The Bible offers, in an incidental manner, detailed and generous description of the clothing people wore in Biblical times which gives a definite clue to the types of cloth and materials from which such clothing was made. The terms used in the Scriptures for the various garments and materials, from which they were made, are rendered variously by translators of the Bible which would be a study in itself. Such terms as the Heb. beged (garment), simlah (garment or piece of cloth), makber (heavy cloth), or the Gr. chiton (coat), himation (cloak), sindon (fine linen), othonion (bandage or strip of linen cloth), phailones (tunic or vest), often are called after the material from which they were made, saq (sackcloth), byssos (linen), linon (flax or hemp), erion (wool), serikon (silk), thriks (camel’s hair, goat’s hair), and the like. People of the Middle E and surrounding countries loved bright clothing and cloth since, as has been said, they lived against dull backgrounds and wished to brighten their existence, esp. on festive occasions. Their clothing was symbolic and expressed their feelings and emotions. A busy street in an ancient city would flash with many colors. Jacob made his son Joseph a coat of many colors (
Unless the material for clothing came from skins of animals, the women of the home both spun and wove the cloth for the family clothing. Wool or goat’s hair from their own flocks was the primary source of raw material. The wool or hair was spun by hand, since there were no spinning wheels as used later. While the Egyptians and Babylonians had large looms, those of the Palestinian women were primitive, slow and cumbersome. This is why the
Types of cloth and material.
Sheepskin, of course, was one of the most ancient materials for clothing. Shepherds and farmers wore it a great deal. When a sheep was sheared and killed for food, the animal was skinned and the hide tanned. The women would then sew together heavy coats from the skin which still had much of the wool on it. The outer garments of the common people were often made of sheepskin or similar blanket-like material.
Goat’s hair came from certain goats with long hair which was cut, spun and woven into a thick black cloth (
wore a coat of camel’s hair. Goat’s hair and camel’s hair became known as the sackcloth which was thick and waterproof. A cloak made of sackcloth often was used as a blanket for sleeping (an ancient sleeping bag!). It was so essential that, if borrowed, one could not keep it from a poor man overnight according to the law (
Wool was the oldest and most common textile of Biblical times. The value of sheep lay in wool rather than in their flesh. Shearing time was a time of festivity because it meant more clothing for the family. Wool came mainly from Judea, while Galilee produced linen and flax from earliest times. Even the Greeks used wool for clothing. The finest wool came from the lamb. Perhaps the most expensive woolen cloth was woven from the wool of the sheep which had been kept clean from dirt and manure. Such wool made dazzling white cloth such that the prophets likened a pure person to clean white wool. Wool also was rubbed and bleached to get a bright color. Women who lived in the country generally wore white woolen garments around the home. Priests were forbidden to wear woolen garments which implies that they were commonly worn by the common people (
Linen or fine linen was woven from flax or hemp thread and was used for inner garments particularly. The linen woven in Pal. was some of the best in the world, preferred even to what came from Egypt which was coarser. Egyptian royal garments were from fine linen. It was the cloth used in garments of the rich (
Cotton was known in China and India very early, and is sometimes spoken of by the Gr. writers, but cotton was not grown much in the climate of Pal. What has been called cotton was really cloth made from flax or hemp.
Silk was reserved for the garments of those who wished to express pride, elegance and extravagance. Silk became more common in Pal. during Rom. times. It was used to wrap the holy rolls of the Scriptures, and some scholars believe that the veil of the Temple was made of some type of silk. On the other hand, holy writers used silk to describe the sins and extravagance of the rich over against the poor (
Of course, leather was the first material for clothing. The earliest “cloth” was really skins of animals. God even provided clothes of skin (
Professional cloth makers.
During Biblical times the people of the country wove their own materials, but soon crafts of weavers and fullers became known in the mercantile centers, such as Jerusalem and other cities. People would bring their clips or bunches of wool from their sheep to sell to the ancient manufacturer by weight. The fuller (something like our dry cleaner) was a very important person in the garment industry. He took the raw material, soaked and bleached it in a solution of lye, dried it in the sun, and prepared it for the weaver (
In India and the Near E even today, women go to the nearest stream or pool or trough to wash clothing. The garments are soaked for a time, then dipped in and out, and finally kneaded or pounded on the rocks with a flat board. Perhaps this is what David referred to in his famous statement, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity” (
From even a little knowledge of ancient textiles and materials used for clothing and an acquaintance with Eastern dress and social habit, one might imagine how the prophets or our Lord and His apostles were garbed on a given day in Pal. Lest one denigrate his ancestors, the observation must be made that until our scientific age gave birth to synthetics, there has been little which is new in the category of cloth and materials for clothing which the ancients did not use. We have developed only what was already there. Wool has been cherished by all peoples, ancient and modern. Greeks, Romans, and Europeans borrowed from the E. Many still prefer a beautiful garment of wool, fine linen or fur to a plastic jacket. Even today the hand-woven textiles of the E with their beautiful dyes and color designs are coveted prizes of the W and are sought out by those who can afford them, just as in Biblical times. See Weaving.
E. Grant, The People of Palestine (1942), 90-92; A. E. Bailey, Daily Life in Bible Times (1943), 28-40, 68-73, 190, 191; A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1943), I. 620-622, II. 278-280; J. Mcdonald, “Palestinian Dress,” PEQ (1951), 55-58; M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1944), 488-564; M. Radin, The Life of the People in Biblical Times (1948), 131-135; G. M. Crowfoot, “Linen Textiles From the Cave of Ain Feshkha in the Jordan Valley,” PEQ (1951), 5-31; A. C. Bouquet, Everyday Life inTimes (1954), 56-64; R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (1956), 45-65; M. Johnston, Roman Life (1957), 92, 208, 209; A. W. Klinck, Home Life in Bible Times (1959), 124-126; W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (1961), 207-216; H. Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ (1962), 212-218, 239, 431.