Coptic Textile Fragment
I recently worked with curators from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Asian Department to rehouse objects to the Clothworkers’ Centre, a new conservation center and archive for over one hundred thousand textile and fashion objects at the museum’s Blythe House.
One of the most memorable objects I had the chance to handle was a fragile Coptic textile from ancient Egypt. It was a small piece of woven linen and wool; the delicate black and green of the weave formed geometric patterns on an undyed, natural beige background with a vine-leaf border. It was a tiny fragment of something larger—the gaping holes eating into the raw edges—and this scrap and the small woven panel attached to one side were all that remained. The invisible parts obscured history and left us with questions.
The textile fragment was vulnerable to decay and had to be kept in a special wrap, stored in a tissue-lined, dark drawer, where it could be safe from the elements. It wasn’t the most attractive object in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion and textiles collection, but this made it even more desirable to me.
I grew obsessed with why this decaying piece of fabric was such a source of wonder, and revisited the work of classicist Glenn Most. He wrote of the fragment that “precisely by being incomplete it stimulates our imagination to try and complete it, and we end up admiring the creativity that would otherwise have languished within us.” It was its very tattered nature, its incompleteness, that made me curious.
As I held the textile, it turned into a compelling vehicle for time travel and swept me off to ancient Egypt. It took me to the time of the early Coptic Christians, the oldest Christian community in the Middle East. I imagined a monastery built on sacred ground surrounded by sand dunes and a water body, where the textile fragment fitted into a tapestry like a missing jigsaw piece. Rendering the fragment whole by reconstructing its time, place, and story is how the design historian comes to terms with an object’s lack of completeness.
Almost everything we know of the past is reconstructed from fragments. Our curators continue to decide the objects that best represent our times today and collect them for societies of the future, who will, in turn, read into them stories about our times. For this reason, the remains of a time-old textile is more than a bunch of bedraggled threads. It is a symptom of a consciousness of things and their ability to embody a civilization.