A Closer Look at Treasured Textiles

New details emerge on Jefferson pieces that date back to antiquity.

Jefferson’s Textile and Costume Collection at the Design Center holds 95 Coptic textile fragments dating back to the 4th century. Now, a unique collaboration between the University and Bryn Mawr College provides greater clarity on these Egyptian pieces from late antiquity.

“I don’t even know if I can quantify how much more we know about these textiles,” says Jade Papa, Jefferson textile professor and collection curator. “It’s truly remarkable.”

During her recent presentation at the Gutman Library, she traced the lineage of the prized collection—the oldest at the Design Center—and how it offers a window into ancient life that can be translated to today’s students.

The region’s dry, arid climate preserved many of the burial textiles over the ages until people from the late 19th and early 20th century began “looking for treasure,” Papa says. “The modern ethics that archeologists follow now wasn’t something they were considering back then.”

Textiles would be stripped from bodies in tombs with little care or notes on their origin and conditions, she says. Archeologists also would cut out the interesting motifs and toss the rest, explaining the fragmentary nature of the samples and swatches.

A person working with coptic textiles
Jefferson's Design Center holds nearly 100 Coptic textile fragments dating back to the 3rd century.

In a fortunate turn, the University does own two complete tunics, but how these and other Coptic textile fragments ended up at Jefferson remains a bit of mystery, Papa admits.

“These textiles have a scanty record,” she says, “so I looked to fill in that information.”

Through meetings, calls to Jefferson’s alumni office and detective work, she believes author, collector and former Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science trustee Herman Blum likely donated them decades ago.

Skipping ahead to recent history and the Bryn Mawr collaboration, Papa recalls how she met the college’s art history professor Alicia Walker in 2016. The two began talking, and Walker pitched an idea of Bryn Mawr students performing extensive weave and dye analyses on the textiles to uncover their history and the meaning behind the motifs.

Papa jumped at the chance to initiate a cross-institutional project, and the two schools worked together for over a year (with future collaborations likely to come). Through the Bryn Mawr students’ research, Papa learned more about the textiles’ age and production, the dyes used and details like how the designs mimicked Byzantine jewelry of the time.

“It was a less ostentatious way to still convey some status,” she describes. “When I teach my history of costumes and textiles class, I now can share this information. I can really show my students how jewelry, clothing and art interact to create this rich culture that isn’t so old and dusty but is quite alive and vibrant.”

Visit here to see photos of Jefferson’s Coptic collection, and read more about the University’s Textile and Costume Collection in Amtrak’s National magazine.

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