Linen-Cotton Blends in the Greco-Roman World
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval

Linen-Cotton Blends in the Greco-Roman World

Some of my hobbies are making me think about fabric. I used to think that fabric containing both cotton and linen was a product of the last thousand years, as cotton production spread west from India into areas with a strong tradition of weaving linen. In the second half of the middle ages, cities in Italy began importing cotton from Egypt and Turkey and Syria and weaving it themselves, and the trade slowly spread north across the Alps. The basic idea was that cotton was cheap and absorbed dye well, while linen was strong but hard to colour. Some weavers found that if they used cotton for the warp threads, they tended to snap. So a mixed cloth with a linen warp and cotton weft was both strong and colourful. In the middle ages these cloths were known by names such as English fustian, Italian fustagno (from the suburb of Fustat in Egypt) or German Barchent. Today weavers are comfortable with a cotton warp, and artificial dyes can colour pure linen any imaginable colour, but cloth with cotton running one way and linen threads the other is still used for shirts and other items. I did not think that these mixed cloths existed before the middle ages. But now read this!

The finds of archaeological linen textiles display a wide range of qualities in ancient Greece. However, they are primarily burial finds and thus no adequate source for the topic of clothing practice. Nothing, however, suggests that linen textiles were rare, or associated only with female burials or those of foreigners. Linen textiles occur much more frequently than wool textiles in the archaeological record in Greece, as Moulherat and Spantidaki have observed, but this only reflects the preservation conditions in Greece, and does not denote a choice of fibre. A linen textile of impressive size came to light in Eleusis: it measures 220 cm × 50 cm. It was found in a bronze vessel dating to the mid-5th century BC. Preserved linen textiles with 100 threads per cm are not unknown in classical Greece. From the 5th century BC such a linen textile was found in a tomb at Kerameikos; another 5th century linen fabric of similar quality comes from Kalyvia T­horikos. In another 5th century Kerameikos grave, linen textiles with remains of stitch holes from embroidery and fabrics decora­ted with purple were recovered. The original assumption of silk fabrics has now been proven wrong in new analyses by Christina Margariti and colleagues who demonstrated that there are four different fabrics of which two are of made of linen, while another fabric is probably made of cotton, and the last is woven of linen warp and cotton weft.

That quote comes from an article by Marie-Louise Nosch where she argues that scholars have been too hasty in following a passage in Herodotus and dismissing the use of linen in classical Greece (Hdt. 2.105 tr. A.D. Godley):

Listen to something else about the Colchians, in which they are like the Egyptians: they and the Egyptians alone work linen and have the same way of working it, a way peculiar to themselves; and they are alike in all their way of life, and in their speech. Linen has two names: the Colchian kind is called by the Greeks Sardonian; that which comes from Egypt is called Egyptian.

Now, I can’t say that luxury textiles are a focus of my own research. But it is clear to me that people who are interested in Classical Greek textiles know many things which military historians and students of arms and armour do not. Anyone interested in how the smooth white cuirasses in Greek art were made should study soft armour in other cultures, but they should also see what archaeologists know about the linen and hide products available in Classical Greece. People sometimes wonder whether linen or leather would have been too expensive, and while those are excellent questions, there are people who can help answer them.

Further Reading: Marie-Louise Nosch, “Linen Textiles and Flax in Classical Greece: Provenance and Trade,” in Kerstin Droß-Krüpe ed., Textile Trade and Distribution in Antiquity / Textilhandel und -distribution in der Antike, Harrasowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2014, offprints on

That book from the Midwest briefly discusses the price and availability of hides and linen in Classical Greece, although it does not go as deeply into areas such as white alum-tawed hide as I would wish.

An alternative to layered and quilted construction is described in Hero Granger-Taylor, “Military textiles in weft and warp twining: fragments probably of pteryges from Masada, Israel, a greave from Dura-Europos, Syria, and several slings,” in Marie-Louise Nosch and Henriette Koefoed (eds.), Wearing the Cloak: Dressing the Soldier in Roman Times (Oxbow, 2011) Todd Feinman is working on a reconstruction of Amasis’ cuirass based on her research.

For more than you ever wanted to know about medieval mixed cloths, see Maureen Fennell Mazzaoui, The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100-1600 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1981).

Edit 2021-12-29: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the block editor.  Dr. Margarita Gleba, another textile archaeologist, is not sure about Margariti’s judgement that the second fabric was cotton.

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