Medieval Damask Textiles


Damask textiles are some of the most beautiful and interesting medieval textiles. I have been fascinated with complex medieval textiles for several years. My research has mainly focused on studying examples of extant complex textiles such as taquete, samitum, and damask. Damask is probably the most widely known of these textiles extant damask textiles have been dated to as early as 1st Century C.E., see the Didymoi fragment analyzed later in this article. I have been to the Clothworkers Centre a few times. Each time I make an appointment to see several different textiles, mostly complex textiles (taquete, samitum, and damask). In those visits, I have studied 2 extant damasks, which I will discuss later in the article, along with a few damask textiles I have read about in books and a few which can be viewed online and are on my list to study in future.

In order to fully describe damask textiles and how they are woven, I will use a number of technical weaving terms. I have compiled a list of specialized vocabulary. Please refer to this list as needed.

Origins of Damask

Silk Road  220 B.C.E- 1400 C.E.

The term Silk Road is a bit of an understatement. The Silk Road refers to an extensive network of trade routes linking the East and the West. The Silk Road facilitated the exchange of goods, culture, and ideas. The Silk Road network was utilized from 220 B.C.E to 1400 C.E The term Silk Road was coined because silk was the main commodity traded along the route and could be used as currency along the trade routes which spanned many empires and many different currencies. The Chinese refused to allow access to silk production technology in order to maintain dominance over the silk route. The Chinese exported silk thread, which was woven into damask cloth by a variety of weavers along the route and then traded on to Westerners. Eventually, the technology to weave these beautiful textiles migrated to the West as well, see the 16th C C.E. Italian damask discussed below. 

Silk Thread

The Chinese believe that Empress Leizu was sitting in her garden drinking her tea under a  mulberry tree when a cocoon dropped into the tea. As she attempted to remove the cocoon from the hot tea water it unravelled into one long continuous silk thread. She is now worshipped as the Silk Mother by Chinese Silkworkers.

Some believe that silk was not spun during the Middle Ages but only reeled. My research would indicate otherwise. Silk with 1,000 turns per meter has been found and dated to the Shang period (16th-11th C B.C.E.) (Bosworth, 2017). Evidence of spinning wheels (without flyers) has been found and date back to the Han Dynasty 221–206 B.C.E. (Bosworth, 2017). Bowsowrth (2017) also noted a dramatic reduction in the number of spindle whorls excavated in the Spring and Autumn periods (770-463 B.C.E), while there was an increase in silk fabrics.  The analysis found highly twisted an/or plied threads were used to make these textiles. The damask textiles I have studied show a distinct twist direction indicating a spun thread. I believe this shows silk was both reeled and spun for Eastern damask textiles.


Geijer (1979) proposed that the Sasanids developed the treadle loom when they had access to silk thread. Becker (1987) proposed one possible progression from heddle rods to drawloom technology as follows; pattern rods within the warp, pattern heddle rods, pattern shafts, a cross harness drawloom, and individually weighted harness cords, and finally a drawloom with a comber board. Becker (1987), Geijer (1979), and Hoskins (1992) noted the difficulties in exactly dating the development of the drawloom. All theories have been based on textile analysis and looms are primarily made of wood, which had long since decomposed by the time modern excavations were conducted. It is commonly believed that Middle Eastern and Chinese drawlooms required the use of a drawboy, a young boy who sat on top of the loom and pulled the cords to create the design (Becker, 1987; Geijer, 1979). Becker (1987) referred to the European drawloom as the precursor to the modern drawloom with comber board. Becker (1987) does not specifically state the use of a comber board before the 18th Century and therefore a definitive statement about the use of a camber board in the Middle Ages cannot be assumed.

Depictions of drawlooms appear in many ancient Chinese texts (Hsiao, 2011). In some ways, these drawings are quite similar to today's horizontal countermarche looms. The ancient Chinese drawlooms are horizontal looms with pieces of wood positioned horizontally on the top of the loom, which raises or lower the ground shafts. Today's looms have another set of wood bars that control whether a shaft is raised or lowered, which is found below the shafts. Historians agree that drawlooms first appeared in China and Persia and that they were horizontal looms. The many depictions we have shown a draw boy, which is assumed to prevail throughout the Middle Ages. These drawboys could have been servants or slaves, or they could have been apprentices who were learning the nuisances of weaving as they helped and watched the master weaver.

Weaving Damask 

Damask cloth is created by using a block weave. Other than the very early checkerboard motifs, damask motifs require a drawloom. A drawloom differs from other looms in that it contains two sets of shafts, and is also sometimes referred to as a double harness loom. Motifs are created in damask cloth by using blocks of satin and sateen. Satin (see left, dark green areas) is a warp emphasis weave, meaning you see mostly the warp threads. Whereas sateen (light green areas) is a weft emphasis weave, meaning you see mostly the weft threads.  The pattern shafts control whether a block is woven in satin or sateen. Medieval weavers used a draw-boy to lift the pattern shafts on drawlooms.

The ground weave is controlled by ground shafts and treadles. As noted above the early textiles use satin blocks of 3/1 broken twill and sateen blocks of 1/3 broken twill. This structure breaks the twill line but does not eliminate it altogether. These weaves utilize 4 ground shafts. When I weave damask, I thread my ground shafts in a straight draw pattern and use a broken treadling. I use this method because it provides the most flexibility for experimenting and change. In my most recent damask project, the Syrian damask I was using as my inspiration appeared to perhaps have a twill line. While perfecting my pattern draft, I experimented with a straight twill treadling (see above). This experiment showed I was incorrect in regards to the Syrian Damask. However, it highlights that twill blocks woven on a drawloom to create opposing twill lines. The warp emphasis blocks in my experiment have an S twill line, where the weft emphasis blocks have a Z twill line, as seen in the checkered damask textiles discussed below. The early damask textiles discussed in this article show a prevalence of 4 shaft twill base in the earliest damask textiles. However, the 16th Century damask appears to utilize a satin and sateen ground weave as is used today, which eliminates the twill line altogether and requires at least 6 ground shafts. Far most textiles would need to be studied to determine when the shift occurs in various weaving centres around the world.

I have previously written articles on setting up a drawloom and troubleshooting your drawloom set up.

Textile Highlights

The earliest damask textile I have found is the Didymoi Fragment, dated to 81-96 C.E. Rogers et al (2001) stated the excavation allowed for a more specific dating of the textile. The fragment included a clavus band on a damask ground cloth. The textile analysis stated the warp was an undyed Z-spun wool, sett at 29 to 36 epcm (63 to 79 epi)  in the damask ground weave. The weft was also an undyed Z spun wool, at 54 to 70 ppcm (118 to 154 ppi) (Rogers, 2001). Rogers et al (2001) described the cloth’s ground weave as a block structure of alternating 3/1 damask, or 3/1 broken twill, and 1/3 damask, with alternating Z and S twill directions. This block pattern forms a checkered pattern within the cloth itself. This is the simplest form of block weaving, using only 2 blocks. This damask would not require a drawloom to weave. Rogers et al (2001) wrote this cloth provided evidence of the use of a horizontal loom with shed rods. This textiles requires only 4 shafts to weave and could be woven easily on a vertical loom as well. This would likely have been woven on the vertical beam looms depicted in Egyptian drawings over a vertical warp-weighted loom.

Further analysis of extant 3/1 twill damasks was provided in Rogers et al (2001). The damask twills date from the 3rd to the 4th Century AD. Z spun warp and S or unspun wefts were primarily utilized (Roger et al, 2001). The damasks create a checkered effect and blocks which alternate in three or four vertical groups by using alternating blocks of S and Z twill warp and weft faced areas as stated earlier (Roger et al, 2001). This can be recreated by modern weavers by using an 8 shaft loom and two blocks. Both blocks are threaded in a straight draw on 4 shafts. The two blocks are then treadled alternately in 3/1 and 1/3 twill. If the diagrams in Rogers et al (2001) were correct, the Roman weavers did not realize, in this period, that a clean break is created between two blocks by starting the threading of the second block on the second shaft. Weavers who chose to recreate this textile would be cautioned to consider if this textile is representative enough to weave as found or to correct the breaks.

Another checkerboard damask has been found in Loulan. The Loulan damask, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has been dated 3rd-4th C. C.E. The Loulan damask is woven in brown silk, the checkerboard appeared to be woven in blocks of 1/3 and 3/1 broken twill. The museum noted a similar textile is held at the National Museum of India, this may be indicative of the textiles having been woven in Loulan. These checkerboard fragments are quite interesting in that it contains alternating Z and S twill directions, as with the Didymoi textiles. Due to the simplistic design, it is difficult to tell which blocks are warp-faced and which are weft-faced. The alternating twill directions could be created in either the threading or the treadling. The museum photo is not high enough resolution to determine the twist direction. This textile needs further in-person study.

 The Clothworkers Centre also holds a damask fragment from Astana, dated to the 3rd to 8th C C.E. The damask is a monochrome flower pattern in yellow silk. The fragment comes from a garment and was discovered in the Astana site. The design is symmetrical and appears to have been woven using a point pattern draft. This damask is woven with an S twill line. This textile shows how much damask weaving had evolved by this time. It is however quite simplistic in comparison to the Syrian textile below. This does raise the question of whether the two textiles are contemporary to the 8th C or if the later dates for the Syrian silk are more accurate. I have not studied this textile in person and also requires further study.

One of the damasks held at The Clothworkers Centre that I have had the pleasure to study in person is a Syrian Silk dated to 8th-11th. This is also a monochromatic silk, woven in purple. The design is a large floral design, which the museum lists as possibly a hanging raspberry bud. It also includes geometric motifs, lines, and fleur-de-lis motifs.  The pattern is woven in satin and the background in sateen. As with the earlier damask textiles, this appears to be woven on a 4 shaft twill base. The Syrian Silk uses an S twill line. Although a large portion of the fragment is no longer intact, what remains of this textile is symmetrical. This symmetry means it was most likely woven on a point pattern threading. The museum analysis also noted the warps are Z spun, showing that silk was spun in this era. The threads may have been spun locally as the Z spun direction is consistent with Becker's (1987)  assertion that Western Asian spinners used the Z twist direction. 

 I have also been to study a 16th C C.E. Italian Damask, museum number 946-1877. This damask is also monochromatic and woven in blue silk.  The blues are quite close in value. The pattern is apparent when viewed in person, but proved difficult to photograph without using a flash (which is best practice for photographing extant textiles). This piece measured 63.5 cm (25 ") long by  56 cm (22") wide.  It also was designed with floral motifs and lines connecting the designs. This textile is in much better condition than that Syria damask. It is symmetrical and like was woven on a point pattern arrangement. This damask, unlike the earlier textiles, does not have a distinct twill line. It was likely woven using what modern weavers would define as a "true" satin, which requires at least 6 ground shafts.



The extant textiles I have studied are primarily from the earlier medieval time periods. These seem to be based on 4 shaft twills and point pattern threadings. This is what I have used in my own damask weaving thus far. The drawloom and damask set up all for a lot of freedom in pattern designs, as is seen in the various textiles discussed. I do not know when damask weavers made the shift from 4

shaft broken twill to the modern definition of weaving satin and sateen. the textiles presented here provide a variety of information for those looking to purchase very authentic textiles and those wanting to weave their own damasks in a medieval style. I would note, with the exception of the 2 block pattern medieval damasks likely require 100 or more pattern shafts, which in turn requires an enormous amount of space. A drawloom that accommodates 100 pattern shafts requires at least 2 meters by 4 meters of space just for the loom. 


 Bosowrth, J. (2017). History & Evolution of the Spindle-wheel. Ply Magazine. Kansas City, MO.

Becker, John. (1987). Pattern and Loom. Rhodos International Publishers, Copenhagen.

Geijer, Agnes (1979). A History of Textile Art. W.S. Maney & Son Ltd. Leeds.

Hsiao, K. Yan, H (2011). Structural Synthesis of Ancient Chinese Drawloom for Pattern-weaving. Transactions of the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 35, No. 2.

Jones, E.M. (2014). Notes and photos from a visit to The Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion. London.

Rogers, Penelope Walton. et al (2001) The Roman Textile Industry and it's Influence. A Birthday Tribute to John Peter Wild. Oxbow Books. Exeter.