Simple tablet-woven bands from medieval Prague (Czech Republic)

Richly patterned and brocaded tablet-woven bands have always received a lot of attention. With the multitude of photos of original bands in the museums as well as photos of their modern copies, a beginner looking for information on tablet weaving on the internet can easily get the wrong idea that tablet weaving was used mainly for decorative purposes, and that there were no plain bands or that they were quite rare. In fact, the opposite is true. It is only that those simple bands are often overlooked or regarded as not interesting enough to be discussed or shown.

Let’s shift the balance and talk about some of these neglected bands.

In 2004-2008, a series of archaeological excavations was Figure 1: Reconstructions of the two patterned bands. Left: folded. Right: chevron-patterned. undertaken in the center of Prague
in the area where even today one of the streets is called “V Jámě” (In the Pit). In the Middle Ages, this place had been a swampy depression that citizens of Prague purposefully filled during the 14th and 15th centuries by using it as a dump until they could use it as a building site. Even though the soil conditions in the Czech Republic are not usually favorable for preservation of archaeological textiles and other organic materials, in this case, the anaerobic conditions in the waterlogged ground helped to sustain them.

Among more than 1,500 excavated textile fragments, nine were woven on tablets. Technical data of these bands are given in Table 1.

Aside from their different widths, the bands show distinct similarities. The thread thickness varied only slightly, from 0.35mm (silk) to 0.4-0.5mm (wool). All threads were two-plied (2z/S). The tablets in all the bands were threaded alternately SZSZ and turned all in the same direction. (However, in one fragment the turning direction was changed to untwist the warp threads.)

The silk band has a yellowish color today. Most of the woolen bands look dark brown or black. Only one band displays a distinctly lighter lengthwise stripe and a similar line of V-shapes. However, a color enhancement of digital photos revealed slight color differences in two more bands. One of them displayed a threaded-in chevron pattern. Color differences in the other one were too subtle to distinguish the threaded-in pattern, except the line of V-shapes along one edge.

The dyestuff analysis revealed that lighter threads in the chevron-patterned band were dyed by madder and weld, and darker threads probably by oak galls (or other source of tannins) and woad, which resulted in the orange color with black pattern, as shown in the replica. Due to a misunderstanding during the commission of the other replica (I have been cooperating with the archaeologists on the research of these bands), it was woven in the same colors. Only after the final publication came out did I learn that the darker threads had been dyed by madder and
lighter threads were either not analyzed or no dyes were detected in them, and so the band probably should have been red and white. The detection of dyes in the third multicolored band was not successful. One of the solid-colored bands was probably brown (dyed by tannins), another dark red (dyed by brazilwood and tannins) and a third dark purple or rich black (dyed by kermes, woad, and tannins). The remaining bands were not analyzed.

Even though imported dyes were detected in some of these tablet-woven bands, they were all probably locally made, as the above-mentioned similarities suggest. We do not know whether they were woven by ordinary women for their personal use or by professional guild weavers, but one of the bands clearly shows signs of amateurism (or apprenticeship): There are several errors visible in the band with the chevron pattern. One, the wrong position of the dark thread in the seventh tablet from the left, runs along the full length of both preserved fragments of this band. The mistakes along the right edge happened (or were corrected) within them. The edges are also quite uneven. Some modern weavers might consider serrated lines, caused by alternately-threaded tablets, to also be a mistake. Due to relatively fine threads, the serrations are not noticeable from a distance, however, and unlike the patterns with smooth lines, the band is reversible, with both sides looking the same.

How were these tablet woven bands used? The striped band was found folded lengthways with noticeable wear along the fold, suggesting it was used to envelope the edge of a fabric instead of the
fabric edge having been hemmed (Figure 2). That would also explain the asymmetry of its design; there was no need for a pattern on the reverse of the garment. The narrow silk band, woven
on only three tablets, was more likely used for lacing the garment than as a trim. We have no clues regarding the purpose of the others.

Figure 2: Detail of reconstruction of the band found folded.

Bibliography:
Helena Březinová, David Kohout: The Largest Assemblage of Medieval Wool Textiles from Archaeological Excavations in the Czech Republic.
Poster for EAA, Glasgow, 2015. Online:
https://www.academia.edu/15541002/The_Largest_Assemblage_of_Medieval_Wool_Textiles_from_Archaeological_Excavations_in_the_Czech_Republic

Helena Březinová, David Kohout et al. Středověké textilní a barvířské technologie: soubor textilních fragmentů z odpadních vrstev z Nového Města pražského [Medieval textile and dyeing technologies: an assemblage of textile fragments from waste layers in Prague’s New Town].
Praha: Archeologický ústav AV ČR, 2016

© 2018 by Sylvie Odstrčilová

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