Sunday, October 18, 2020

Reproducing Linen Trousers from Roman Egypt


I'm putting this post up now, but it's really not quite ready.  Below, I've laid out my best approximation of how to pattern some interesting trousers (possibly better described as underwear) from Roman Egypt.  

These proportions worked out very well for me.  However, I've not had any opportunity to try this out on people with different body shapes than mine.  I'm hoping that by putting this up here, I can get other re-enactors out there to help me out by trying this and seeing how well it works for a wider range of bodies.  So, if you're reading this and you think these trousers are kind of neat - please try this out and let me know how well these proportions work for you.  

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Romano-Egyptian linen trousers

            Most investigations into the clothing of Egypt in the Roman era (sometimes called Coptic era) focus on the elaborately decorated tunics that have survived.  But, what did they wear underneath?  It turns out that there are 4 extant linen trousers from Roman (Byzantine) Egypt.  A marvelous article analyzing these trousers is available online (here).  Two of them were subjected to radiocarbon dating and both are from the late 6th or early 7th century CE.  I highly encourage anyone interested in these garments to read Kwaspen and De Moor’s article.  This brief tutorial will focus on the process of reproducing this style of trousers.

            The 4 trousers that Kwaspen and De Moor analyzed are all constructed in the same way, with some slight variations.  The internal proportions of the pieces are relatively similar among them as well.  This enabled me to reproduce a pair sized to fit me and assess the fit based on proportions of my measurements. 

            It must be pointed out that the construction of these trousers is completely unlike modern pants.  The fit is likewise unlike modern pants.  The use of a back panel and triangular gussets create a shape that seems much baggier in the rear than any sort of modern pants.  However, this room easily accommodates the movements of the body in a wide range of positions.  It’s unclear to me whether these trousers were worn by men, women, or both.  However, the cut of the gusset is particularly well-suited to accommodate male anatomy.  As an interesting side note, the construction of these Egyptian trousers has some similarities to northern European finds from earlier in the first millennium. 

            As Kwaspen and De Moor point out in the article, there is no evidence that any sort of physical pattern was used by the people of this time – and quite likely the cut was known well by those who made them.  Since the pieces that make up these trousers are all simple geometric shapes (rectangles and right triangles), it is easy enough to mark the necessary measurements directly on your fabric.  Be sure to double check your measurements – measure twice, cut once!  

            The original trousers are made from linen that (in most cases) seems to have been repurposed. In some, different pieces of the same garment are cut from different cloths.  They range from 13-35 threads per centimeter.  So, a lightweight or medium weight modern linen would be suitable for a reproduction. 


Cutting the pieces for these trousers only requires 3 measurements:

Hip measurement (H) – is the circumference around the widest part of your hips and buttocks

Outseam length to the ankle (OA) – this is the full length of the pants from where the drawstring will sit to the ankles

Outseam length to the knee (OK) – This is the length from where the drawstring will sit to the knee

             One of the pairs of surviving trousers is knee length, and if you want to make a knee length pair, you will only need to measure the outseam to the knee (OK).  If you want full-length trousers, measure to the ankle also (OA). 

Pattern pieces

            The main body piece is a large rectangle.  The width will be 3/4 of the hip measurement (H) and the length will equal the full outseam (OA).  You will also need to mark the top of the slit.  Measure down from the midpoint of the top edge 1/8 and mark this point.  The main body piece will be slit from the bottom up to this point. 

            The back panel is also a rectangle.  The width will be 3/8 H and the length will be ½ H + 2 in/5cm.  The extra length is will be folded over to make a channel for the belt. 

            There will be two triangular panels.  The length will be 1/2 H.  The diagonal will be OK.  Mark a vertical line of length 1/2 H on your fabric and mark two lines perpendicular to this.  These will be the top and bottom.  Measure from the top of your vertical line and find the point where a measurement of OK meets the bottom line.  This will show you width of the rectangle.  Cut out the rectangle and then cut it in half along the diagonal line.  . 

            The last piece is a crotch gusset.  The crotch gussets on the extant garments are not perfectly square.  But, for simplicity we will be cutting our crotch gusset as a square.  Two of the surviving trousers have a gusset that sets into slits on both the main panel and the back panel.  One has a triangular crotch gusset that sets into only the slit in the main panel.  The last has no crotch gusset at all, but this would create a very high-stress point where a straight edge from that back panel sets into the slit of the main panel.  I would not recommend this construction.  I actually got a better fit using a triangular gusset seamed to the bottom of the back panel than I did by setting in into a slit. 

            The crotch gusset is based on a square, with each side 1/8 H in length.  For these instructions, you can cut that in half along the diagonal. 

            Lastly, you will need 4 belt loops that will be attached to the top of the main panel.  I made mine by using a strip of selvedge from my fabric.  Kwaspen and DeMoor don’t explicitly list the size of the belt loops on the originals.  I used a strip 2 inches wide, folded in thirds with the selvedge on the outside, then cut into 3 inch long pieces. 

Please excuse my poor skills with computer graphics.  I hope these diagrams are clear.

I have used ½ inch/ 12mm seam allowance throughout (except for the belt channel, which is described below).

Order of construction

            The original garments all have seams that are stitched and then flat-felled.  This arrangement allows the order of operations to be deduced.  It can be done either by hand-stitching, or by machine.  To reduce bulk, I recommend trimming down one seam allowance on each seam before folding them over to make the flat-fell seam. 

            First, sew each triangular panel to the sides of the back panel.  The long leg of the triangle (the side which you measured at 1/2 * H) is sewn to the back panel.  Match the bottom (short leg) of the triangles to the bottom of the back panel.  Press these seams toward the back panel to flat-fell the seam allowances.  When pressing the seam allowances to make the flat-fell, you will also press a double-fold hem for sides of the back panel above the point of the triangular panels. 

You can then fold down the extra 2 inches at the top of the back panel.  Fold these 2 inches to the outside.  Fold the raw edge under and stitch this down to create a channel for the belt. 

Match the middle of the bias edge of the crotch gusset to the middle of the bottom edge of the back panel.  Stitch the gusset to the back panel.  Press these seam allowances toward the gusset, but don’t flat-fell them yet.

Stitch a double-fold hem along the top edge of the main panel.  Cut a slit up the middle of the main panel from the bottom edge to the marked point (1/8 H from the top edge).  If you will be making full length trousers, you should mark the knee level on both sides of the main panel and both sides of the slit.  This will be at OK from the top edge.  Set the corner of the crotch gusset into the top of the slit.  Continue stitching the sides of the gusset, then the back panel and triangular panels to either side of the slit.  Stop stitching at the point that marks the knee level.  The point of the triangular panels may go past this.  That’s fine and if it does, you will trim it off later. 

To flat-fell all these seams, first fold under and stitch the seam allowances for the seams joining the crotch gusset to the slit.  These will be pressed away from the gusset.  As you approach the edges of the gusset, trim down the seam allowances.  You can now flat-fell the remaining seam allowances here as one long seam, pressing the seam allowances toward the main panel (toward the gusset in the middle of the seam). 

On each side, stitch the side of the main panel to the hypotenuse of the triangular panel.  Again, stop stitching at the mark for knee level.  If the point of the triangular panel extends past this point (or if it extends past the knee marking on the slit) trim it off.  Fold seam allowances toward the main panel and flat-fell those seams.  The folding from the flat-felling will continue naturally into a double-fold hem on both sides of the main panel and both sides of the slit below the knee level.  (see the diagram below)  Stitch these hems.

 If you had to trim off the points of the triangular panels, make a narrow hem along that cut edge.  Stitch a hem along the bottom edge as well.  Lastly, attach your 4 belt loops to the top of the main panel. 

I'm including a line diagram of one of the surviving trousers from the Kwaspen and DeMoor article here.  The solid lines indicate seams and the dotted lines indicate the direction the flat-felling is folded.  If this is unclear, please follow the link at the top and read the paper itself for more details. 

Diagram of surviving trousers by Kwaspen and DeMoor

To wear these trousers, a belt of some sort must be threaded through the channel at the top of the back panel and through the belt loops.  There is no evidence as to what sort of belt was used with the originals.  I have used a length of twill tape, tied at the front.  However, a cloth or leather belt with a buckle would also be a justifiable choice.  The legs are left open at the back below the knee.  The originals have ties attached at the corners of the hem.  Thus, it is assumed that these sides were tightly wrapped around the lower legs.  Again, Kwaspen and DeMoor have some photos of their reconstructions in the article and I encourage everyone to read it.  

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