Zagunluq-style Trousers


Level of Authenticity

I think the level of authenticity I achieved here would be adequate at a Baronial level, but I have a suspicion that the lack of complexity might work against me.

Deja Vu All Over Again

If you’re reading this and you think some of my wording sounds very familiar, it’s because I’m copying and pasting some of my discussion here from a previous post I made on other projects based on the same finds.


Prehistoric (Bronze Age and Early Iron Age) peoples living in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia between about 1000 and 500 BCE.  For more detail, including a bibliography, see my post on my alluring mummy beanie.


This is a pair of trousers made in the style described by Elizabeth Wayland Barber on pages 37 to 39 of “The Mummies of Urumchi”.  The extant trousers date to around 1000 BCE.


The prevailing view of trousers is that they were invented or adopted by horse-riding cultures (see for instance page 37 of “The Mummies of Urumchi”).



The trousers described by Barber are made of “purply-red-brown” wool.  She doesn’t describe the weave of the trousers, but “The Mummies of Urumchi” and “The Tarim Mummies” (J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair) describe a range of fabric types found generally in the Tarim Basin and dating to the first millennium BCE.  The fiber content is almost always 100% wool and the weaves can be tabby, various types of twill, and some other decorative weave patterns.  The most common colours are reds (from madder), blues (from indigo), yellows (from an unidentified source), and oranges (a mix of red and yellow dyes).

There is also a pair of trousers dating to some time between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE and excavated from Sampul, which my best attempt at Googling tells me is about 600 km away from Qarqan and also in the Xinjiang region (Item 42 in the exhibit catalogue “Secrets of the Silk Road” from the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana CA).  These are cut in a very similar style to the trousers described by Barber.  They are made of plain weave wool 36 cm (slightly more than 14″) wide.  They appear to my eye to be yellowish red in color but I’m unable to say what color they may have originally been.

I used a plain/tabby weave brown wool, presumably dyed and woven using modern industrial materials and techniques.  The Qarqan burials included garments in varying shades of brown (Barber, 40) though they are not pictured in color so I’m not able to judge whether my shade of brown is similar or not.

The Zaghunluq garments have a type of decorative seam finish that is described as “piping” stitched down with wool of a contrasting colour.  It’s unclear what the authors mean by piping but it’s unlikely that they mean it in the modern sense of a cord encased in bias strips.  I am aware of only a very limited number of pictures of the Zaghunluq finds, which don’t give adequate detail for me to see what the “piping” might look like.  After I finished this garment, I noticed that item 49 in the “Secrets of the Silk Road” catalogue, a felt hat from 1800 – 1500 BCE, is decorated with what appears to be multi-ply red yarn.

For my first prototype, I used multi-ply modern worsted weight knitting yarn for both stitching and piping.  This choice was difficult to stitch with and I occasionally needed to resort to the use of pliers.  This time, I used a single-ply lace weight crimson wool for stitching with and a single-ply bulky weight pink wool for my piping.  For modern aesthetic reasons, both of these have a variegated, kettle-dyed color scheme.  I recently learned that carmines and crimsons are difficult to synthesize chemically (I think it was from this talk) , so it’s actually possible that these really were dyed with kermes or grana, but I bought them like this so I don’t really know how they were done.  As far as I am aware, the reds used by the Tarim Basin peoples were madder reds rather than kermes reds.  For future projects I plan to look for plied yarns that are more even in dye distribution and that use colors achievable with the dyes available to the Tarim Basin peoples.


None of the Tarim Basin sites described in my research materials contained evidence of looms, and Elizabeth Barber concludes the Tarim peoples were likely using simple ground looms.  She noted that none of the textiles she and Irene Good examined exceeded a loom width of about two feet.  As indicated under “Materials” above, the fabric I used here was presumably produced on a modern commercial loom.

When I made my first prototype, I used a modern steel darning needle.  This size was required because I was sewing with worsted weight wool.  My research revealed that several of the mummies were buried with bronze and even iron needles.  I was able to obtain bronze needles made by a modern artisan in a traditional style and I used them for a subsequent project.  Unlike modern needles, the bronze needles rapidly developed a noticeable curve after being used, but despite this, I did not notice any appreciable differences in working characteristics or techniques needed when working with the bronze needles as opposed to the modern steel needles.

I was on a much tighter (self-imposed) time frame for this project than I had been with previous projects, so for some steps (discussed further below) I used a sewing machine, which would not have been available to the original artisans.  Other tools I used in this project were shears, snips, and pins.  In each case, I used modern tools.  My research did not reveal any equivalents to any of these tools in any of the Tarim Basin graves, although I will note that Barber and Good felt that some textile fragments and fragmentary garments showed evidence of the pieces having been woven in specific shapes and sizes or being shaped on the loom.  This would eliminate the need for shears.  For now, whether the Tarim peoples had such implements, or what they used instead, will need to remain an unanswered question, and one that could form the basis of its own Kingdom level project at some point.


I examined the diagram of the Zaghunluq trousers drawn by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, and also the picture of the extant trousers from Sampul.  In both cases there were straight tubes for legs, with a square piece of fabric set in on the bias grain for the crotch.  The trousers from Zaghunluq contained additional piecing not shown in the ones from Sampul.


Since my fabric was produced on a modern loom and was considerably wider than any fabric that could have been produced by the Tarim people, I first had to determine what “loom width” to assign my fabric.  Evidence suggests that the Tarim people were reluctant to cut into material when they did not need to, so my chosen loom width would determine the width of all pieces cut for my garment.   The loom width of the Sampul trousers is given as 36 cm (about 14″).

Despite living in Canada, I don’t like to sew in metric, and I also have a thing about even numbers and multiples of 4.  This meant I started with a proposed loom width of 12″, but after doing some measurements I determined that would be too snug, so I moved up to 16″.  This gave me a pattern that was nice and roomy.  I then cut my fabric into pieces 17″ wide, which left me 0.5″ for turning under as seam allowance to reach my desired loom width.  Because the fabric I had was already in several scrap pieces, after having been left over from another project, I had to do some piecing in order to get all of my leg pieces at the desired length, which it appears may also have been done with the Zaghunluq trousers.


The research materials provide a high level of detail about the decorative scheme on the garments, but less information on the actual stitches used.  I therefore turned to Heather Rose Jones’ Archaeological Sewing page, as well as Elizabeth Barber’s “Prehistoric Textiles” for information on pre-medieval stitches.  Neither of these sources references the Tarim Basin textiles but both discuss the Hallstadt textiles.  These are of similar age and likely belong to a related archaeological culture.  For previous projects relating to this archaeological culture, I have selected from among the available options a stitch where the edge of each piece is turned down and hemmed, and the hemmed pieces are then attached together with an overcast or whip stitch.  Note that where the pieces have a selvedge edge instead of a cut edge, it’s possible to whip stitch the two selvedges together without needing to turn down the edges and hem them.  This is the technique I look forward to trying once I have fabric woven at the appropriate loom width.

When making seams this way, normally you would want to finish the edges of each rectangle first and then whip stitch them together.  This process can be kind of time consuming and I did not know how much time I would have to work on these trousers before I needed to wear them.  So I cheated and used a sewing machine.  Using this technique, you can sew everything together on the machine first, then finish the edges, and, if you have time, whip stitch over the machined seams so it looks like you did them the right way.

Neither the Zaghunluq trousers nor the Sampul trousers have any apparent method of fastening or being held up.  I was pretty stumped about this, so I contacted Master Maiosara who was elevated for her work on Scythian persona development and material culture.  She advised me that there aren’t any waistbands or drawstrings or belt loops or anything like that, you just have to tie your trousers on with a belt and hope they don’t fall down.  I was pretty skeptical of whether this would work, but because I used both wool fabric for my trousers and a wool belt, the trousers and the belt stick to each other well enough that my pants have not yet fallen down.

Next Steps

With a project like this, the next steps depend heavily on what your overall focus is.  If your focus is persona development, or some other aspect of the material culture, this level of garment authenticity is fine, because your actual craft is persona development, or metal work, or whatever, and you’ve put the extra work into those things.  If your craft is weaving, on the other hand, you would probably want to focus not just on making the garment, but on making the cloth in the way that is most appropriate to the culture (which in this case is believed to be on a ground loom).

I was elevated for my work in garment patterning and construction, so for my own particular craft, I won’t really feel that I’ve done the best, most historically accurate job I can until I have made garments from fabric woven at the narrow loom widths evidenced in this period.  This is because the construction methods available are different at different loom widths – when I cut down wider loom widths, I don’t have selvedges on each side, so I have to finish the edges before I start sewing.  If I had narrower fabric, I could dispense with finishing the edges, because they would already be selvedges, and get right to sewing.  But because my craft is garment construction, and not weaving, I’ll be happy to use a more advanced loom style or even get someone else to do the weaving for me.

Works Cited

“The Mummies of Urumchi”, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1999 (book)

“The Tarim Mummies”, J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair, 2000 (book)

“Secrets of the Silk Road”, Victor Mair, ed., 2010 (book)

“Characterization of dyestuffs in ancient textiles from Xinjiang”, Xian Zhang, Irene Good, Richard Laursen, 2007 (article in Journal of Archaeological Science)

Penn Museum Silk Road Symposium (Youtube)

Various lectures on Indo-European studies (Youtube)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s