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p1099 Tela

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1099‑1102 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

TELA (ἱστός), a loom. Although weaving was amongst the Greeks and Romans a distinct trade carried on by a separate class of persons (ὑφάνται, textores and textrices, linteones), who more particularly supplied the inhabitants of the towns with the productions of their skill (Cato, de Re Rust. 135), yet every considerable domestic establishment, especially in the country, contained a loom (Cato, de Re Rust. 10, 14) together with the whole apparatus necessary for the working of wool (lanificium, ταλασία, ταλασιουργία) (Hesiod, Op. et Dies, 779; Virg. Georg. I.285, 294). [Calathus] These occupations were all supposed to be carried on under the protection of Minerva, specially denominated Ἐργανή, who was always regarded in this character as the friend and patroness of industry, sobriety, and female decorum (Serv. in Verg. Ecl. VI.3).

When the farm or the palace was sufficiently large to admit of it, a portion of it called the ἱστῶν (histones, Varro, de Re Rust. I.2) or textrinum, was devoted to this purpose (Cic. Verr. IV.26). The work was there principally carried on by female slaves (quasillariae, αἵ ἔριθοι, Theocrit. XV.80; Hom. Od. I.356‑360, VII.235, XXI.350) under the superintendence of the mistress of the house, who herself also together with her daughters took part in the labour, both by instructing beginners and by finishing the more tasteful and ornamental parts (Vitruv. VI.7, p164, ed. Schneider; Symmachus, Epist. VI.40). But although weaving was employed in providing the ordinary articles of clothing among the Greeks and Romans from the earliest times, yet as an inventive and decorative art, subservient to luxury and refinement, it was almost entirely Oriental. Persia, Babylonia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Phrygia, and Lydia, are all celebrated for the wonderful skill and magnificence displayed in the manufacture of scarfs, shawls, carpets and tapestry. [Chlamys, Pallium, Peplum, Tapes].

Among the peculiarities of Egyptian manners Herodotus (II.35; compare Athen. II p48B) mentions street weaving was in that country the employment of the male sex. This custom still continues among some Arab and negro tribes (Welsted, Travels, vol. I p123; Prichard, Researches, vol. II, p60, 3d edit.). Throughout Europe, on the other hand, weaving was in the earliest ages the task of women only. The matron, assisted by her daughters, wove clothing for the husband and the sons (Colum. de Re Rust. XII Praef.; Plin. H.N. VIII.48 s74; Herod. IX.109). This domestic custom gives occasion in the works of the epic and tragic poets to some very interesting dénoûmens and expressions of affection between near relations. Indeed the recognition, or Ἀναγνώρισις, as Aristotle calls it (de Art. Poet. 6 § 18, 14 § 21), often depends on this circumstance. Thus Creusa proves herself to be the mother of Ion (Eurip. Ion, 1416, 1417) by describing the pattern of a shawl which she had made in her youth, and in which she had wrapped her infant son. Iphigenia recognises her brother Orestes on one occasion (Eurip. Iph. in Taur. 814‑817), and Electra recognises him on another (Aeschyl. Choeph. 225) by the figured clothing which he wore, and which they had long before woven for him.

Besides the shawls which were frequently given to the temples by private persons, or obtained by commerce with foreign nations, companies or colleges of females were attached to the more opulent temples for the purpose of furnishing a regular supply. Thus the sixteen women, who lived together in a building destined to their use at Olympia, wove a new shawl every five years to be displayed at the games which were then celebrated in honour p1100of Hera, and to be preserved in her temple (Paus. V.16 § 2‑4, VI.24 § 8). [Heraea]. A similar college at Sparta was devoted to the purpose of weaving a tunic every year for the sitting statue of the Amyclean Apollo, which was thirty cubits high (Paus. III.16 § 2, 19 § 2). At Athens the company of virgins called ἐργαστῖναι or ἐργάναι, and ἀῤῥηφόροι, who were partly of Asiatic extraction, wove the shawl which was carried in the Panathenaic procession and which represented the battle between the gods and the giants (Eurip. Hec. 461‑469; Virg. Ciris, 21‑35). [Arrhephoria; Panathenaea]. A similar occupation was assigned to young females of the highest rank at Argos (Eurip. Iph. in Taur. 213‑215). In the fourth century the task of weaving began to be transferred in Europe from women to the other sex, a change which St. Chrysostom deplores as a sign of prevailing sloth and effeminacy (Orat. 34 vol. III p470, ed. Saville). Vegetius (de Re Mil. I.7), who wrote about the same time, mentions linteones, or the manufacturers of linen cloth, in the number of those who were ineligible as soldiers.

Every thing woven consists of two essential parts, the warp and the woof, called in Latin Stamen and Subtegmen, Subtemen, or Trama (Vitruv. X.1; Ovid. Met. IV.397; Plin. H.N. XI.24 s28; Pers. Sat. VI.73), in Greek στήμων and κροκή (Plato, Polit. pp297, 301, 302, ed. Bekker; Aelian, H. A. IX.17; Plut. de Is. et Osir. p672). Instead of κροκή Plato (Leg. V, p386, ed. Bekker) sometimes uses ἐρυφή, and in the passages referred to he mentions one of the most important differences between the warp and the woof: viz. that the threads of the former are strong and firm in consequence of being more twisted in spinning, whilst those of the latter are comparatively soft and yielding. This is in fact the difference which in the modern silk manufacture distinguishes organzine from tram, and in the cotton manufacture twist from weft. Another name for the woof or tram was ῥοδάνη (Hom. Batr. 181; Eustath. in Hom. Il. XXIII.762, Od. V.121).

The warp was called stamen in Latin (from stare) on account of its erect posture in the loom (Varro, L. L. V.113, ed. Müller). The corresponding Greek term στήμων and likewise ἱστός have evidently the same derivation. For the same reason the very first operation in weaving was to set up the loom, ἱστὸν στήσασθαι (Hom. Od. II.94; Hesiod, Op. et Dies, 779); and the web or cloth, before it was cut down or "descended" from the loom (κατέβα ἀφ᾽ ἱστῶ, Theocrit. XV.35), was called "vestis pendens, or "pendula tela" (Ovid, Met. IV.395, Epist. I.10), because it hung from the transverse beam or Jugum. These particulars are all clearly exhibited in the picture of Circe's loom, which is contained in the very ancient illuminated MS. of Virgil's Aeneid preserved at Rome in the Vatican Library (See the annexed woodcut, and compare Aen. VII.14: apud majores stantes texebant, Servius in loc.; Hom. Od. X.222). Although the upright loom here exhibited was in common use, and employed for all ordinary purposes, the practice, now generally adopted, of placing the warp in an horizontal position was occasionally resorted to in ancient times; for the upright loom (stans tela, ἱστὸς ὄρθιος), the management of which required the female to stand and move about, is opposed to another kind at which she sat (Artemidor. III.36; Servius, l.c.).


[image ALT: An engraving of an upright wooden frame with threads running from the top traverse bar to a bottom bar. It is an illustration of the ancient Roman loom.]

We observe in the preceding woodcut about the middle of the apparatus a transverse rod passing through the warp. A straight cane was well adapted to be so used, and its application is clearly expressed by Ovid in the words "stamen secernit arundo" (Met. VI.55). In plain weaving it was inserted between the threads of the warp so as to divide them into two portions, the threads on one side of the rod alternating with those on the other side throughout the whole breadth of the warp. The two upright beams supporting the jugum, or transverse beam, from which the warp depends, were called κελεόντες (Theocrit. XVIII.34), and ἱστόποδες, literally, "the legs of the loom" (Eustath. in Hom. Od. XIII.107).

Whilst the improvements in machinery have to a great extent superseded the use of the upright loom in all other parts of Europe, it remains almost in its primitive state in Iceland. The following woodcut is reduced from an engraving of the Icelandic loom in Olaf Olafsen's Economic Tour in that island, published in Danish at Copenhagen, A.D. 1780. We observe underneath the jugum a roller (ἀντιον, Pollux, VII. X § 36; Eustath. in Hom. Od. XIII.107) which is turned by a handle, and on which the web is wound as the work advances. The threads of the warp, besides being separated by a transverse rod or plank, are divided into thirty or forty parcels, to each of which a stone is suspended for the purpose of keeping the warp in a perpendicular position and allowing the necessary play to the strokes of the spatha, which is drawn at the side of the loom. The mystical ode written about the eleventh century of our era, p1101with which Gray has made us familiar in his translation, and which describes the loom of "the Fatal Sisters," represents warriors' skulls as supplying the place of these round stones (pondera, Sen. Epist. 91;º Plin. H. N. l.c.). The knotted bundles of threads, to which the stones were attached, often remained after the web was finished in the form of a fringe [Fimbriae].


[image ALT: An engraving of a complex object in a sturdy vertical wooden frame. It is an 18c Icelandic loom, primitive enough to serve as an illustration of the ancient Roman loom.]

Whilst the comparatively coarse, strong, and much-twisted thread designed for the warp was thus arranged in parallel lines, the woof remained upon the spindle [Fusus], forming a spool, bobbin, or pen (πήνη, dim. πήνιον, Hom. Il. XXIII.762; Eurip. Hec. 466). This was either conveyed through the warp without any additional contrivance, as is still the case in Iceland, or it was made to revolve in a shuttle (πανοῦλκος, Hesych. s.v. Πήνιον: radius, Lucret. V.1352). This was made of box brought from the shores of the Euxine, and was pointed at its extremities, that it might easily force its way through the warp (Virg. Aen. IX.476; Ovid. Met. IV.275, VI.56, 132, Fast. III.879).º The annexed woodcut shows the form in which it is still used in some retired parts of our island for common domestic purposes, and which may be regarded as a form of great antiquity. An oblong cavity is seen in its upper surface, which holds the bobbin. A small stick, like a wire, extends through the length of this cavity, and enters its two extremities so as to turn freely. The small stick passes through a hollow cane, which our manufacturers call a quill, and which is surrounded by the woof. This is drawn through a round hole in the front of the shuttle, and, whenever the shuttle is thrown, the bobbin revolves and delivers the woof though this hole. The process of winding the yarn so as to make it into a bobbin or pen, was called πηνίζεσθαι (Theocrit. XVIII.32) or ἀναπηνίζεσθαι (Aristot. H. A. V.19). The reverse process by which it was delivered through the hole in front of the shuttle (see the last woodcut) was called ἐκπηνίζεσθαι. Hence the phrase ἐκπηνιεῖται ταῦτα means "he shall disgorge these things" (Aristoph. Ran. 586; Schol. in loc.).


[image ALT: An engraving of a small wooden object shaped like a canoe, with a rectangular recess in the center in which there is a bobbin wound with thread. The thread exits thru a small hole in the side of the object. It is an illustration of the ancient Greek and Roman weaving shuttle.]

All that is effected by shuttle is the conveyance of the woof across the warp. To keep every thread of the woof in its proper place it is necessary that the threads of the warp should be decussated. This was done by the leashes, called in Latin licia, in Greek μίτοι (μίτος, Hom. Il. XXIII.762). By a leash we are to understand a thread having at one end a loop, through which a thread of the warp was passed, the other end being fastened to a straight rod called Liciatorium, and in Greek κανών (Aristoph. Thesm. 829). The warp, having been divided by the arundo, as already mentioned, into two sets of threads, all those of the same set were passed through the loops of the corresponding set of leashes, and all these leashes were fastened at their other end to the same wooden rod. At least one set of leashes was necessary to decussate the warp, even in the plainest and simplest weaving. The number of sets was increased according to the complexity of the pattern, which was called bilix or trilix (Mart. XIV.143), δίμιτος, τρίμιτος (Crat. Jun. Frag. p103, ed. Runkel), or πολύμιτος (Per. Mar. Eryth. pp164, 170, 173, ed. Blancardi), according as the number was two, three, or more.

The process of annexing the leashes to the warp was called ordiri telam (Plin. H.N. XI.24 s28), also licia telae addere, or adnectere (Virg. Georg. I.285; Tibull. I.6.78). It occupied two women at the same time, one of whom took in regular succession each separate thread of the warp and handed it over to the other; this part of the process was called παραφέρειν, παραδίδοναι, or προφορεῖσθαι (Schol. in Aristoph. Av. 4; Suidas, Hesychius, s.v.). The other woman, as she received each thread, passed it through the loop in proper order, and this act, which we call "entering," was called in Greek διάζεσθαι (Schol. in Hom. Od. VII.167).

Supposing the warp to have been thus adjusted, and the pen or the shuttle to have been carried through it, it was then decussated by drawing forwards the proper rod, so as to carry one set of the threads of the warp across the rest, after which the woof was shot back again, and by the continual repetition of this process the warp and woof were interlaced (Plutarch, VII sap. conv. p592, ed. Reiske; Hom. Il. XXIII.760‑763). In the preceding figure of the Icelandic loom we observe two staves, which are occasionally used to fix the rods in such a position as is most convenient to assist the weaver in drawing her woof across her warp. After the woof had been conveyed by the shuttle through the warp, it was driven sometimes downwards, as is represented in the first woodcut, but more commonly upwards as in the second (Isid. Orig. XIX.22; Herod. II.35). Two different instruments were used in this part of the process. The simplest and probably the most ancient was in the form of a large wooden sword (spatha, σπάθη, dim. σπάθιον, Brunck, Anal. I.222; Plato, Lysis, p119; Aesch. Choeph. 226). From the verb σπαθάω, to beat with the spatha, cloth rendered close and compact by this process was called σπαθητός (Athen. XII p525D). This instrument is still used in Iceland exactly as it was in ancient times, and a figure of it copied from Olafsen, is given in the second woodcut.

The spatha was, however, in a great degree superseded by the comb (pecten, κερκίς), the teeth of which were inserted between the threads of the warp, and thus made by a forcible impulse to drive the threads of the woof close together (Ovid. Fast. III.880,º Met. VI.58; Juv. IX.26; Virg. Aen. VII.14; Hom. Il. XXII.448; Aristoph. Aves, 832; Eurip. Ion, 509, 760, 1418, 1492). It is probable that the teeth were sometimes made of metal (Hom. Od. V.62); and they were accommodated to the purpose intended by being curved (pectinis unci, Claudian, in Eutrop. II.382), as is still the case in the combs which are used in the same manner by the Hindoos. Among us the office of the comb is executed with greater ease and effect by the reed, lay, or batten.

The lyre [Lyra], the favourite musical instrument of the Greeks, was only known to the Romans as a foreign invention. Hence they appear to have described its parts by a comparison with the loom, with which they were familiar. The terms jugum and stamina were transferred by an obvious resemblance from the latter to the former p1102object; and, although they adopted into their own language the Greek word plectrum (Ovid. Met. XI.167‑170), they used the Latin Pecten to denote the same thing, not because the instrument used in striking the lyre was at all like a comb in shape and appearance, but because it was held in the right hand and inserted between the stamina of the lyre as the comb was between the stamina of the loom (Virg. Aen. VI.647; Juv. VI.290‑293; Pers. VI.2).

After enumerating those parts of the loom which were necessary to produce even the plainest piece of cloth, it remains to describe the methods of producing its varieties, and more especially of adding to its value by making it either warmer and softer, or more rich and ornamental. If the object was to produce a checked pattern (scutulis dividere, Plin. H.N. VIII.48 s74; Juv. II.97), or to weave what we should call a Scotch plaid, the threads of the warp were arranged alternately black and white, or of different colours in a certain series according to the pattern which was to be exhibited. On the other hand, a striped pattern (ῥαβδωτός, Diod. Sic. V.30; virgata sagula, Virg. Aen. VIII.660) was produced by using a warp of one colour only, but changing at regular intervals the colour of the woof. Of this kind of cloth the Roman trabea (Virg. Aen. VII.188) was an example. Checked and striped goods were, no doubt, in the first instance, produced by combining the natural varieties of wool, white, black, brown, &c. [Pallium]. The woof also was the medium, through which almost every other diversity of appearance and quality was effected. The warp as mentioned above was generally more twisted, and consequently stronger and firmer than the woof: and with a view to the same object different kinds of wool were spun for the warp and for the woof. The consequence was, that after the piece was woven, the fuller drew out its nap by carding, so as to make it like a soft blanket (Plato, Polit. p302) [Fullo]; and, when the intention was to guard against the cold, the warp was diminished and the woof or nap (κρόξ, κρόκυς) made more abundant in proportion (Hesiod, Op. et Dies, 537; Proclus ad loc.). In this manner they made the soft χλαῖνα or Laena [Pallium]. On the other hand a woof of finely twisted thread (ἤτριον) produced a thin kind of cloth, which resembled our buntine (lacernae nimia subteminum tenuitate perflabiles, Amm. Marcell. XIV.6). Where any kind of cloth was enriched by the admixture of different materials, the richer and more beautiful substance always formed part of the woof. Thus the vestis subserica, or tramoserica, had the tram of silk [Sericum]. In other cases it was of gold (Virg. Aen. III.483; Servius in loc.); of wool dyed with Tyrian purple (Ovid. Met. VI.578; Tyrio subtegmine, Tibull. III.1.122;º picto subtegmine, Val. Flacc. VI.228); or of beavers'-wool (vestis fibrina, Isid. Orig. XIX.22). Hence the epithets φοινικόκροκος, "having a purple woof" (Pind. Ol. VI.39, ed. Böckh; Schol. in loc.), ἀνθόκροκος, "producing a flowery woof" (Eurip. Hec. 466), χρυσεοπηνήτος, "made from bobbins or pens of gold thread" (Eurip. Orest. 829), εὔπηνος, "made with good bobbins " (Eurip. Iph. in Taur. 814, 1465, κερκίδι ποικιλλοῦσα, "variegating with the comb" (Eurip. Iph. in Taur. 215), &c.

But besides the variety of materials constituting the weft, endless diversity was effected by the manner of inserting them into the warp. The terms bilix and δίμιτος, the origin of which has been explained, probably denoted what we call dimity or tweeled cloth, and the Germans zwillich. The poets apply trilix, which in German has become drillich, to a kind of armour, perhaps chain-mail, no doubt resembling the pattern of cloth, which was denoted by the same term (Virg. Aen. III.467, V.259, VII.639, XII.375; Val. Flaccus, III.199). In the preceding figure of the Icelandic loom the three rods with their leashes indicate the arrangement necessary for this texture. All kinds of damask were produced by a very complicated apparatus of the same kind (plurimis liciis), and were therefore called Polymita (Plin. H.N. VIII.48 s74; Mart. XIV.150).

The sprigs or other ornaments produced in the texture at regular intervals were called flowers (ἄνθη, Philostr. Imag. II.28; θρόνα, Hom. Il. XXII.440) or feathers (plumae). Another term, adopted with reference to the same machinery, was ἐξίμιτον or ἐξάμιτον, denoting velvet. In the middle ages it became ζάμιτον, and thus produced the German sammet.

The Fates are sometimes mentioned by classical writers in a manner very similar to the description of "the Fatal Sisters" above referred to (Dira sororum licia, Stat. Achill. I.520; fatorum inextricabiliter contorta licia, Apul. Met. XI).

As far as we can form a judgment from the language and descriptions of ancient authors, the productions of the loom appear to have fallen in ancient times very little, if at all, below the beauty and variety of the damasks, shawls, and tapestry of the present age, and to have vied with the works of the most celebrated painters, representing first mythological, and afterwards scriptural subjects. In addition to the notices of particular works of this class, contained in the passages and articles which have been already referred to, the following authors may be consulted for accounts of some of the finest specimens of weaving: Euripid. Ion, 190‑202, 1141‑1165; Aristot. Mir. Auscult. 99; Athen. XII p541; Asterii, Homilia de Div. et Laz. Theod. Prodrom. Rhod. et Dos. Amor. ad fin.; Virg. Aen. V.250‑257, Cir. 21‑35; Ovid. Met. VI.61‑128; Stat. Theb. VI.64, 540‑547; Auson. Epig. 26; Lamprid. Heliog. 28; Claudian, de VI Cons. Honor. 561‑577, in Stilich. II.330‑365.


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