The most comfortable clothing worn today is almost always made from knit fabrics, often with a touch of Lycra to ease resistance when moving around and maintain the garment shape. Our modern athleisure wear is perfect for lounging, but it was designed for movement. Surprisingly the same is true of the world’s oldest pants as well, except they were woven instead of knit and there was no elastic fabric back then. Despite being made 3,000 years ago they were crafted using technology that even pants today don’t have.

ancient ruins at Turfan
Via: Dr. Hans-Günter Wagner/Flickr

A new study released by researchers from the German Archaeological Institute reveals that the oldest pants in the world have a lot of complex details to them. These woolen pants features a variety of motifs, including a stepped cross design at the crotch (known as a merlon pattern) and a Chinese key pattern along the knees.

This garment was found in an ancient city near Turfan (sometimes known as Turpan) in the Xinjiang region of China. Researchers now suspect that the pants were made for a specific reason: to ride a horse. And, it seems that the maker of this garment made them to measure for one person only. They came to this conclusion after examining the pants and realizing that the fabric for them was custom made.

The pants were made for a warrior and his grave was found extremely well-preserved in Yanghai, an area within the Turfan oasis. Alongside the body of the warrior and his clothing researchers also found weapons and horse-riding gear, showing his occupation clearly. Th tomb was part of a discovery made when roadworks construction crews stumbled upon the remains of an ancient graveyard.

The ancient weaver who made the pants didn’t form single a piece of fabric and then cut it, as was the tradition in later centuries. Rather, the weaver wove the panels to size, then after they were complete the panels were stitched together.

In all there are 3 panels to the pants. The pant legs are woven in the same piece as the waistband and then there is a stepped cross crotch gusset for ease of movement. When standing with legs together this design would have looked rather bunchy in the crotch, but these pants were made for riding horses, where keeping the legs apart is required to be able to mount the steed.

Turfan Battle scene illustrated in 18th Century
Via: Jean Damascene Sallusti/Cleveland Museum of Art

The 3 pieces were stitched together after being woven, but were not cut to fit the wearer. This takes great skill to make and shows just how much planning went into creating this garment. But, that’s not the only thing that makes these ancient trousers special. The different areas of the pants were woven in different patterns- not for fashion’s sake but for agility.

The waistband areas were woven to be extra strong to keep the pants up and the knees were woven with the aforementioned Chinese key pattern, known to weavers as the T-hook pattern. This technique combined aspects of tapestry weaving with apparel weaving for a much thicker weave in the stress zone of the knee. This type of zone-specific weaving is not unlike a pair of sport socks with compression zones along the arch of the foot or shaped panels on leggings to provide shape and support.

Reproduction of the world’s oldest pants. Via: German Archaeological Institute/YouTube

Taken altogether these pants show a very high level of design and were the cutting edge garment of their day for horse riders. It’s not surprising then that 2 previously undiscovered weaving techniques were also found on the pants.

The Turfan pants also utilize complex braiding techniques in the design as well. All data and designs have been verified through painstaking reproduction of the pants and their copy will be on display at the State Museum of Archeology in Chemnitz in coordination with the German Archaeological Institute starting from early 2022. A similar-looking pair of pants has gone on sale from a company in Estonia- sadly they are not made with these fascinating ancient techniques.

You can see how the pants were put together in the video below.

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