By Shari Fuller
Abram, his brother Haran, and his father Terah had become quite wealthy while they lived in the Sumerian city-state of Ur of the Chaldees; no doubt profiting from the trade that was going on between Sumer and
Indus Valley. Abram himself had over 300 servants. Jewish history goes a little deeper into the Biblical narrative, explaining that although Ur of the Chaldees had become incredibly wealthy, all was not well. There was continual fighting between the Sumerian city-states and even after the incident at the tower of Babel, they continued to build large pyramid shaped ziggurats as places to worship their local gods. Nimrod, the founder of the earliest Sumerian city-states, began demanding to be worshiped as a god and instituted dark spiritual rituals that included human sacrifice. Terah, Abram’s father, served as the high priest to Nimrod and was in the business of making and selling idols. As a young man, Abram spent a lot of time with the aging Noah and his son Shem, learning about the God that had brought them through the great flood and came to believe in Him. Eventually, he convinced his brother and father to become followers of the God of Noah as well. When they turned away from worshiping Nimrod and other idols, Nimrod became very angry and killed Haran. Soon thereafter, God told Abram to leave Ur and settle in Canaan where He would raise up a nation from Abram’s descendants; a nation set apart from other nations and dedicated to Him. What God didn’t tell him was that it wouldn’t be a direct route, but a meandering journey designed to test and strengthen Abram’s faith. After packing up his family, more than 300 servants, livestock, and all of his belongings, Abram left everything he had ever known and arrived in Canaan only to find it was in the middle of a severe drought. Discouragement can hardly begin to describe what he must have been feeling, but there was nothing else to do but continue on to Egypt and wait for further instructions from the Lord.
Egypt was a land of wonder; a magnificent civilization on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert rising up out of the narrow oasis along the Nile River. Not long before, the first Egyptians began settling along the banks of the Nile River; and as they got to know the peculiar nature of the river and its surrounding valley, their civilization began to flourish. Each year, the Nile flooded the valley, depositing rich fertile soil along the banks of the river that was ideal for planting. The people learned how to save the water from the floods in large earthen basins that they used to irrigate their crops throughout the growing season. The Nile worked like clockwork in such a mysterious and divine way that the Egyptians began to worship it as a god they called Hapi. Like Sumer, Egypt also displayed remarkable skills in writing, math, and architecture, but early in its history, it was divided into Upper Egypt in south, and Lower Egypt in the North. The two kingdoms were continually at war with each other, hampering their growth. When King Narmer, or Menes as he is sometimes called, finally conquered Lower Egypt and united the two kingdoms, Egypt grew into a rich and cohesive culture that would become a mighty nation. It wasn’t long after Narmer’s reign that the Great Pyramids were built by Pharoah Cheops. These magnificent structures, no doubt inspired by the ziggurats scattered throughout Sumer, are quite possibly the greatest vestige to the intelligence, ingenuity, and determination of ancient man. These pyramids, still in their glory with their smooth white limestone sides and golden pinnacles, must have been a sight to behold for Abram.
The climate of Egypt was hot, too hot to wear the animal skins and heavy woolen shawls of their forebears in Mesopotamia. Instead, Egyptians turned to flax. Flax was cultivated and grown in all the earliest civilizations to make linen, but the unique qualities of linen fabric were especially suited to the Egyptian climate. While its natural white color reflects the heat of the sun, its stiffness keeps the fabric from clinging to the body. It is also very absorbent and dries quickly which has a cooling effect when worn against the skin. Linen cloth was so indispensable to the Egyptians that it was held up as a symbol of purity and was the only cloth that could be worn by priests. Wool and and animal skins were considered impure and were forbidden in temples and sanctuaries. The first stages in linen production were carried out by men who sowed and reaped the flax, then extracted the fibers by beating and combing the stems. The fibers were generally spun and woven into cloth by women who could sell whatever cloth they made. Weaving was a highly valued skill associated with the Egyptian goddess Neith, and skilled weavers were often paid in gold. Egyptians became quite adept at weaving linen and were able to make a cloth that was so fine and delicate that a length of it could be pulled through a signet ring. Fine linen was a mark of great distinction that only members of royal families, priests, or people in high official positions were allowed to wear. Later, when Abram’s great grandson came to Egypt, Pharaoh exalted Joseph to a high position in the kingdom and “arrayed him in vestures of fine linen”, Genesis 41: 42.
Clothing in ancient Egypt was kept fairly simple; needles fashioned from wood, bone, and various metals, were still rather crude which made sewing very labor intensive. Because of this, sewing was kept to a minimum and most clothing was made from a length of cloth that was wrapped around the body and held in place with a belt, a sash, or a pin. Working class men generally wore nothing more than a short loincloth while higher officials would have added a light cloak of fine linen. Wrapped garments, such as worn by the people of Sumeria and Indus Valley, required extra layers of cloth which was often too warm in the hot Egyptian climate, so the idea of cutting and sewing together simple garments from cloth was born. Women began wearing simple sheath dresses called kalasiris which were held up by shoulder straps. Although the upper edge was usually worn over the breasts, Ancient Egyptian modesty codes were rather loose, so it wasn’t uncommon for the dresses to be worn with the breasts exposed. The length of the dress denoted the social class of the wearer; shorter dresses being worn by the working class. Dresses were generally kept white, but dyed and printed fabrics were occasionally used. Decoration was usually in the form of beads, colored trims, fringes, and smocking were often used as an embellishment on the dresses and shawls, capes, or robes were often worn over them.
Once, again, I enjoyed the history lessons here and the ones about the Kepi and the Coonskin Cap. Instead of leaving separate comments, I love the 1830s dress and prefer the bound Gigot sleeves. Thanks so much for sharing all of this and the free pattern.
If I sewed this dress for someone else, would it be ok to print out the page for them on how to put the dress on the doll? I respect your copyright, but it is not intuitive to me how to put the doll dress on. Thanks!
Great narrative…Bible history sequeing into fabric history…love it!!!!!! Linen is one of my favorite fabrics, along with wool, cotton and silk. Natural fibers only for me! THANK YOU FOR THE FREE PATTERN! Just ordered “Sam” so will make up an Egyptian-style sundress to be waiting for her when she arrives!
Thank you for this great history lesson and for the free pattern!
Absolutely Beth! Thanks so much for asking :o)
I could make this into a viking apron dress for my dolls if not an Egyptian dress…
Ooooo, yes it would. I have been looking ahead to the Vikings, and I really like the styles. It is a very earthy kind of elegant :o)
thank you very much for your free pattern. And I really, really enjoyed this lesson in history! Blessings
Thanks for the free pattern and so enjoying the historical context and textile information.
Am I too late for the free pattern? I read your newsletter last week but missed the link to the pattern I have tried clicking on the pattern but nothing happens. Love your history lessons.
So much to learn about fabric in Egypt.
Since I have retired, I have picked up my Bible once more and have taken my time reading and trying to understand the history. Your article above has been very interesting and fits along with my reading. I really enjoy your articles. Thank you for sharing with us.