Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #27

Hello everybody and welcome to the latest Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles blog. This time I’m very excited to be introducing Ulrike Beck.

Ulrike leads the BMBF-funded research project InnoTexGes (Grant 01UL1917X) at the University of Arts Berlin, where she investigates clothing production related to the social and economic context. In addition, Ulrike investigates problem-solving in the ancient textile industry by applying new scientific methods to material culture. Therefore she interlinks textile- and design research with data science. Ulrike understands clothing production as a complex task, which is solved by converting creative ideas into a mathematical concept and applying it to a specific problem. Therefore, her research focusses on pattern recognition and translating the consistent logical language of the dress into comparable data models.

In this post Ulrike is going to tell us about:

Why we need to think about ancient and historical clothes in motion –

A new method and case studies from the 5th Century BC to the 2nd Century AD from Xinjiang, China.

My first idea about developing a new research method occurs in a room with clothing finds from the first millennium BCE at the Archaeological Institute in Urumqi, in Xinjiang in western China. The exceptionally well-preserved fragile clothes are neatly spread on huge tables. Their narrow seams look like subtle leaf veins of carefully pressed plants in a herbarium. “Death leaves half-filled cans of shaving foam behind” (Haruki Murakami) and only just worn clothes.

Fig. 1: Reconstructed silk ensemble from Niya manufactured in the 1st Century AD in Xinjiang; reconstruction: Ulrike Beck, photograph: Martin Jess, © Ulrike Beck

Clothes are made for the human body and motion. They are produced for that purpose to such an extent that they seem to be waiting whenever they are not worn: A trench coat, still wet from the rain, is draped over the back of a chair in a café. A small, red woollen cardigan hangs slightly crooked on a wooden hanger in the library. All those clothes are in an intermediate state. The trench coat collapses momentarily on the back of the chair, and the cardigan takes on the shape of the slightly oversized hanger and vaguely bulges at the shoulders. Only when worn do clothes unfold in their true form and meaning. And only then do clothes reach their completeness. Temporarily discarded, they all seem to be waiting for their owner, to be put on again and carried away. 

But the neatly spread-out clothing finds at the Institute were left behind thousands of years ago. They do not wait for anyone anymore.

Clothing fulfils a wide range of practical communicative and social functions. It is a creative toolkit that enables us to enhance our skill set to meet new challenges. Simultaneously, it is an artistic language to communicate our personal and cultural narratives. In doing so, clothing reveals wide-ranging information about its wearers, the technological and cultural knowledge and beliefs, the availability of resources and even new ideas in societies. Therefore, many interesting questions arise about clothing’s multifaceted functions and interconnections to society when investigating prehistoric and historical dress. 

Excellently preserved textile finds contain their concepts and design ideas still within themselves. They talk to us in their unique language. However, their stories are hidden because the fragile textiles are mostly preserved isolated and lack their intimate connection to the human body. To truly understand clothing, we must examine its actual behaviour on the human body and in motion.

Clothing production is a complex task. It is solved by converting creative ideas into mathematical concepts and applying them to a specific problem. Therefore, while clothes are mystical and beautiful as they are, they are also mathematical data archives. Even after several thousand years, their creators’ particular strategies are still preserved in the compelling logic of their construction. 

To investigate those hidden strategies and ideas, I developed a new scientific method, which combines Reverse Engineering techniques with forensic studies, and applied it to textile finds from Xinjiang. The following three remarkable examples from the Xinjiang case studies will illustrate how the garments were designed to create specific effects in motion. Furthermore, the examples will highlight that technical knowledge and the understanding of motor function were both crucial to constructing the masterful design of the garments. 

At first glance, some of the Xinjiang textiles seem entirely mistaken in their design and construction. But, surprisingly, they turn out to be very functional and aesthetic in motion. 

Fig. 2: Archaeological drawing and construction layout of a woollen shirt from Zaghunluq (85QZM4:26) manufactured around 500 BCE in Xinjiang; reconstruction and technical drawing: Ulrike Beck, © Ulrike Beck

Around 500 BCE in Xinjiang, a wide striped shirt made of finely woven wool with a small dark brown felt collar was manufactured. Today the find is carefully preserved between two plexiglass shields at the museum in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Upon first sight, one immediately notices how disproportionate and strange the shirt’s construction appears: It consists of an oversized and highly wide-cut torso. Two slender sleeves protrude below the shoulder, each explicitly sloping upwards. In the middle of the torso is a tiny neck hole, far too tight for a grown person, even though the shirt is enormous in its measurements. Strangely, the shirt’s high-quality fashioning and the finely woven wool starkly contrast its unusual proportions. Was the construction a design mistake? Has anything gone wrong during the production process?

Fig. 3: Reconstruction and wearing test of a woollen shirt from Zaghunluq (85QZM4:26) manufactured around 500 BCE in Xinjiang; reconstruction: Ulrike Beck, photographs: Martin Jess, © Ulrike Beck

The scientific reconstruction and the functional wearing test in motion shed new light on the find. When worn, the massive front of the shirt opens to a comfortable V-collar, and both sides fall narrowly over one another to form a functional wrap-around jacket. The upwards-slanted sleeves do not start at the shoulders, as one might assume, but only at the elbows. Because they are sewn-in upwards, they support the elbow joint and thus the forearm’s natural upward movement. The additional gussets ensure further functionality and mobility. The shirt fits elegantly in its three-dimensionality on the human body and in motion. It behaves decidedly different from how the textile between the plexiglass shields would suggest. The construction and design turn out to be very thoughtful, practical and, simultaneously, utterly aesthetic when worn.

Other case studies of the Xinjiang garments reveal inexplicable quantities of incorporated material as a design element: The colourful woollen skirts from Shampula, Xinjiang, are such an instance. Their artfully crafted tapestry bands with their fabulous patterns and mystical creatures have already been the focus of various textile studies. The woollen skirts seem to be designed around the precious tapestry. However, the skirts themselves are masterpieces concerning their specific construction and incorporated quantities of wool. 

Fig. 4.: Construction layout and measurements of a woollen skirt from Shampula (92LSIIM3:cA-1); the skirt hem reaches about eleven meters, six times the skirt’s width; reconstruction and technical drawing: Ulrike Beck, © Ulrike Beck.

One of those exceptional skirts was produced in the 1st Century AD in Xinjiang. The various skirt parts, which consist of four woollen bands that are very different in texture, colour, and size, were artfully combined. Looking at the well-preserved skirt at the Archaeological Institut in Xinjiang, the precious tapestry band with its beautiful creatures and floral motifs seems to be the most remarkable part of the garment. However, the skirt’s hemline underneath the tapestry reveals a surprising secret: It is made of two heavy deep red woollen braids folded in thousands of delicate pleats. In total length, the skirt’s hemline reaches more than eleven metres. But the reason for this enormous investment of fabric and the unusual construction of thousands of tiny pleats refuses to unveil at first glance. 

Scientific functional tests of the skirt reveal an unexpected result. The skirt’s construction is explicitly designed for a particular motion when worn: The skirt floats in slow undulations around the body and changes direction with every step of its wearer. Simultaneously, the flaming textile waves of the hem flow steadily around the body and draw attention to the artfully crafted patterns and fabulous creatures displayed on the tapestry above. This exceptional design of the skirt is due to a specific construction strategy, which is crucial for the unusual behaviour of the garment when worn. This effect was worth investing in enormous quantities of material and committing to time-consuming craftsmanship. In addition, the specific material properties of the overlong skirt hem are crucial for its functioning in the finished garment. In contrast to the waistband and the main skirt part, it is made of braided material, remarkably flexible and allows wildly flowing movements. 

Fig. 5.: Reconstruction and wearing test of a woollen skirt from Shampula (92LSIIM3: cA-1) manufactured in the 1st Century AD in Xinjiang; the unique design unfolds in motion: the skirt floats in slow undulations around the body and changes direction with every step; photographs: Ulrike Beck, © Ulrike Beck.

The creators of the skirts have artfully integrated the specific motion of the garments as a crucial design element. Therefore, the design of the skirts implies that their creators had a very good understanding of human motor function. Furthermore, they skillfully used the principles of balance between tight-fitting and freely swinging elements in the skirt’s construction to achieve the desired effect.

But not only unusual proportions or remarkable amounts of fabric and incorporating different materials can have crucial effects on a garment when worn. Also, Xinjiang’s craftsmen used delicate mathematical construction concepts for impressive results in motion. 

In the 1st Century AD in Xinjiang, an extraordinary ensemble of silk garments were manufactured: a delicate silk blouse and a long silk wrap skirt. The construction of the blouse is a masterpiece. The narrow cuffs and the high-standing collar are finely lined and artfully composed of a mosaic of thin silk ribbons. In addition, the blouse shows an exquisite balance and fit when worn. At that time, Xinjiang garments already reveal an extraordinary degree of abstraction in their construction. The human anatomy and motor function are notably reflected in the specific design of the clothes. Thus, the garments’ functionality and fit achieve an extraordinary quality. Furthermore, the construction concepts themselves emerge as a distinct form of expression.

Fig. 6: Archaeological drawing and construction layout of a silk blouse (95MN1M5-23) and a silk wrap skirt (95MN1M5-18) from Niya, manufactured in the 1st Century AD in Xinjiang; reconstruction and technical drawing: Ulrike Beck, © Ulrike Beck

Looking at both textile finds, the matching wide silk wrap skirt seems quite simple in its design compared to the complex construction of the blouse. Therefore, the blouse seems to be the eye-catcher in the ensemble. But the functional wearing test of the reconstructed skirt proves otherwise. Instead, it reveals the impressive effect of a delicate but sensational construction strategy.  

The silk wrap skirt’s design embodies a fascinating concept for motion. The translucent silk fabric artfully cascades around the body when worn. As a result, the skirt almost weightlessly floats like a fine mist with every step of its wearer. Simultaneously, the fine and exquisitely crafted seams draw subtle lines into the fabric, like delicate leaf veins in overlapping silk pedals. 

Fig. 7: Reconstruction and wearing test of a silk blouse (95MN1M5-23) and a silk wrap skirt (95MN1M5-18) from Niya, manufactured in the 1st Century AD in Xinjiang. The silk skirt artfully cascades around the body and floats like a fine mist with every step of its wearer; reconstruction: Ulrike Beck, photographs: Martin Jess, © Ulrike Beck

The skirt’s design is outstanding: It is a sculptural masterpiece and explicitly created for motion. This concept is a very advanced step to utilise the garments’ strictly logical and mathematical construction as an independent, sculptural form of expression. It is the idea to design a garment for a specific form of expression in motion through intimate interaction with the moving body. It reveals that the skirt’s construction is an advanced art form.

The desire to creatively express ourselves through the way we dress is probably as old as the idea of clothing itself. Through our clothes, we embody our strategies and give our ideas a concrete form. Therefore, clothing is a powerful driving force for economic and social networking and the development of new technologies. In order to dress, we have repeatedly developed innovative ideas, technologies and concepts over the millennia, to face new challenges and creatively express who we are.

Many other fascinating stories about exquisite techniques, strategies and the art of sculptural expression are very likely hidden in the textile finds that survived the ages. Those stories will only unfold and reveal through the dimension of motion. To discover them, we need to scientifically analyse and structure our data in new ways by applying new methods and ideas. 

“Maybe stories are data with a soul.” (Brene Brown) 

“And the soul of the dress is the body.“(Jean Cocteau) 

I would like to thank Ulrike for her truly inspiring post. I really can’t wait to see what else her research uncovers. If you would like to read more about this project, details of her forthcoming book are included in the bibliography.


If you would like to read more about Ulrike’s work or contact her, she can be found here:



Bibliography and Further Reading:

Forthcoming: Beck, U. 2022: Dancing In Flames – Fabulous Designs From The Desert Sands. A new research method reveals eastern Central Asien skirts construction secret. In Textiles in Motion. Dress for Dance in the Ancient World. Oxbowbooks, London

Beck, Ulrike, Jess, Martin (2021) How a technical innovation in ancient textile industry pioneered a new way of thinking. Interface Critique Issue 3 Depth of Field; arthistoricum.net.

Beck, Ulrike (2018) Kleidung des 1. Jahrtausends v. Chr. in Xinjiang. Schnittentwicklung zwischen Funktionalität, Ästhetik und Kommunikation. Regensburg, Schnell & Steiner.

Beck, Ulrike, Mayke Wagner, Xiao Li, Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst and Pavel E. Tarasov, The invention of trousers and its likely affiliation with horseback riding and mobility: A case study of late 2nd millennium BC finds from Turfan in eastern Central Asia. Quaternary International 348 (2014), pp. 224–235.

[Sampula] Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Museum, Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology (ed.) (2001) Sampula in Xinjiang of China. Revelationand study of ancient Khotan civilization.

Schorta, Regula (2001) A group of Central Asien wollen textiles in the Abegg-Stiftung collection. Fabulous Creatures from the Desert Sands. Central Asien Woolen Textiles from the Second Century BC to the Second Century AD. Riggisberger Berichte 10, 79-114. Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung.

Wang, B. H. (1999). The Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang. Xinjiang Renmin, Ürümqi.

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