historic textiles from Karanis
The Cloth Artifacts
Case 1
Case 2
Case 3
textiles and the archaeology of Karanis
where the textiles were found
an important find site: House 124
texts about textiles


Making Cloth

There is evidence that a good deal of the cloth found at Karanis was manufactured locally. In some locations raw materials--the wool and animal hair, linen and other bast fibers so readily available in an agricultural community--were found in various stages of processing.

The simplest tasks of cloth production (and re-production)--preparing fleece, spinning thread, sewing and mending--were often undertaken in homes. These tasks required tools that were relatively easy to make or inexpensive to purchase--spindle whorls for making thread from fibers and needles for sewing and mending. These tools were found in great numbers at Karanis.

In contrast, the weaving of cloth yardage required looms, which were large and required clean, safe areas for operation and storage. The more complex looms were also more expensive, and their operation required considerable training and skill. The training of professional weavers began at an early age by apprenticeship to professional weavers. The artifacts displayed here (and described in texts) attest to a range of circumstances of production, from the products of professional workshops and industrial concerns, to skilled artisans working for hire, to household labor.


After shearing, the fleece is washed, then combed and carded to prepare the fibers for spinning. In antiquity, the drop spindle--composed of a long spindle and a circular or hemispherical whorl--was used to spin fibers into thread. One hand measures out the fibers while the other spins the spindle. Some of the thread shown here is remarkably fine and even; it was made by exceptionally accomplished spinners.


The fabrics from Karanis were made on several types of looms. One very simple type of loom, the warp weighted loom, was easy to construct and operate. Evidence for these looms, in the form of loom weights, was found at several locations in Karanis. Also found in large numbers were weavers’ combs with widely spaced teeth for use during the weaving of fabrics with thick threads, such as heavy carpets and rugs, probably on fairly uncomplicated looms with warps fixed at both top and bottom. The weaver’s comb on display seems freshly cut, as if never used. Although fine cloth has been found at Karanis, evidence of the more sophisticated looms that produced them is scarce.

Weave Structure

Woven fabrics are made on a loom by the interlacing of warp and weft threads. Warp threads are the longitudinal threads that are secured to the loom. In a warp-weighted loom these are secured to a bar at the top and to warp-weights below. Weft threads are the transverse threads that pass under and over the warp. In the simplest weaving structure, called plain or tabby weave, there is a 1/1 ratio of warp and weft threads.

In tapestry weaving, regular ratios of warp to weft threads are disrupted, as the weft thread does not necessarily traverse the entire width of the fabric, but instead is arranged freely to create irregularly shaped patches of color.

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