Posts

How to make a 2,000 year old slipper (part 1)

Today Christina Pappas returns to the blog to walk us through the process of replicating a 2000-year-old slipper!


 

Today we are going to focus on getting to know the slippers for this project. (Have a look at my post from last week to learn more about my replication project.)

Footwear from 2,000 years ago is really different from what most of us wear today. Going barefoot was probably not uncommon, but there were times when you wanted something on your feet. For example, imagine exploring a cave barefoot. How far could you walk barefoot? Probably not very far. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the longest cave system in the world (over 400 miles and counting!) and ancient peoples had explored much of it thousands of years ago. We know they wore slippers because we have found slipper fragments inside the cave.

 

Several of the slippers were excavated from rockshelters in the 1920s and 1930s as a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These images are from a rockshelter in Lee County in Kentucky that produced three of the slippers. Images courtesy the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, University of Kentucky.

We also find fragments of slippers in dry rockshelters. Rockshelters are places along rock walls where you can find shelter from the elements – the kind of place you would rest while hiking to get out of the rain. Kentucky has many rockshelters that are dry, and archaeologists have been able to recover perishable artifacts, including slippers, from these kinds of sites.

A twined slipper from a rockshelter in Kentucky.

For the slippers we’re going to make, we have to look at several examples to piece together all the necessary traits. All the slippers we’ll be looking at are in the collection of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. They are all from archaeological sites in Kentucky, and most from rockshelters. Only a couple of have been radiocarbon dated directly, but all are approximately 2,000 years old (give or take a few hundred years).

All the slippers are made from plant materials. I can see that the fibers are long, and there is a bit of the outer stem left on some fibers. That tells me that these fibers were not subjected to a lot of processing and appear to be bast fibers. Unfortunately, I can’t completely determine what plant fiber was used; I would need to cut samples and examine them with a microscope to be certain. I do know that these are not from milkweed or nettle fiber, since those fibers are finer than what was used in these slippers. The ancient craftspeople who made these slippers used something woody and hard-wearing, quite possibly fiber from the pawpaw.

A (slightly different) twined slipper from a rockshelter in Kentucky. Image courtesy the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, University of Kentucky.

These slippers are all chevron or countered twined. Twining is one of the oldest textile structures with examples dating to over 40,000 years ago in the Old World. In twining, two yarns twist around a third stationary yarn. You can twist every row in the same direction, or you can alternate the direction of each row to create a pattern as was done in our slippers. Twined slippers are made both ways; chevron twining just happens to be my favorite.

The paired yarns that twist are our wefts, and the stationary yarns are our warps. The weft yarns on all our slippers are singles, with a slight Z-twist of 20-30 degrees. The average diameter is about 0.5 cm (about 0.2 inches). The warps are a bit tricky to see and learn about.

A close-up of the heel of a slipper where you can see the plant fibers and the twining structure.

Slippers had to be durable and hard-wearing, so they were twined very tightly and the wefts covered the warps. In the places where the weft has rubbed away, the warp was also damaged and the original yarn structure is not always clear. What I’ve been able to see is that both plied and unplied yarns were used in the warp. A plied yarn was used for the warps near the edge of the slippers, and unplied yarns were used for the warps in the middle. A plied yarn was also used at the toe of the slipper. It functioned like a drawstring to snug the slipper up around your foot.

Using plied yarns makes sense at the edges and as a drawstring – those are the areas where the slipper would take a good amount of abuse and a plied yarn would stand-up better over time. The plied warp yarns are two Z-spun singles S-twisted together, and the unplied warps are Z-spun singles. The warps average about 0.8 cm (about 0.31 inches) in diameter. The plied yarns average about 1.5 twists/cm and the unplied warp yarns average 0.5 twists/cm. I wasn’t able to get a measurement for the twists/cm for the weft yarns. The dense twining made it difficult to get consistent measurements.

A slipper toe where you can see the drawstring. You can find a drawing of a completed slipper here.

So, what have we learned so far?

I know that my slippers will need to be made out of a ‘harder’ bast fiber. Pawpaw was used prehistorically for slippers, and I know a few farmers who still grow them. My fiber will need minimal processing. I will use chevron twining to weave my slippers. My yarn goals are:

  1. Z-spun single, approximately 0.5 cm thick, 0.5 twists/cm
  2. Z-spun single, approximately 1.0 cm thick, 0.5 twists/cm
  3. 2 Z-spun singles S-plied together, approximately 1.0 cm thick, 1.5 twists/cm

I’m going to have to figure out how to process my fiber, how to spin my yarn, and how to weave my slipper. These are all steps that will be based on what I’ve learned from other fiber artists and early historic descriptions of spinning in the Southeast, not on anything we know for sure from the archaeological record. This is where the real trial-and-error begins!

 

Next time we chat, we’ll get to know the other textiles for this project.


 

Chris Pappas is an archaeologist by day and a fiber fanatic by night who is happiest when she can be both at the same time. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, adorable baby girl, and two crazy beagles.

Following in the steps of a 2,000 year old spinner

We’re so happy to have Christina Pappas back on the blog today, to take us on a journey back in time as she tries to walk in the footsteps of some ancient textile producers.


In my last post, I talked a little about how archaeologists use objects to learn about the distant past:

“You look at a handmade textile and you see not just a pretty object, but the hours at the loom or knitting needles, the fiber drafting at the wheel, the alchemy at the dye pot, even the shepherds with their flocks. You can see all the steps and decisions that went into creating that object, all the places where one path or another was chosen. Archaeologists are constantly trying to trace back those paths, to see those moments when a decision had to be made and why. The whys are how we learn about culture in the distant past. We can look to the past and see when and why spinning one kind of fiber over another was chosen, what changes were happening that led to that decision, and what were the ramifications of that decision….”

All the steps and decisions that go into making something are known as a production sequence. One of the ways we can learn about a production sequence from the past is to actually make the object ourselves; to try to recreate the steps that went into crafting something to understand how that process fits into everyday life.

Harvesting Joe Pye Weed this past September. This was a plant used for fiber in prehistoric Kentucky. These plants are destined to become yarn for my project.

For example, let’s think about a woven wool shirt. What are all the steps to make it? Cutting the fabric and sewing the garment are steps, but we need to look all the way back to the very beginning if we are going to understand the entire production sequence. So we have to think about the sheep, processing the fleece, spinning the yarn, weaving, and then finally cutting and sewing the garment. That’s a lot!

Now, imagine the same process over 1,000 years ago in a Viking settlement. What technology was available to you? What other kinds of chores and activities were going on every day? How would the need to make a wool shirt fit into daily life? By trying to make a wool shirt exactly the way a Viking would have, we can estimate the time and effort needed and get a glimpse into the value placed on this work in their society. Similar experiments and studies into Viking sailcloth have shown how labor-intensive its manufacture was and how valued that process would have been. (Thisthis, and this are just a few examples of these projects.)

 

A slipper form a cave in Kentucky. This will be the slipper we will try to replicate.

At the University of Kentucky, we have a collection of prehistoric textiles from dry caves and rock shelters that are around 2,000 years old. These include fragments of shawls, bags, mats, and slippers. They are in various states of preservation but all are made from plant fibers. I know the structure of the yarns and the types of weaves used to make each object, but I’m not sure how they were made. How were the plants processed into yarn? How was the yarn spun? How easy was it to dye the yarns? How long did it take to weave a bag or make a pair of slippers? We know only a little about the process of making these textiles, but I think I can change that.

 

A fragment of a bag from a Kentucky rockshelter. Complete objects, like bags, are very rare from archaeological sites. We will look at this fragment, as well as a few others, as we make our bag.

Over the next several months, I’m going to try to replicate two different kinds of textiles, a slipper and a small bag. I’m going to start at the very beginning with gathering the plants and how to process them for fiber. I’ll be experimenting with different ways of spinning the fiber and how the yarn I make matches up with the archaeological examples. There will be the weaving of each object and a ‘field test’ to make sure they can function as they are supposed to. In the end, we’ll compare my replicas with the originals and see what we’ve learned. I’m definitely not the first person to try this sort of project with archaeological textiles, and we’ll talk about the projects that have come before me. I’ll be checking in on the PLY blog periodically to document my progress, and I’ll report on both my successes and my failures. This is science folks; I expect there to be some failure along the way.

 

A few examples of yarn and textiles I’ve made to learn about how prehistoric fabrics were constructed.

Next time, we’ll get to know the two objects I’m going to be replicating. We’ll take a look at their yarn and weave structure and make some guesses about what was done to produce each object. That will serve as our roadmap for the whole process. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 


 

Chris Pappas is an archaeologist by day and a fiber fanatic by night who is happiest when she can be both at the same time. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, adorable baby girl, and two crazy beagles.