All  
Child's left-foot sock (British Museum)

Egyptian Tot's Sock Reveals Ancient Clothes Production Secrets

Print

An ancient ‘stripy sock’ discovered in Egypt is informing scientists about how clothes were dyed and made.

Evidence of ‘feet coverings’ have been found in the Stone Age when crude animal pelts or skins were lashed around feet, but they bear no resemblance to the pack of three thin socks your granny used to get you from the Sock Shop for Christmas.

Dating to around the 3rd or 4th century, a sock was recovered by English papyrologist John de Monins Johnson, on behalf the Egypt Exploration Fund, in 1913-1914 from an excavation site in the Egyptian city of Antinopolis. Now kept at the British Museum in London, according to the  Guardian, a group of museum scientists have analyzed the dyes to learn about ancient Egyptian clothing manufacture and trade practices.

Put A Sock On It

Dr Joanne Dyer is the lead author of the new study published in the  journal PLOS ONE , and she said rather than applying older invasive approaches to investigate to sock, “multispectral imaging” scanned the sock for microscopic traces of color under different wavelengths of light. The team’s analysis revealed the sock had been made with “seven hues of wool yarn” which were woven into the stripy pattern made from “three natural plant-based dyes” including ‘madder roots’ for the red, woad leaves for blue and weld flowers for the yellow color.

(a) Visible-reflected (VIS); (b) UV-induced visible luminescence (UVL); (c) Infrared-reflected (IRR); (d) Infrared-reflected false colour (IRRFC); (e) UV-reflected (UVR); (f) UV-reflected false colour (UVRFC) images of a child’s stripy sock (Credit: Dyer et al., 2018)

(a) Visible-reflected (VIS); (b) UV-induced visible luminescence (UVL); (c) Infrared-reflected (IRR); (d) Infrared-reflected false colour (IRRFC); (e) UV-reflected (UVR); (f) UV-reflected false colour (UVRFC) images of a child’s stripy sock (Credit: Dyer et al., 2018)

A Smithsonian Mag article explains that Dr Dyer and her co-authors multispectral imaging technique also revealed “how” the colors had been mixed into hues of green, purple and orange, and in some cases the scientists discovered the fibers of different colors had been spun together and that some of the individual yarns had been exposed to “multiple dye baths.”

Ancient Stone Age Sewing Method

So far as who might have once worn this delicate little sock, which Dr Dyer considers as both “tiny” and “fragile,” the researchers believe it may have been worn on a child’s left foot approximately 1,700 years ago. The study also revealed that to have created such socks ancient Egyptians employed “a single-needle looping technique”, which is most often referred to as  nålbindning, believed to have been adopted from ancient times to separate the big toe from the four others toes.

And furthermore, analyzing the socks yielded fresh insights into a time period when Egypt experienced “an enormous upheaval that ended with the Muslim conquest of the region in 641 AD”, according to the paper. These world turning events in Egypt affected national trade, economy and therefore access to materials, Dyer told The Guardian, which is "all reflected in the technical makeup of what people were wearing” and how they actually constructed such objects.

The ‘Leg’acy Of Ancient Socks

A 2012 Smithsonian article featured a similar pair of ancient “Romano-Egyptian” red socks from the same time period which can now be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum . Excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century, these socks were given to the Museum in 1900 by Robert Taylor Esq., ‘Kytes,’ Watford among a long list of ancient textiles. Also created by nålbindning, it is not known if these socks were made for everyday use or if they were used as ceremonial offerings to the dead (they were found by burial grounds).

These socks are the earliest knitted items in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection. Made in 300-499 AD, they were excavated in Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They have a divided toe and are designed to be worn with sandals. The socks are knitted in stocking stitch using three-ply wool and the single-needle technique (CC by SA 2.0).

These socks are the earliest knitted items in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection. Made in 300-499 AD, they were excavated in Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They have a divided toe and are designed to be worn with sandals. The socks are knitted in stocking stitch using three-ply wool and the single-needle technique ( CC by SA 2.0 ).

While all these little socks from ancient Egypt add to scientists understanding of how clothes were made, no garment found in that land is so ancient and informative as the Tarkhan dress. According to an article in National Geographic , Alice Stevenson is curator of London’s  Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology , and author of a  study in the journal  Antiquity about the dress, and she said it was made from “plant fibres or animal skins” and with its “tailored sleeves, V-neck, and narrow pleats” it would look perfectly at home in a modern department store.

The Tarkhan Dress. Source: The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL

The Tarkhan Dress. Source:  The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL

Such fine detailing as is found in this dress could only have been achieved by a specialist craftsperson in “a prosperous and hierarchical society”, as was ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago, at a time when the kingdom was first united under a single ruler. And, it is thought “only the upper crust” could’ve afforded such a dress, according to Jana Jones  of Australia’s Macquarie University, who added that tombstones of roughly the same age as the dress depict people wearing similar robes, adding that along with food and cosmetics, the hieroglyph for “dress” features on lists of items taken to the afterlife.

Top image: Child's left-foot sock (British Museum)

By Ashley Cowie

Next article