Coptic Tunics

The term "Coptic" is a corruption of qibt, Arabic for Egyptian, and is applied to the people who occupied that area during the early Christian era. Because of the dry climate, many early textiles have been preserved there. Their condition allows us to see exactly how garments were constructed, a pleasure in early period research. Linen or wool were the most commonly used materials, with linen predominating in the earlier periods and wool in the later. Fabrics were woven in widths of up to 99 inches, with the sleeves shaped while the fabric was on the loom.

See the illustration below.

For men the fabric was folded in half to make a tunic with the selvages becoming the hems. The tunics were T-shaped with sleeves closed tightly at the wrists and were worn over an undertunic. Working class tunics were shorter and might have elbow length sleeves. Legs were covered with leggings of cloth or leather decorated with embroidered or woven patterns. Women's tunics were made of two widths of cloth joined with welted seams. Their clothing consisted of a linen under-tunic with a high neck trimmed with embroidery. A woolen overgown could be constructed with welted seams, tight sleeves and a square neckline with no slit down the front, or in a design similiar to the men's. They also wore a cloak and covered their hair with a hairnet.

Tunics of the 6th thru 8th centuries were made of colored wool including yellow derived from an iron oxide, reddish purple from madder and in later times, blue from indigo.

Linen tunics were usually natural or bleached. Colored decoration on linen tunics was usually in wool, because linen was difficult to color using the technology available at the time.

The tunics were decorated with embroidered strips called clavi and squares or roundels called segmentae arranged in various ways. The segmentae were approximately 6" in diameter and tapestry woven or were embroidered with silk, wool or linen thread. They were then hem-stitched down. Some roundels contain portraits. Biblical designs must have been popular because Bishop Asterius of Amaesa I reproached his subjects for "wearing scenes from the Holy Scriptures on their clothes rather than carrying them in their heart". (Boucher) Also popular were scenes drawn from Nilotic decoration or inspired by Syrian or Sassanian themes such as winged cupids, snakes playing in the Nile, children playing in the water, rabbits, and men on horseback. During the early periods, segmentum were worked in a single color.

They were made of wool until after the 6th century when silk was introduced. Segmentum were often placed on the upper arm of the tunic, but the most common place was over the knee area on the tunic front.

Their use was very popular in Byzantium and aspects of the decoration found their way into both Roman and Eastern Orthodox church vestments.

The clavi, or more properly faugustus clavus, were decorative bands running down the middle of the tunic from the back hem to the front hem. They were derived from Roman badges of office. By the end of the first century they had lost their offical significance. As early as the 3rd century b.c.e., the clavi were broken and the ends were finished in a leaf or other decorative designs such as a circle or diamond. From the 4th to the 9th century c.e., clavi were widely used for the decoration of clothing by both men and women in Christianized countries.

While most clavi and segmentate were tapestry woven, some were embroidered. Stitches used include chain stitch, cross stitch, whipped running stitch, satin stitch, stem stitch and split stitch. Most surviving fragments are from tunics, but similiar decorations are throught to have been used on pillows and wall hangings. Coptic embroidery came to a halt in the 9th century when members of the Coptic Christian Church were forced to wear special yellow robes by the Muslims.


Ancient Coptic Textiles: Tapestry fragments from Eqypt 4th Cent. AD to 10th Cent. Rogers and Podmore Brighton, 1979.

Boucher, Francois 20,000 Years of Fashion. Abrams.

Gostelow, Mary The Complete International Book of Embroidery. Simon and Shuster, 1977.

Payne, Blanche History of Costume. Harper and Row, 1965.

Norris, Herbert Costume and Fashion: The Evolution of European Dress Through the Earlier Ages. J.M.Dent, London, 1924

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