Coptic Embroidery and Needlework

 

 

 

A pleasant sight greeted me when I entered the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt when I saw in the gallery of textiles the fine exhibition of Coptic Embroidery. I've been to the Coptic Museum twice now, a wonderful museum, set in an old palace. The architecture is amazing - carved timbers and beautiful tile work. The display in the museum was an outstanding especially in the representation of Coptic textiles from the museum’s collection, which was my quest.  As I looked carefully at the embroidered textiles it became clear to me that that some sophisticated work must have been produced by talented weavers and embroiders.



The Coptic Museum, Cairo, Egypt


The Coptic period of Egypt is well known for the colorful and imaginative art expressed in the fabric of the day. Mythical figures and allegorical references to religious icons are beautifully expressed through the embroidery and tapestry work. Although most of early period pieces were more than 1,000 years old, the fabric still holds much of the color and beauty it originally showed. Coptic textiles have survived through the ages because of the burial practices of the Copts and the dry climate of Egypt. By burying the deceased fully clothes in decorative religious cloths or wrapped in tapestries in the dry hot sands of Upper Egypt, the textiles were conserved..

Coptic textiles exhibited at the museum range from tunics of dyed linen with medallions and decorative borders, some woven so fine as to appear more like embroidery, to silk woven needlework. Also displayed were garments, shawls, wall hangings, blankets, and curtains. The motifs on the garment trimmings show great diversity of subject matter such as birds and animals woven into foliage.


Textile fragment - linen and wool 5-6 cent AD
'A lady mounted on a fabulous animal'


Background
The name Copt derives from the Arabic word "Qibt" for Egyptian, which was taken from the Greek word for Egyptian, "Aigyptos." The term "Copt" originally referred to the native Egyptians, as opposed to the Ancient Greek or Arab invaders. While later the word "Copt" became a religious designation referring to Christian Egyptians, the Coptic period is considered to be confined to the first millennium of the Christian era, when Christianity thrived in Egypt. In contemporary usage, the term "Coptic" refers to Egyptian Christians. Today, Copts form almost 13% to 15% of Egypt’s population though they are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians as they are fully integrated into the body of the modern Egyptian nation.

Thus, the fine Coptic textiles are the products of the Egyptian textile craftsmen, who may or may not have been Christian, who lived in the beginning of the Christian era. Weaving in the early Christian era was, as in earlier times, mainly on linen although there is also some evidence of silk weaving. The techniques -- the so-called tapestry-weave and loom weaving -- were inherited from the ancient Egyptians.  The width of the loom used in Coptic tapestries is the same as that in the time of the pharaohs, and the special ``Egyptian knot'' was used as well. In the fourth century AD a new variant to wool weaving was introduced – Loop weaving in which the waft was not pulled quite tight. Silk became popular in the sixth century and by the eighth century AD full clerical tunics were woven in both linen and silk; the weaving of some articles appeared so fine as to look more like intricate embroidery.


Coptic Annunciation
Coptic Roundel depicting the Annunciation 7th/8th cent AD


Designs, styles and Techniques
Because the Coptic community was Christian, its textiles were heavily influenced by Christian themes, although there are examples of secular designs in surviving Coptic textiles. Coptic textiles are notable for the richness of their decorative motifs, including geometric patterns, human figures, birds, animals, fish, flora, mythological themes, Nile and marine scenes, episodes from the Old and New Testaments and crosses.  One feature that differentiates Coptic embroidery and design in general from Islamic Egyptian work is the use of human figures, which one does not see in Islamic design. Thus, Coptic textiles and their designs and themes are much more than colorful pieces of cloth. They provide a rich source of information about the social classes, daily life, beliefs and customs of the people who wore and wove them.  

One of the major techniques for producing textiles was weaving, but there are several surviving examples of embroideries. The Coptic weavers and embroiders used chain stitch, cross stitch, whipped running stitch, satin stitch, stem stitch and split stitch, pattern designing from the 1st century AD onwards. The main base fabric for Coptic work is linen, with the embroidery done in wool and sometimes silk.


Embroidery Medalion 'Hercules and the Neaman Lion'
Coptic textile 400-700AD


Dyes were usually derived from plant, animal and mineral sources, Plants are premium sources of dyes ranging from such varied colors and sources as blue from indigo plants, yellow from saffron , the principal ones being alkanet (red); woad,  kermes and suntberry (blue); saffron, pomegranate and weld (yellow); leaves of the iris plant, berries of the buckthorn plant (green); and minerals such as iron (black) Purple was obtained from shellfish (a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Muricidae, the murex shells or rock snails). Minerals have proven to be a great source of colors, illustrated by rich reds from iron oxides, yellows from clays, blues and greens from finely ground lapis lazuli or malachite, and white from ground seashells. (Today, most of the dyes used are factory produced.)

***

The Techniques of Coptic Weaving Practices; The development of pattern weaving is one of the important achievements of the Coptic weavers that distinguishes their textiles from those of the Ancient Egyptians. It was presumed that Patterned textiles were brought into Egypt around the time of Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in the four century BC. Some Greek textiles were patterned and featured the use of dyed wool. Patterned textiles during the Ancient Greek era were highly valued because their production was quite labor intensive.


Tapestry panel with bust of Dionisios of Ariane
Embroidered Linen -7th Century AD


Coptic textiles are also characterized by the 'S-twist' of thread. They would wash wool fibers in hot water and wood ash soap and then dry them. Next, they would beat out the dirt and card the linen, silk and woolen fibers. The fiber was then graded, bleached and spun into a thread. The spinners would pull out fibers and twist them together. This was done by either rolling fibers between palms or using a hooked stick. The Copt weavers also invented the flying shuttle technique, which uses a second shuttle to insert an extra linen weft thread into the fabric.

Coptic embroidery and needlework are examples of free artistic expression; naïve, unsophisticated, yet forceful in their themes. It is the simplicity of Coptic art woven in the craftsmanship that gives it its unique flavor. While the varied motifs changed from age to age, the execution of the work, the techniques and the materials used was of longstanding tradition of Coptic art and craft.

© Norman A. Rubin


NOTE:

1) Coptic art, the distinctive and finely crafted Christian art of Egypt, includes works of distinct but different character, because there was no separation whatsoever between and craft in the early Christian era. Early Coptic art was mainly influence by two main sources: the classical (Hellenistic) world and the art of the ancient period; subject matter represented both Christian and Roman sources.  Coptic art was characterized by a high degree of stylization verging on abstraction. Forms were flattened out, and individual motifs acquired bold simplicity and decorative character.

2) Christianity entered Egypt in the half of the first century A.D. When Saint Mark entered Alexandria in 65 A.D., the first Coptic Church was established in Egypt. At the end of the third century A.D., the Roman emperor Diocletian suppressed the Copts and many of them fell as martyrs, hence the period was called Era of Martyrs. The year in which Diocletian assumed power (284 A.D.) was taken by the Copts as the beginning of the Coptic calendar.

3) In the study of various artifacts in the Coptic Museum in Cairo and other institutions worldwide, as well in monastic centers, it becomes clear that that the finely crafted Coptic artifacts must have been produced by highly talented craftsmen, which is shown in illuminated manuscripts, tapestry, paintings, silk and linen weaving. Whereas other works of displayed art and artifacts are characterized by the folk simplicity of the people.

4) The Coptic Museum in Cairo Egypt has the largest collection of Egyptian Christian artifacts in the world. It was founded to house Coptic antiquities and artifacts by Pasha Marcus Simaika (1864-1944), a wealthy Copt and leading figure in encouraging Coptic interest in the Coptic past. The museum traces the history of Christianity in Egypt from its beginnings to the present day. It was erected over a land offered by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria under the guardianship of Pope Cyril V. For further information surfs the site of the museum:

The Coptic Museum
Fakhry Abd el Nour street No4
Abbassia. Cairo
Egypt.


  • 25-11-2008

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Comments (1)

Nancy Arthur Hoskins
Said this on 20-3-2010 At 02:11 pm
Dear Mr. Rubin,
I hope that you are familiar with my book The Coptic Tapestry Albums and the Archaeologist of Antinoé Albert Gayet.

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