Tracing Women Through Textiles in the Ancient Mediterranean

A Short Introduction to Textile Culture in the Ancient Mediterranean

The production of textiles would have been an inextricable aspect of the daily lives of women in the ancient world. Their production would have been a large part of the domestic, social, and economic lives of individuals. Textiles would have been used to create clothing, mats, bedding and much more (Cutler 2019, p. 79). Despite the importance that textiles served, archaeologists used to consider them ‘perishables’, and did not consider their socio-cultural importance, or the information they hold (Good 2001, p. 210). It is extremely rare to find large physical traces of either textiles or the looms used to create them, as they were both made out of organic materials. Textiles would have been made out of cotton, linen, wool, or silk, and looms would have been made out of wood – with the exception of loom weights used on a warp weighted loom (Cutler 2019, p. 80). Despite the scarcity of evidence, it is through its study that we can catch a glimpse of the lives of these women. Through the different textile cultures and communities of practice we can potentially trace women throughout antiquity and gain a better understanding of their social and domestic lives. 

There are certain environments which preserve textiles, such as:

  • Extremely dry environments (deserts)
  • Freezing environments
  • Acidic mircroenvironments (near a metal object, like a dress pin)
  • Bogs (nitrogen-rich, with little to no oxidization) (Good 2001, p. 211)
Pictured is a woman using a horizontal ground loom muddum27. (2008).

Linen and vegetable fibres survive well in alkaline environments, whereas animal protein fibres survive well in acidic environments (p. 211).

Three types of looms were commonly used in the Ancient Mediterranean:

  • The horizontal ground loom
  • The vertical two-beam loom
  • The warp-weighted loom (Cutler 2019, p. 80)
An example of a Horizontal Ground Loom in use.
TimemapsNet. (2014, August 16).
An example of a Vertical Warp-weighted Loom in use.
TimemapsNet. (2013, March 1).

A Small Note on Weaving:

There are passive warp threads which stand lengthwise, and active weft threads that are drawn over and under the warp to create a pattern.

Some of the common weaving structures found in the Ancient Mediterranean were:

  • The tabby weave
    • The earliest and easiest weave structure with a passive warp, and weft threads that alternate one over the other.
  • The wool weft-faced tabby
    • In this weaving structure there were over twice as many weft threads than the typical tabby, which would completely cover the warp threads.
  • Twill
    • Weft threads pass through the warp threads in order to create a diagonal effect. (Gelba 2017, p. 1208)

Image 1: An example of a tabby weave by Lynn (2005) ttps://; Image 2: A diagram showing a tabby weave structure by Jauncourt (2007) tps://; Image 3: An example of a twill weave structure by Spurge (2008) ps://; Image 4: A diagram showing a twill weave by Todd (2018)

We can analyze and define textile cultures by examining thread diameter in warp and weft, thread twist in warp and weft, textile weave/binding (whether it was a plain weave or a tabby weave), thread count in warp/weft, and the edges of the material (p. 1206).

Each loom type would require a different method of weaving, a different stance, and a different way of moving and positioning the body. A vertical two-beam loom would require a significant amount of stamina from the weaver, as they would be sitting down and working with their arms raised for prolonged periods of time (Cutler 2019, p. 84). The warp-weighted loom, by comparison, would require the ability to stand for long periods of time, and the physical strength to beat the weft upwards, instead of downwards as it is on other loom types (p. 84). Regardless of the loom, women would have surely spend a significant portion of their days weaving for the household. 

Tracing Women Through Material Evidence of Textile Culture

By tracing and analyzing evidence of textiles and textile-related tools we can better understand the potential movements of women in the Ancient Mediterranean, and the potential transmission of knowledge from one community to another.

In the styles of woven material and craft techniques required to use certain tools we can attempt to understand cultural preferences of a certain community, and the movement and social interactions between crafters. Margarita Gelba uses the term ‘textile culture’ in order to refer to the way that all communities have a culture surrounding textile production, but the way in which they produce their textiles can be indicative of specific traditions, aesthetics, and values (Gelba 2017, p. 1206). The analysis and comparison of textile cultures of different ancient settlements can yield insights into how these settlements interact with each other, and potentially adopt and adapt different styles of textile production.

Differences in Textile Culture Between Italy and Greece

During the Iron Age, the textile culture of Greece and Italy had different and distinct characteristics. Italian communities used intricate twill designs in their weaving, and those of a higher status would have an ornamental border woven into the edges of their work. Both their use of twills and borders resemble weaving traditions in Central Europe which used similar styles (p. 1213). In Greece, however, all archaeological evidence of textiles thus far have been woven using tabbies and wool weft-faced tabbies (p. 1215). This tabby-dominant textile culture reflects the textile culture found in the Near East and Egypt in the Bronze Age and Iron Age (p. 1218). At the beginning of 1000 BCE tabby-based textiles begin to appear in Italy. In Cumae, the earliest Greek settlement in Italy, evidence for Italian tabby textile culture has been found. The appearance of these textiles could provide evidence for Greek influence on traditional Italian textile culture. Because textiles would not have been a popular product of exchange this evidence could suggest that individuals were moving to different areas and bringing their weaving traditions with them. Further evidence supports the long-term adoption of this method of production, such as weft-faced tabbies found at Ripacandida which feature an ornamental border (p. 1218). For archaeologists looking at this information, it is potential evidence for women’s movement across the Mediterranean.

Aegean Weaving Practices and the Discoid Loom Weight

An example of a warp-weighted loom
Jeppson, A (2011)

A community of practice is what describes the space where individuals can receive knowledge pertaining to a certain craft by those who have already mastered it. This transmission of knowledge is horizontal, meaning it is between people of similar age, as opposed to a vertical transmission of knowledge, as with an adult to a child. Learning new weaving techniques would have required prolonged contact with a community of practice. The analysis of loom technology throughout the Aegean from 3000 BC to 1500 BC provides evidence that could point to the adoption of new weaving technology by communities within the Aegean. Crete had a consistent tradition of warp-weight weaving using discoid loom weights throughout the Bronze Age (Ulanowska 2017, p. 63). In other settlements throughout the Aegean, however, there has been no evidence of loom weights until the Late Bronze Age (Gorogianni et al. 2015, p. 899). This appearance of loom weights has been attributed to Cretan influence, and the potential adoption of new weaving methods by other communities.

One example of Cretan influence throughout other areas of the Aegean is the Northern Sector of Ayia Irini at Kea. 84.6% of textile production tools at the site are made from local clays, however 26 loom weights, 6 spindle whorls, and one pierced spool are made from non-local clays (Gorogianni et al. 2015, p. 905). Loom weights would have been easy for someone to make for themselves, and would not have been an item that could have come to Kea through exports and sale (Cutler 2017, 86). Loom weights would have, however, travelled with brides as a part of their dowry along with other textile equipment (p. 86). Based on this, it is tempting to associate the presence of non-local textile tools to the presence of non-local women (Gorogianni et al. 2015, p. 907).

If we understand the presence of Cretan-style textile technology as a sign of the movement of women throughout the Aegean, then it would also be indicative of communities of women gathering and socializing. It would have been difficult for the non-Cretan women to make the shift from using a horizontal ground loom or a vertical two-beam loom to using a warp-weighted loom. This shift in tools would have required relearning their weaving skills on this new loom, altering years of muscle memory, and changing body movements to accommodate the new loom. It would not have been a change that came naturally to them. 


To conclude, textiles have been key in the understanding of the everyday life of women in the ancient world. Though it was not originally considered useful to an archeologist’s research, its importance has come to the foreground and now classifies it as an essential piece of history. Throughout this page I have discussed the differences in weaving technologies, which has aided a discussion of how we may trace women in the ancient world through material evidence of weaving technology. In addition to this, I have discussed methods of weaving, and how the methods used in surviving material evidence can be used to trace influences between cultures in the Mediterranean. As the study of ancient textiles progresses, we can only learn more about these ancient women and the communities they belonged to.


Cutler, J. (2019). Arachnes’s Web: Women, Weaving and Networks of Knowledge in the Bronze Age Southern Aegean. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 114, 79-92. 

Gleba, M. (2017). Tracing textile cultures of Italy and Greece in the early first millennium BC. Antiquity ,91(359), 1205-1222. 

Good, I. (2001). Archeological Textiles: A Review of Current Research. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 209-226.

Gorogianni E., J. Cutler, and R.D. Fitzsimons. 2015. “Something Old, Something New: Non-Local Brides as Catalysts for Cultural Exchange at Ayia Irini, Kea?” In Nostoi: Indigenous Cultures, Migration and Integration in the Aegean Islands and Western Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. Proceedings of an International Conference Held at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations, Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey, March 31-April 3, 2011, edited by N. Stampolidis, Ç. Maner, and K. Kopanias, 889-921. 

Griffiths, R. (2011). Uncertain Date: Loom weight [Photograph] Wikimedia Commons.,Loom_Weight(FindID_439213).jpg

Jauncourt. (2007). [Tabby Diagram] [Photograph] Wikimedia Commons.

Jeppson, A. (2011). [Warp-Weighted Loom Twill] [Photograph]Wikimedia Commons.

Lynn. (2005). Colour and Weave [Photograph] Flikr.

muddum27. (2008). Handloom Creation [Photograph] Wikimedia Commons

Spurge, D. (2008). Grey and Yellow Twill [Photograph] Flickr

[TimemapsNet]. (2013, March 1). VERTICAL LOOM [Video] Youtube.

[-]. (2014, August 16). PREHISTORIC HORIZONTAL LOOM [Video] Youtube.

Todd, D.C.. (2018). Twill Weave [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Ulanowska, A. Innovative or Traditional? Diachronic Approach to Weaving Technology in Bronze Age Greece. Światowit, 56(1), 57–73.

Wild, J., Walton Rogers, P. (2018). Creature Comforts at Vindolanda: Two Unique Wool Mats with Knotted Pile. Britannia, 49, 323-333.

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