the Apostles.

Without creating an exhaustive list, we may add two very beautiful fragments of tapestry belonging to the State Museum, Berlin. Both are remarkable for the richness of the garments and the decoration. One represents Daniel among the lions. The other shows Saint Peter bowing.

Finally, in the Cleveland Museum of Art, we find a fragment divided into registers, in which, starting from the top, are set the Adoration of the Magi and the Multiplication of the Loaves. In the lowest register Jonah appears under the castar-oil plant near the ketos (sea monster). He is followed by Moses, and each personage is by two columns.

All appear to have originated in Egypt, although the genre is not Coptic. The form of the names and letters inscribed is exclusively Greek.

The examples described seem to belong to two different social classes in respect to the quality of the work and desired requirements. They should be attributed to a Greek or Byzantine milieu during the period of coexistence between and Christians, possibly the middle of the fifth century. The disappearance of the genre was due to the effects of the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT.


  • Baratte, F. “Héros et chasseurs: la tenture d’Artémis.” Fondation Eugène Piot. Monuments et Mémoires 67 (1987):31-76.
  • Boreux, C. “Département des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée National du Louvre.” Guide, Catalogue sommaire, Vol. 1. Paris, 1932.
  • Illgen, V. Zweifarbige reservetechnisch eingefärbte Leinenstoffe grossfiguren biblischen Darstellungen aus Ägypten. Ph.D. diss. Mainz, 1968.
  • Kendrick, A. F. Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, Vol. 3. London, 1920-1922.
  • Strzygowski, J. “Einfarbige Stoffe biblischen Darstellungen aus Ägypten.” In Orient oder Rom. Leipzig, 1901.
  • Weitzmann, K., ed. Age of Spirituality. Catalog of the Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1977-1978.