TRC Blog: Textile Moments

The curtains of the Sistine chapel in Rome

Murals in the 4th century AD Romulus temple, Rome, representing long line of wall curtains. 13th century AD.

Murals in the 4th century AD Romulus temple, Rome, representing long line of wall curtains. 13th century AD.

Never thought I would ever get particularly interested in something as mundane as curtains, but right now, spending a week in Rome with Gillian, I am afraid I am starting to see curtains everywhere, or to be more precise, what I see all the time are paintings of curtains. Perhaps the moment has come to go back to Leiden. Anyhow, it all started some days ago when I saw some wall paintings, or at least fragments thereof, in the circular temple of Romulus (nota bene: not the Romulus of Remus fame, but an early 4th century AD son of a Roman emperor) at the Forum Romanum. The temple, as so many other ancient buildings in Rome, was later converted into (part of) a church, namely the basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano. The frescoes I am alluding to once ran all along the lower part of the inside of the wall of the building, and represent a continuous line of curtains. The frescoes allegedly date to the thirteenth century, to the time of Pope Urbanus IV (1261-1264). The curtains, as can be seen from the photograph, are depicted as being tied at regular intervals around a (painted) beam above (hence the draped fold lines). The top of the depicted curtain has a thick band that is bejewelled. From this band hangs the wide curtain itself. The ground material of the curtain is in white, with three wide horizontal bands alternating with quatrefoils of various sizes.

Sistine chapel, Rome, showing paintings of curtains along the walls. Late 15th century.

Sistine chapel, Rome, showing paintings of curtains along the walls. Late 15th century.

With these curtains in mind, we visited the next morning the Sistine Chapel (together with tens of thousands of others, all at the same time, but at least we did not get a selfie-stick poked into our eyes). But instead of being awestruck again by the magnificent frescoes along the upper part of the walls and Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling, I was suddenly made aware of ...... a line of curtains painted along the lower tier of the chapel's walls. I had never noticed them before. Did you? Some of them were shown as being draped, others were not. These paintings, I was told, date to the late fifteenth century and the time of Pope Sixtus IV. Most of them are damask-like with silver or gold thread decoration, others, without the emphasised fold lines, are shown flat with very little drape, imitating velvet.

And yesterday, in the Santa Maria Maggiore, I again saw the same feature, namely, a painted curtain, but this time on a wooden screen in one of the side chapels.

I am quite sure that art historians have written complete libraries on the subject of these paintings of curtains, hence my apologies, but I had never noticed them, although such painted curtains or draperies can probably be found in many other places. But what sort of nutter looks at paintings of curtains when there is so much else to admire? But in any case, what a treasure trove for further research into medieval textiles and their different types of decoration.

Willem Vogelsang, 26 December 2015


Yemeni embroidery workshop at the TRC

On Saturday 19th December there was a Yemeni embroidery workshop at the TRC. Normally these workshops are on the last Wednesday of the month, but because of Christmas it was moved to the Saturday just before we closed for a few weeks over the holiday period (we re-open on the 11th January). This was also an open day at the TRC and literally, the last chance to see the colourful, Yemeni clothing and jewellery exhibition. The workshop was led by myself and consisted of a guide tour of the exhibition about Yemeni embroidered garments and jewellery, and concentrated on the decorative needlework aspects. This was then followed by the participants of the workshop trying out a range of embroidery stitches and motifs all based on blanket and chain stitches. All of these forms can be found back in Saudi Arabian and Yemeni garments. The final section of day involved looking at one particular garment and then reproducing various patterns and motifs on black cotton cloth using a thick, white cotton thread. Something that was totally new for the participants. The time went very quickly indeed. The workshop was immediately followed the TRC’s Christmas party (members of the workshop were also invited!), which gave us the chance to relax, talk with good friends, eat good food surrounded by amazing textiles and garments. What a wonderful way to end a very busy year!

Gillian Vogelsang, 20 December 2015


An ancient Egyptian clothing trip to University College London

Just had an exciting few days at University College London (UCL) and the nearby Petrie Museum. Friday 11th December consisted of a special workshop held in the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. The theme of the workshop was needlework in ancient Egypt. It was organised by Dr. Jan Picton of the Petrie Museum and led by myself. There was the chance to try out different seams and hems, mending, patching, as well as Egyptian and Mitanni style embroidery. In the afternoon, there was the chance to see various items of textile equipment and textiles now in the Petrie Museum, a teaching museum in the middle of the UCL, which has an amazing collection of antiquities from Egypt. The collection, as the name suggests, was built up by the early 20th century Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie. The visit to the museum was followed by a workshop on appliqué techniques from ancient Egypt. There were fourteen participants at the workshop, which meant that those attending could ask many questions and have personal attention. It was great fun in other words. This workshop will form the basis for an Ancient Egyptian Sewing Bee that will be held at the TRC on Saturday 9th April (see here for more details).

The following day was again at the UCL and consisted of a full day about textiles and clothing in ancient Egypt. It went by the eye-catching title Tutankhamun’s Knickers and other Knotty Problems. Again the day was organised by Jan Picton and members of the Friends of the Petrie Museum. The day was divided into several sections, including a starting lecture about the production of textiles in ancient Egypt (myself), followed by a lecture on the textiles from the royal palace site of Gurob (Jan Picton). The morning was finished with a demonstration of various types of clothing worn in ancient Egypt (daily life garments by Janet Johnstone, and Tutankhamun’s royal clothing by myself). The afternoon then continued with a lecture on Tutankhamun’s clothing (again by myself) and ended with a lecture about draped and wrapped garments from ancient Egypt by Janet. There were many questions at the end of the day.

All in all a very pleasant and stimulating few days and I would like to thank Jan Picton and the Petrie Museum for inviting me to come to London to give these workshops/lectures. I really enjoyed myself meeting colleagues, talking about ancient Egyptian textiles and dress and hearing about new finds and ideas.

Gillian Vogelsang, 20 December 2015


The Fabric of India Exhibition, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The tent of Tipu Sultan, India, late 18th century. From:

The tent of Tipu Sultan, India, late 18th century. From:

Last Sunday, 13th December, Gillian and I visited a marvellous exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, that focused on handmade textiles and their production in the Indian subcontinent. And what we saw was more than the occasional sari ! The exhibition not only includes gorgeous examples of silk, cotton and woollen textiles and garments, often beautifully decorated, but also tells about technical details, as for instance the dyeing processes of the yarns and cloths, the weaving techniques that were used, the methods of decorating, and so forth. On display are garments from the Mughal period, but also medieval Indian textiles that were found in Egypt. Very spectacular is a tent that was used by Tipu Sultan, the Mysore leader defeated by the British in AD 1799. Something else that struck me was a copy of one of the 18 volumes of Sir John Forbes Watson's Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India (London, 1866). A brief entry to this remarkable publication, that includes actual samples of Indian textiles, is contained in TRC Needles (click here). Modern examples of Indian textile production, and the use made by modern Indian couturiers, are also displayed. In short, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, shows splendid textiles and garments, and is beautifully displayed. You can still go and see it, until 10th January. For more info, click here.

Willem Vogelsang, 15th December 2015


Coptic textiles from Egypt

The last few days have been spent in Antwerp attending the 9th Textiles from the Nile Valley conference (27-28 November 2015) at the Katoen Natie Museum, Antwerp, Belgium. This is a biennial event that brings together specialists in many different fields, but all connected by their scholarly interest in the early history of Egyptian textiles. The range of papers presented was equally diverse and included excavation reports, particular textiles of note, art historical comparisons, museum collections, and the work of various people in the past, notably Louise Bellinger, a grand dame of textiles from the 1940s and 50s. Most of the papers referred to textiles from the first millennium AD, and in particular those linked to the Coptic period.

There was also a fascinating example of why replicas are important, both in terms of learning how they are made and how they are worn, namely in the form of a sprang cap that was re-created during the re-cataloguing of part of the Louvre Museums collection of Egyptian textiles. This talk (with practical demonstration) came shortly after a fascinating discussion about the history of nålebinding in Egypt and the making and repairing of socks made in this manner. Both of these talks stressed the importance of non-woven forms of decorative textiles within the textile repertoire of Egypt. Something that tends to be lost among the vast numbers of decorative woven forms, notably the so-called Coptic tapestries.

As with all conferences it was the chance to meet 'old' colleagues, as well as new ones, which played an important role in the event. It is good to know that there are so many students working at various levels who are opening up new areas of research within the field of Egyptian textiles. The conference papers are regularly published in a series of well illustrated volumes that are available from the Katoen Natie web shop. These are well worth having for the range of information presented in a 'proper' book form. A big thanks goes to both the staff of Katoen Natie, and Caroline Dekyndt and Cäcilia Fluck in particular for their organisation of such a pleasant, informative and inspiring weekend.

1 December 2015, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood


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