“And he made the ephod of gold, blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And they did beat the gold into thin plates, and cut it into threads, to work it in the blue, and in the purple, and in the scarlet, and in the fine linen, the work of the skillful workman. They made shoulder-pieces for it, joined together; at the two ends was it joined together. And the skilfully woven band, that was upon it, wherewith to gird it on, was of the same piece and like the work thereof: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, as the LORD commanded Moses.”
When we look at needlework history, we are almost immediately at a disadvantage compared to studying the history of other items. Why? Fiber falls apart. Many of our “clues” are taken from paintings featuring detailed garments, the occasional shard of clay that may have been imprinted with a textile while still wet, or now and then, a well preserved mummy. Studying traditional work from various cultures gets trickier. How has their method changed? How has it been influenced by outside populations? Is the original meaning watered down or abandoned? With goldwork, those questions still come into play, but because of the permanence of the material we often have a tangible item to start with. The silk, wool, or linen may rot away, but the gold remains.
I have conflicting material on where and when goldwork originated. Needlework Through History says metallic thread embroidery originated in China, and then spread to Western Asia and the Middle East around the year 0, but I have also found goldwork and silver work reference far earlier than that. So first, what we do know. Probably the first use of gold in needlework was attaching thin sheets or disks to cloth. Easily pierced with a needle and stitched on with thread, we can see examples of this technique even today, but we also have mummies clothed with this style.
A fabulous example of this is the Issyk Golden Man. Found in Kazakhstan, the Golden Man is believed to be a Scythian lord or warrior (or both), buried in the 5th century BCE. The Scythians were ancient nomadic pastoralists who occupied Eurasia, and there language apparently belongs to the eastern Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian language family. I don’t have a lot of material on Iranian antiquity, but I do have a lot of Herodotus. Turns out, he had a lot to say about them.
One of words that figures the most prominently in Book four of The Histories discussing the customs and territory of the Scythians is “gold”. He says that they they posses no iron or bronze, only gold. His descriptions of their clothing is similar to the figure above, conical hats, tunics and trousers. According to The Shining Cloth, Scythian gold was mined in what is now Kazakhstan and Altai. “Altai” comes from the Turkic-Mongolian word for gold. Herodotus also tells us that Gold that came to ancient Greek cities on the Black Sea originated in Scythian mines in the Caucasus Mountains, which happens to be where the legend of the Golden Fleece originated. The Shining Cloth says, “In an ancient gold mining process, river sand and water were allowed to flow over woolly sheep skins, which caught the minute gold particles, thus creating a golden fleece.”
Another thing I found intriguing though was his writing on the invasion of Scythia by Darius I of Persia. I recognized his name when I was reading about goldwork in Needlework As Art. His dress is described in some detail there, in particular a cloak woven with golden hawks. He invaded Scythia in 512 BCE.
Anyway, these are just two examples of goldwork existing before the year 0 date. Another interesting one is Attalus II Philadelphus. He was born in 220 BCE and was the King of Pergamon, a Greek city in now western Turkey. According to Needlework As Art, he is credited as being the inventor of gold weaving, although it’s more likely he improved the process of making of gold thread, as gold weaving was practiced before his time.
So what about China? Well as I stated before, some books put the origin of metallic thread in China. Luckily for us, we have a mummy dating from the time goldwork is said to have originated there.
The Yingpang man was discovered in 1995 in the region that bears his name. He’s a bit of an enigma because of his light hair color and full light beard, but he was buried wearing a gold death mask and a red robe stitched over with goldwork. He was buried about 2000 years ago.
Then there’s that quote I opened with from Exodus. If Moses wrote the book of Exodus it would put it’s date at about 1400 BCE, however new debates by Biblical scholars but it closer to 500BCE. Anyway, I had no idea what an “ephod” was when I found that quote, so I looked it up. According to wiki, “The Ephod as an elaborate garment worn by the high priest, and upon which the Hoshen (breastplate), containing Urim and Thummim, rested.” As well as “Besides use as a garment, an Ephod was also used for oracular purposes, in conjunction with Urim and Thummim; the books of Samuel imply that whenever Saulor David wished to question God via oracular methods, they asked a priest for the Ephod”
Penny Nickels is a printmaker that started playing with needles with tremendous effect. She and her husband, Johnny Murder, have been described as the “Bonnie and Clyde of Contemporary Embroidery” and you can discover the power of her creativity at her blog.
References and photos for this article include-
Needlework Through History by Cathrine Amoroso Leslie
Needlework as Art by Lady M Alford
The Shining Cloth by Victoria Z Rivers
Selvedge Magazine Issue 26
The Histories by Herodotus
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia
Penny Nickels is a print maker, a former book binder, currently a fiber artist and fledgling writer.