Already since the most ancient iconographical depictions of textiles and garments, the human tendency for decoration is apparent. Prehistoric statuettes, Minoan and Mycaenean wall-paintings, vase-paintings, sculpture, every textile depiction includes some type of decoration, such as colour, patterns, fringes etc.
The interdisciplinary study of all available sources demonstrates that the final appearance of ancient Greek textiles did not depend as much on the weave, but instead on a variety of embellishment techniques, namely decorative techniques and special treatments of the whole or parts of the fabric, which were used in order to improve the appearance of textiles and create unique products.
Stripes and borders
One of the simplest and most characteristic textile decorations in several periods are coloured stripes. They are frequently decorated with geometric and complex patterns and are commonly placed around the edges. Such decorative bands are often mentioned in ancient written sources.
Apart from the borders that could be sewn onto garments, already since the Bronze Age there is a practice to apply metal plaques in order to decorate different areas of garments. Such ornaments decorate, for instance, the garments of the Lady of Archontiko (540-530 BC) and they are also mentioned in the 4th century votive inscription in Brauron.
Embroidery is a simple decoration technique, carried out after the fabric is completed. Many small, repetitive decorative patterns depicted in ancient iconography may have been easily embroidered. Classical written sources mention the term katastiktos, most probably referring to embroidery.
Happily, there are two pieces of embroidery preserved from Classical Athens. The first fabric, currently in Victoria & Albert Museum, London, derives from Koropi and depicts tiny lions embroidered with silver gilded threads on a linen textile. The second fabric derives from Nikaia, Attica and depicts small flowers. In both cases, the embroidery thread has almost vanished and only small traces remain.
Fringes are a very simple way to decorate fabrics. The remaining ends of the warp threads are twisted together in different ways, are sometimes held together with knots and create decorative fringes of various sizes and shapes. Fringes are depicted on garments in Minoan and Mycenaean wall-paintings and in Archaic and Classical iconography. Moreover, they have been also discovered in Bronze Age textiles from Akrotiri and Mycenae, as well as in an Archaic textile from Corfu.
Colour was one of the most common ways to decorate fabrics throughout antiquity. Although written sources refer to several dyestuffs from plants and animals as used to dye fabrics and despite the frequency of multi-coloured fabrics depicted in ancient iconography, the only colour ever identified on extant Greek fabrics is seashell purple. Purple has been identified in Protogeometric textiles from Stamna, Aetolia, Archaic textiles from Corfu, in three fabrics from the Classical period, Kalyvia, Maroussi and Kerameikos and in Roman textiles. This is strongly related to the fact that most extant textiles are mineralised, which prevents the conservation of dyestuffs. However, there are some colour traces that still await analysis to identify the dyestuff.
A 5th c. BC fabric from Koropi bears traces of a painted lozenge pattern (in black) with a central decoration (in red). The fact that the colour has not penetrated inside the threads but remained on the surface suggests painting rather than dyeing. Painting on textiles is also mentioned in Classical written sources.
Two textiles from Koropi preserve several fragments of a black thread inserted in the cloth. In one of the two, the threads are near the preserved lateral edge. They seem not to derive from embroidery, but rather from an additional, decorative weft. Unfortunately the dyestuffs from the painting and the additional weft have not yet been analysed.
One decorative treatment of garments, characteristic of the Archaic and Classical period, were the permanent pleats. Written sources mention several terms connected with pleated garments and also that pleating using a specific press was carried out by fullers, responsible for finishing of textiles. Fabrics were probably soaked, the pleats were tied in the desired size and the fabrics placed under the heavy press. Once out, the pleats were in place until the garment was washed.
Textiles with vertical, crimpy lines
In iconography, there are frequent depictions of garments bearing vertical, crimpy lines bringing to mind crepe fabrics. One interpretation is that this effect is achieved by the use of very high-twisted threads that curl and create this optical result.
A second interpretation is that the vertical lines refer to fine pleats of wide, but fine textiles, which, once the fabric is worn, curl and are similar to wavy lines.
Treatment with olive oil
Treatment with oil was very useful in textile production and is mentioned already in the Homeric poems. This is because wetting the fibres with oil during spinning gives them much needed humidity, and during weaving prevents the threads from sticking together thus allowing an easy opening of the shed.
According to recent research, oil is connected with a specific type of garments of the Classical period, the amorgina. They are a type of high quality, extremely fine linen garments, well known from Aristophanes who mentions them as transparent. The term amorginos is etymologically connected to the term amorge, which means “olive oil residue” (in Modern Greek mourga). Dipping clothes in an oil bath is still practiced in Crete and it is very probable that the amorgina fabrics were also treated with oil to make them shine and to accentuate the much appreciated transparency effect.