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The so-called world’s oldest trousers discovered in China’s Tarim Basin used different textile techniques for different parts of the trouser fabric. Source: M. Wagner / Archaeological Research in Asia

World’s Oldest Trousers Used Methods Still Employed by Modern Fashion

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Back in 2014, a pair of pants were discovered in the Tarim Basin in China. Believed to be the oldest pair of trousers in the world, they were made between 3,000 and 3,300 years ago. Dating back to some time between the 13th and 10th centuries BC, these ancient trousers overshot the date of previously discovered pants by almost 1,000 years. They have since been the subject of research and study, mainly to understand what textile and weaving techniques were being utilized for such long term preservation, reported the BBC. The detailed study has been published in the March 2022 edition of the journal Archaeological Research in Asia .

(M. Wagner / Archaeological Research in Asia)

(M. Wagner / Archaeological Research in Asia )

Pan-Asian Textile Diversity Evidenced in Oldest Trousers

A team of archaeologists, fashion designers, geoscientists, chemists and conservators, led by project director Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, has discovered that three distinct textile techniques were used on the one garment and that some of these techniques are still in use today. "A diversity of textile techniques and patterns of different local origins, traditions, and times merged into something new in this garment," Wagner told Science News . “Eastern Central Asia was a laboratory where people, plants, animals, knowledge and experiences from different directions and sources came… and were transformed.”

According to Archaeology, in 2014 the excavation of a tomb in Tarim Basin in western China revealed the mummy of a man wearing trousers. Found alongside an axe, possibly indicating warrior status, the man became known as the Turfan Man. Using radio carbon dating and further scientific analysis, the aforementioned dates were deduced. Since men and women primarily wore skirts and capes, the possibility that these pants were considered for horse riding was drawn.

“They show an unprecedented diversity and a free combination of three weaving techniques and one type of weft twining supplemented by at least three different braiding methods to finish and fasten the clothes,” write the authors of the study. This variety of techniques used to make the trousers emerged from the mobility that pastoralists and herders were accustomed to – they would have to move place to place, and picked up new and different techniques from across the diverse Asian continent, which were then used to make the garments.

Detail of the crotch area of the ancient trousers discovered in China’s Tarim Basin. (M. Wagner / Quarternary International)

Detail of the crotch area of the ancient trousers discovered in China’s Tarim Basin. (M. Wagner / Quarternary International )

Different Techniques and Combinations: The Science of Flexible Pants

The researchers are also referring to a method called twill, described by The Weaving Loom as being where the weft thread is passed over two or more warp threads and then repeating that pattern one warp thread over to create a diagonal line. This is a very durable method, used in most denim fabrics today. This structuring also allows for effective draping clothing. Most importantly, twill allowed woven wool to change from firm to elastic.

Interestingly, textile archaeologist Karina Grömer of the Natural History Museum Vienna was the first one to identify the twill weave on the Turfan Man’s trousers, five years ago. This is because the same pieces of woven fabric were identified by her in Austria’s Hallstatt mine that were dated to between 3,500 and 3,200 years ago – a full 200 years before the Turfan Man – indicating that this was the oldest twill weave on record. Grömer suggested the possibility that Europe and Asia could have developed this weaving method independently.

The other textile method evidenced in the oldest trousers in the world is called tapestry, used to create a thicker piece of material at the knees. In this method, weaving colored weft threads are passed through plain warp threads. The warp threads are stretched on a loom and act as a grid for weavers to create a pattern with the colored weft threads, with wool as the material generally used. The Victoria and Albert Museum claims that it is one of the oldest forms of woven textile – used for tunics and purses, to table covers and chair backs.

The Turfan Man’s outfit consisted of the aforementioned trousers, a poncho used as a belt at the waist, a single pair of bands braided to tighten the trousers legs below the knee area, and another pair to tighten soft leather boots in the ankle area. With this, a wool headband was also found on his person. It had four bronze disks and two seashells sewn on it, along with a leather bridle, a wooden horse bit and a battle axe, that helped deduce his warrior status.

Front view of the world’s oldest trousers discovered to date. (M. Wagner / Quarternary International)

Front view of the world’s oldest trousers discovered to date. (M. Wagner / Quarternary International )

Cultural Similarities: The Trousers of Yesterday and Today

The world’s oldest trousers were truly special because they are in fact two leg pieces that widen near the hip and thigh area. They also included a crotch piece that widened and bunched in the middle, and allowed for increased mobility and some kind of cushioning from the harshness of horseback. Interestingly, other archaeological finds across Eurasia from the period after show a turn towards such kind of pants, particularly with horseback riding becoming the most common form of transportation in this area.

Today’s denim jeans and dress slack also owe a lot to the design, technique, and production principles of this era. What is increasingly clear from the study of independent finds from the Eurasian steppe from 3,750 and 3,000 years ago, is that these Asian herders spread the seeds of innovation in fashion, deduced by looking at similar geometric patterns.

For example, an interlocking T pattern on the Turfan Man’s trousers was also found on bronze vessels across China from 3,300 years ago. Pottery from western Siberia and Kazakhstan displays a similar pattern. This is an ode to the transformative power of the ancient Silk Road , which allowed for such cross-continental transfers of cultural and technological innovation. Further research and excavation is likely to reveal greater cultural similarities shared between ancient human societies of yesteryear.

Top image: The so-called world’s oldest trousers discovered in China’s Tarim Basin used different textile techniques for different parts of the trouser fabric. Source: M. Wagner / Archaeological Research in Asia

By Sahir Pandey

Comments

"...the same pieces of woven fabric were identified by her in Austria’s Hallstatt mine that were dated to between 3,500 and 3,200 years ago – a full 200 years before the Turfan Man – indicating that this was the oldest twill weave on record. Grömer suggested the possibility that Europe and Asia could have developed this weaving method independently."

Could have. But not necessarily did. Links between the Tarim Basin and Hallstatt exist, through shared Indo-European culture migrating out from the Pontic Steppes, with the Tocharians to the east and the Celts to the west.

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