The first known pants are surprisingly modern and comfortable

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A light rain falls on a gravel desert in the Tarim Basin in western China. In this arid desert are the ancient remains of herders and horsemen. Although long forgotten, these people made one of the biggest fashion splashes of all time. They were the pioneers of trousers.

This was long before Levi Strauss started making overalls – some 3,000 years earlier. Ancient Asian clothing makers combined weaving techniques and decorative patterns. The end result was stylish yet durable pants.

And when they were discovered in 2014, they were recognized as oldest known pants in the world. Now an international team has unraveled how these first pants were made. It was not easy. To recreate them, the group needed archaeologists and fashion designers. They also recruited geoscientists, chemists and conservators.

The research team shares his discoveries in March Archaeological research in Asia. These vintage pants, which they show now, weave a story of textile innovation. They also feature fashion influences from ancient Eurasian societies.

Many techniques, patterns and cultural traditions went into creating the original innovative garment, notes Mayke Wagner. She’s an archaeologist. She also led the project at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. “Eastern Central Asia was a laboratory [for textiles],” she says.

An old fashion icon

The rider who brought these pants to the scientists’ attention did so without saying a word. Her naturally mummified body was found at a site known as Yanghai Cemetery. (As do the preserved bodies of more than 500 others.) Chinese archaeologists have worked at Yanghai since the early 1970s.

photo of a model wearing a woven reproduction of Turfan Man's outfit
Here is a modern recreation of the entire Turfan Man outfit, worn by a model. It includes a belted poncho, the now famous braided leg pants and boots.Mr. Wagner et al/Archaeological research in Asia 2022

Their excavations unearthed the man they now call Turfan Man. This name refers to the Chinese city of Turfan. His burial place was found not far from there.

The rider wore these old pants with a belted poncho at the waist. A pair of braided bands secured the trouser legs below his knees. Another pair strapped soft leather boots to their ankles. And a band of wool adorned his head. Four bronze discs and two shells adorned it. The man’s grave included a leather bridle, a wooden horse bit and a hatchet. Together they indicate that this rider was a warrior.

Of all her clothes, these pants stood out as truly special. For example, they predate any other pants by centuries. Yet these pants also display a sophisticated and modern look. They feature two leg pieces that gradually widen upwards. They were connected by a crotch piece. It widens and folds down in the middle to increase the mobility of the rider’s legs.

Within a few hundred years, other groups across Eurasia would begin wearing pants like Yanghai’s. Such clothing eased the strain of bareback riding over long distances. Mounted armies made their debut around the same time.

Today, people all over the world wear denim jeans and dress pants that incorporate the same general design and production principles as old Yanghai pants. In short, Turfan Man was the ultimate trendsetter.

The “Rolls-Royce of pants”

Researchers have wondered how these remarkable pants were first made. They found no cut marks on the fabric. Wagner’s team now suspects the garment was woven to fit its wearer.

Upon closer inspection, the researchers identified a mix of three weaving techniques. To recreate it, they turned to an expert. This weaver worked from the yarn of coarse-wooled sheep – animals similar to those whose wool had been used by ancient Yanghai weavers.

Much of the garment was twill, a major innovation in the history of textiles.

twill weave pattern
This twill weave is similar to that of the oldest known trousers. Its horizontal weft threads pass over one and under two or more vertical warp threads. This shifts slightly on each row to create a diagonal pattern (dark gray).T.Tibbitts

Twill changes the character of woven wool from firm to elastic. It offers enough “give” to allow someone to move freely, even in tight pants. To make this fabric, weavers use rods on a loom to create a pattern of parallel diagonal lines. The longitudinal threads – known as the warp – are held in place so that a row of “weft” threads can be passed over and under at regular intervals. The starting point of this weave pattern shifts slightly to the right or left with each new row. This forms the characteristic diagonal pattern of twill.

Variations in the number and color of weft threads on Turfan Man’s pants created pairs of brown stripes. They run down to the off-white crotch piece.

Textile archaeologist Karina Grömer works at the Natural History Museum in Vienna. It’s in Austria. Grömer was not involved in the new study. But she recognized the twill of those old pants when she first looked at them about five years ago.

Previously, she had reported on the oldest known twill woven fabric. It had been found in an Austrian salt mine and dated between 3,500 and 3,200 years old. It’s about 200 years before the man from Turfan rode his horse in his pants.

People in Europe and Central Asia may have independently invented twill weaving, Grömer now concludes. But at the Yanghai site, the weavers have combined twill with other weaving techniques and innovative designs to create very high quality jodhpurs.

“This is not a beginner’s item,” Grömer says of the Yanghai pants. “It’s like the Rolls-Royce of pants.”

Fancy pants

Consider their knee sections. A technique now known as tapestry weaving produced thick, especially protective fabric at these joints.

In another technique, known as retors, the weaver would twist two different colored weft threads around each other before lacing them through warp threads. This created a decorative geometric pattern on the knees. It looks like interlocking T’s bent to the side. The same method was used to make zigzag stripes at the ankles and calves of the pants.

Wagner’s team could find only a few historical examples of such a pairing. One was on the edges of the coats worn by the Maori people. They are an aboriginal group from New Zealand.

Yanghai craftsmen also designed a nifty, form-fitting crotch, notes Grömer. This piece is wider in the center than at its ends. Trousers dating from a few hundred years later, and also found in Asia, do not show this innovation. These would have been less flexible and fit much less comfortably.

Researchers recreated Turfan Man’s entire outfit and gave it to a man who rode a horse bareback. These panties fit her well, but let her legs wrap tightly around her horse. Today’s denim jeans are made from a single piece of twill using some of the same design principles.

image of antique pants showing different weaving patterns
The old Tarim Basin trousers (partially pictured below) have a twill weave that was used to produce alternating brown and off-white diagonal lines on the upper legs (far left) and dark brown stripes on the back crotch (second from left). Another technique allowed artisans to insert a geometric pattern at the knees (second from right) and zigzag stripes at the ankles (far right).Mr. Wagner et al/Archaeological research in Asia 2022

Clothing connections

Perhaps most strikingly, Turfan Man’s pants tell an ancient story of how cultural practices and knowledge spread across Asia.

For example, Wagner’s team notes that the interlocking T-shaped knee decoration on Turfan Man’s pants also appears on bronze vessels around the same time. These vessels were found at sites in what is now China. This same geometric shape appears almost at the same time in Central and Eastern Asia. They coincide with the arrival there of herders from the West Eurasian prairies – those who ride horses.

Interlocking Ts also adorn pottery found at the original sites of these riders in Western Siberia and Kazakhstan. West Eurasian horse breeders likely spread this design across much of ancient Asia, Wagner’s team now suspects.

It’s no surprise that cultural influences from across Asia affected the ancient peoples of the Tarim Basin, says Michael Frachetti. He is an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. The Yanghai people inhabited a crossroads of seasonal migration routes. These routes were used by shepherds at least 4,000 years ago.

About 2,000 years ago, the migration routes of herders were part of a network of trade and travel from China to Europe. It would become known as the Silk Road. Cultural mixing and mixing intensified as thousands of local routes formed a massive network, it grew across Eurasia.

Turfan Man’s riding pants show that even at the very beginning of the Silk Road, migratory herders carried new ideas, practices and artistic models to distant communities. “The Yanghai pants are an entry point to examine how the Silk Road transformed the world,” says Frachetti.

Looming questions

A more fundamental question concerns exactly how the Yanghai garment makers turned yarn spun from sheep’s wool into the fabric for Turfan Man’s pants. Even after making a replica of these pants on a modern loom, Wagner’s team doesn’t know what an ancient Yanghai loom would have looked like.

It’s clear, however, that the makers of these ancient pants blended several complex techniques into one revolutionary garment, says Elizabeth Barber. She works at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. She studies the origins of fabric and clothing in West Asia.

“We really know so little about the intelligence of ancient weavers,” says Barber.

Turfan Man may not have had time to wonder how his clothes were made. But with pants like that, he was ready to roll.

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