From Peploses to Pashminas: Seven Thousand Years of Wool

From Peploses to Pashminas: Seven Thousand Years of Wool

Wool really has stood the test of time; its use began in the earliest known civilisation, and continued through empires, revolutions, republics, world wars, through to the present day. It is a testament to the fibre that, not only is it still used today, but its popularity is growing as consumers choose sustainable, high-quality over the synthetic alternatives.

But, there was a time when there were no alternatives – when wool was as crucial to daily life as smartphones are today.

Before Merino Cashmere Blankets and Wedding Shawls, wool was an integral part of human civilization. From the plains of Ancient Sumer to the philosophical gatherings of Ancient Greece, and from the grand pyramids of Ancient Egypt to the Forum of Ancient Rome, wool has woven its way through the fabric of history, shaping cultures and societies in myriad ways.

Ancient Sumer: 5000 – 2500BC

Sumer in Mesopotamia (now central Iraq) is the earliest known civilisation. Sumerians were a people of agriculture and wool held an important place in their society. The most common early garment was a tunic known as a kaunake. Worn by both men and women, they had a sheepskin interior with a non-woven fleece-like textile attached. The length of the kaunake determined hierarchal rank in society. Shorter skirts were worn by ‘lower’ individuals like slaves and servants, whilst longer skirts were reserved for royalty and priests.

The Asmar Statues wearing kaunakes were discovered in 1934 about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Photo © ThoughtCo


Wall paintings, statues, and written works tell us that as civilization evolved, Sumerians embraced woven dresses. This included the addition of shawls and longer fabrics that would wrap around the shoulders and waist. This would inspire future civilizations like Ancient Greece and Rome.

Ancient Greece: 1000 – 146 BC

In the land of philosophers and poets, garments became more sophisticated. Many surviving statues can be found across Greece, offering glimpses into the intricate details and graceful drapery of ancient Greek attire. Women draped themselves in peploses, a large rectangular piece of material often made out of wool (although some wealthier women used silk) and folded vertically and hung from the shoulders, with a broad overfold. The peplos, with its distinctive shoulder clasps, and the chiton, pleated and versatile, showcased the craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibilities of Greek artisans.

A marble statue wearing a peplos from c. 14-68 AD
Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art


Men favoured chitons, a tunic that fastens at the shoulder. Despite popular media depicting these garments as white, bright colours and ornamental clasps adorned peploses and chitons.

Noble Greek women dressed in an elegant chiton
Photo © World4


According to popular legend, Athenian women began to wear the chiton as opposed to the peplos after several women stabbed a messenger to death with the bronze pins characteristic of the peplos.

Ancient Egypt: 3000 – 30BC

Ancient Egypt is unique compared to many other ancient cultures in that wool was rarely used in textiles. Linen was easy to produce as flax was abundant and was favoured for its lightness and flexibility in the warm climate. Moreover, wool was deemed impure and was even forbidden in temples and sanctuary.

However, wigs were a huge part of Egyptian society and were worn by all sexes and classes. Whilst the higher classes wore wigs made of human hair adorned with gold and jewels, some lower classes wore cheaper wool variations, substituting precious metals and gems for beads.

Ancient Rome: 625 BC – 476 AD

As the mighty Roman Empire rose, the iconic toga emerged as the quintessential garment. A one-piece woollen garment, the toga was required to be worn by all free citizens to distinguish themselves from slaves.

Marble statue from 1st century AD depicting Roman Emperor Augustus in a toga 
Photo © Coplandj


During the Roman Republic, there was numerous variations of the toga based on an individual’s role in society. Toga Praetexta differed by regular garments due to a purple band on the lower edge, was worn by magistrates and high priests as an indication of their status. The Toga Candida, an especially whitened toga, was worn by political candidates. Prostitutes wore the Toga Muliebris, to signify their occupation. The Toga Pulla was dark-coloured and worn for mourning, while the purple-dyed Toga was worn in times of triumph and later by the Roman Emperor.

As the Republic transitioned into an Empire from 44 BC, only male citizens were permitted to wear a toga, whilst for women it was forbidden. Only a woman convicted of adultery would (forcibly) wear a toga as a badge of shame.

Simplicity in a Complex World

When we think back to the ancient past, it is easy to imagine societies extremely different from our own. And they may have been. But even with many thousands of years separating us, similarities remain. We use garments in a near identical way. Of course, we use them for practicality; to keep warm and protected from the elements. And yet we also use them to convey a social status choosing colours and materials to inspire admiration and envy. In our increasingly complex world, it’s simple fibres like wool that remind us that bygone societies closely reflect our own.


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