Though leather hides, with the hair on, are found over bodies in the earliest graves, yet linen cloth was introduced early in the prehistoric times, and is frequently found wrapped around the bodies.
On reaching the first dynasty the weaving is seen to be very fine and regular, though we only have some of the stuff used for mummy wrappings, from the tomb of King Zer. The threads are very uniform, and there are 160 to the inch in the warp and 120 in the woof. Modern fine cambric has 140 threads to the inch, so it was quite equalled by hand work at the beginning of Egyptian history. A group of a dozen different cloths on one mummy of the XVIIth dynasty show 138 x 40 and 128 x 56 as the finest, and 21 x 15 as the coarsest mesh. The greatest disproportion of the threads is 138 to 40, or 3 1/2 to 1, and the least is 70 to 62, or 9 to 8; it is recognised as a principle of Egyptian weaving that the woof was not beaten up as closely as the lay of the warp. Unfortunately we have scarcely any cloth except mummy wrappings, and it is not to be expected that the finest work would be thus used.
The size of the looms was considerable. The cloths on the mummy just named are up to five feet wide; and one edge has been torn off that amount, so it was originally more. The pieces are up to sixty feet long, and yet not complete. The looms were horizontal on the ground for coarse work, such as mats; but fine work was done on a vertical loom, and from the ease of displacing threads in tapestry the warp threads were separately weighted and not fastened to a beam. Loom weights of baked clay or of limestone are common.
A few pieces of woven tapestry have been found in the tomb of Tahutmes IV, and part of one is given here full size in fig. 139. The colours used are red, blue, green, yellow, brown and grey. The coloured threads pass to and fro over the space assigned to them, thus entirely parting the warp threads from the neighbouring ones, so that a slit is left along the vertical margins of the colours. This was remedied by stitching; but the same weakness is seen in the Roman and Coptic woven tapestries.
139. Coloured tapestry (XVIIIth dynasty)
140. Cut leather net.
These are known from the pagan period, as there are many mythological subjects; but the greater part belong to the Christian and Mohammedan ages.
The Roman and Coptic tapestries are placed upon garments as derivatives from darning, or from patches put on the garments to prevent them wearing through. The positions are broad stripes over the shoulders where any object would rest when carried, circular patches on the breasts and on the knees. On referring to the hundreds of figures in Roman dress from the third to fifth centuries (in Garucci, Vetriornati di figure in oro), embroideries or tapestries are unusual in Italy. A dozen robes with scrolls or foliage patterns are shown, but only three with knee patches, and one of those (xxxi, I) is a female servant holding an Egyptian fan, probably therefore an Egyptian slave. It seems, then, that this system of circular patches on the wearing parts is not Roman but Egyptian. Beside the woven tapestries, which are nearly all in purple, embroidery was done with the needle in white thread on the purple ground.
Leatherwork was of importance in Egypt in all ages. The two principal arts in it were the applique work in colours, and the cutting of network. The great example of the applique work is the funeral tent of Queen Isiemkheb, about 1000 B.C. It was eight feet long and seven feet wide, with sides over five feet high. Six vultures are outspread along the top, and the sides have a long inscription. The whole of the figures and signs are cut out in variously coloured leather, and stitched on to the crimson leather ground. This work we can trace in the style of earlier decorations, back to the head fillet of Nofert, fig. 24. It is also continued down to the present day in the applique work in coloured stuffs on the inside of Egyptian tents.
The cutting of leather nets was an art of great skill. Rows of slits were cut, breaking joint one with other, so that a piece of leather could be drawn out sideways into a wide net. One of the most delicate of such nets is partly shown in fig. 140. The square patch left in the middle of the net was for the wear of sitting on when the net was put over the linen waist cloth. Such nets over the cloth are shown in the figures of the harvesters, fig. 70, with the slit network and the square patch. To cut the leather in such extremely fine threads must have required great skill and care; and not only is the leather slit, but considerable slips have been removed so as to produce an open net close up to the edge band of solid leather; on some edges an inch or two is cut away to form one side of the rhombic opening.
In many directions we have now traced the outlines of the artistic skill of the Egyptians, but only outlines, which point incessantly to the wide spaces that need to be filled in by further detail. Much of that has yet to be discovered, but much is ready to hand whensoever a careful observer may choose to devote attention to any of the branches of art or technical work which we have so briefly noticed. In every direction a complete collecting of materials and an adequate publication of them would bring a full reward in results.
The powerful technical skill of Egyptian art, its good sense of limitations, and its true feeling for harmony and expression, will always make it of the first importance to the countries of the West with which it was so early and so long connected.