Linda's Thread

Medieval Middle Eastern Clothing

Halima al-Rakkasa, AoA

This is an overview of clothing development in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, the Levant, the Iraq area (often absorbed by surrounding cultures), and Eqypt. With what information has been available up to this point, you should have an idea of cosmopolitan and nomadic wear, with examples of nobles and populace, distilled into this package.

The Middle and Near East went through many changes: expansion of Islam; tolerance and acceptance of other religions until the Crusades, followed by the Muslim Turkish revival of an intense version of the jihad; conflicts within Islam; trade development and expansion. Include, as well, long-term changes in the planetary weather patterns. All influenced clothing development.

Before Islam, the family and tribe was the be-all and end-all. Inter-tribal warfare consisted of camel-stealing, with care taken to not kill anyone. Arabic pride was notorious. All women were sacrosanct; when thievery encroached upon the camp, women and their personal goods were untouched. (Perhaps this was the early stage of the European chivalry concept.)

After Islam, the cohesion of Muslims became more important. One could, in the presence of two adult Muslims, declare "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet.", and be spared the blade across throat even in the heat of conflict. Nomadic rules of hospitality were still enforced by social custom and pressure.

War notwithstanding, members of other religions were accepted, and paid taxes to the local Arab rulers; their acceptance was rather important, because Muslims were not taxed.

From the early years of Islam, women were encouraged to be modest: no dressing of hair with jingling gold ornaments; gentling of demeanor. Even men were affected: limited wearing of ornaments; no wearing of silks. Flaunting, boisterous behaviour was discouraged. Travelers to Arab courts commented on Arabic simplicity of dress and modesty of demeanor.

Sheep are readily bred for selected qualities; so wool has changed considerably over time. In Genesis 30:29 and on, speckled and spotted sheep are mentioned. They may have been the precursors to what we call the Jacob's' sheep breed. Many varieties with differing purposes. Wool fibre may be plucked or clipped from the animal.

Mohair is shorn from goat breeds from the area. Cashmere and Angora goats are two breeds that have become popular for the coarser hair (pulled from the clipped fleeces and used for tents and floor coverings) and for their lustrous hair (being softer and more amenable to dyes). For over 12 centuries, the qualities of this soft woven fabric were highly sought, and in 11th century Turkey it was the reserve of the sultan. The woolly undercoat was bred out of the Angora, an animal both delicate in appearance and hardy in its physical tenacity.

The Angora Goat is one of the oldest surviving animals known to us, and is said to have originated in the mountains of Tibet. As long ago as the 14th century BC, records of its existence have been uncovered. The Sumers lived in Turkestan, and tablets were inscribed regarding the existence of goats, kids and white wool for clothing. We can follow its appearance in Egypt in the Bible; 1500 years before Christ, the book of Exodus relates, the sons of Israel fled from Egypt "carrying with them goats whose fleece was used to make fabric to dress the altar". The industry in Turkey began with a large herd during the 13th century.

Plant fibres are more complex to process. Linen has been a common fabric since before the pyramids. Able to be softened or crisped as required, early skills with the fibre enabled creation of sheer fabrics of 500 threads to the inch, not achievable with modern machinery. Nettles, in the damper regions, were also used for fibre, and had similar qualities to flax linen.

The cotton plant was once two breeds (now developed into many, including naturally pastel), one known in the Old World. It would eventually be developed into so-called "Egyptian Cotton". Cotton, comfortable to wear in daytime heat, was expensive due to the harvested volume and preparation requirements; only one-third of the cotton boll (perhaps less during medieval times) was the cotton, the remainder being seeds and the prickly seed-cover.

Silk was a valuable import from the East, and once imported, became common for the wealthier nobility. It was sufficiently common to be used for lining tents.

Fabric Technology
Spinning was and is generally done on handspindles (ideal for wool and mohair), or on a mechanical device called a charka (most suitable for cotton and silk).

Nomadic looms were usually staked out on the ground. Early Egyptians used warp-weighted and ground looms, and lever-operated heddles developed either there or in the Syrian area.

Weaving patterns included tabby, twill, and point twills, all easily reproduced today. Patterns also developed from the use of colored warp and weft. The brocades, a more lengthy production, resembled today's inexpensive Chinese brocades.

Natural materials often became ground colors: white, cream, brown, black. Indigo dye can be pounded into fabric (useful when water is at a premium). Madder root gave various shades of orange, red, and brown depending on the mordant used. The love of color may be one of the distinctions of the Middle and Near East to the point where, in our eyes, colors clash. Period colors may be subtle, deep, or vibrant; avoid neons. Consider reds, blues, greens, oranges, yellows, black and white.

Embellishment was most common on the "fancy" clothes; among the nomads, everyday clothing was worn until it fell off, while townsfolk might not be so constrained in acquisition and storage. Embroidered sections of old clothes might be appliquéed to new ones.

Embroidery includes: running, cross, blanket/buttonhole, and chain stitches, all in various configurations. All openings should have some stitchery to prevent demons from entering (usually blue in early period and red later; or both).

Dangling jewelry and tassels distract demons from doing harm, and add color and movement.

This information is subject to further information and discoveries, and should not be taken as definitive. Although climactic changes influence clothing material and construction, I have not yet been able to find sources of solid information to follow this further. (There is evidence that the Sahara was once forested; I have no dates or data on this yet. And there may've been a warming trend in the 1000's, and cooling in the 1400's.)

Arts de l'Islam; Raymonde de Gans
Islamic Art; Barbara Brend
Islam and the Arab World; Bernard Lewis, ed.
Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India; Elizabeth B. Moynihan
Women's Costume of the Near and Middle East; Jennifer Scarce.
A History of the Arab Peoples; Albert Hourani

Books accessed:
Drawings of the Masters: Persian Drawings from the 14th through the 19th centuries
Persian Miniatures
A Jeweler's Eye: Islamic Arts of the Book; Glenn D. Lowry with Susan Nemazee
Islamic Art; David T. Rice
The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World
Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian & Persian Costume and Decoration; Houston
Metropolitan Museum of Art; Howard Hibbard
Ethnic Costume: Clothing Designs and Techniques; Lois Ericson and Diane Ericson

On-line resources:
Oriental Costumes: Their Designs and Colors: Max Tilke
Some Clothing of the Middle Ages; I. Marc Carlson
Shoes; I. Marc Carlson

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Last update: September 2001