Mummy Threads

Saturday, February 01, 1997
The dry desert air of northwest China has exquisitely preserved over 100 mummies, ranging in age from 4,000 to 2,000 years old. A site called Chärchän has already yielded the 3,000-year-old Chärchän Man, who wears the world’s oldest pair of pants. (See The Mummies of Xinjiang, Discover, April 1994.) But Chärchän Man was not alone on the fashion forefront--one of the women entombed with him was wearing the oldest known cashmere clothing. Irene Good, an archeologist and textiles specialist from the University of Pennsylvania, examined this brilliantly colored piece of fabric (top), which she thinks may have been part of a skirt. To me it looked like silk or a silk-wool blend, says Good. But when she looked at the fibers under a microscope (below), she realized they had come from animal hair. The thinness of the fibers and the pattern of the scales on them showed they were cashmere, the extraordinarily fine, warm wool from cashmere goats. Seeing these sophisticated textiles gives us a rich sense of how developed their aesthetic style was, says Good. They were obviously breeding these goats for their fiber, and they were not just using wool in a crude way, to keep warm. They had a real expertise in the quality of the fiber.
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