Cloth


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 (Gen 37:3, KJV) and James describes a man who came into the synagogue in “bright apparel” (James 2:2, 3). Most of the clothing of the common people in Biblical times was the dull white or brown, or even the hair or fur of an animal, with color accents in head dress, embroidery, or belt.

Weaving cloth.

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 Book of Proverbs describes the ideal mother as never idle from her spinning or her loom (Prov 31:13-27). The distaff and spindle were hardly ever out of her hands. There were no steel needles, only those crudely made of bronze or splinters of bone.

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 (Exod 35:26; Song of Solomon; 6:5). Such dense material was quite waterproof and was used for tents and for heavy outer garments. Goat’s hair was the cloth of the poor and suffering (Heb 11:37). Scholars believe that Paul, a tentmaker, perhaps not only made tents but also wove the material from Cilician goat’s hair. Perhaps Paul cut the material into strips and made tents, shaping them according to a pattern or design (Exod 26:7; Acts 18:3).

John the Baptist 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 (Exod 22:26, 27). It became a saddle pad or carpet to welcome guests. It is possible that Paul asked Timothy to bring him such a sackcloth coat for a cold prison (2 Tim 4:13). Slaves, goat herds, and prophets sometimes wore these hairy garments against the skin. It was a protest against luxury and a symbol of grief and repentance.

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 (Ezek 44:17). The desert people often wore woolen tunics even in the hottest weather.

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 (Luke 16:19). The Palestinian weaver could make linen as fine as silk, 540 warp threads and 110 woof threads to the inch. Often it was made in a chevron pattern and pleated. Some linen cloth was so sheer and thin that it had a see-through effect, translucent. The shirt close to the body was of fine linen and cotton or wool was used for the second garment.

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 (Rev 18:12).

Of course, leather was the first material for clothing. The earliest “cloth” was really skins of animals. God even provided clothes of skin (Gen 3:21). The loin cloth was worn in the early OT days. Silk was brought from the E by traveling merchants, mainly from Persia. Cotton came from the Far E about the time of Alexander the Great.

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 (Mark 9:3). Although the common people did a great deal of crude dyeing, guilds of dyers also sprang up in the cities. They filled the country with bright shining colors: scarlet, purple, violet, brown, and blue being the most common. Many garments were made by sewing various strips of contrasting colors together. This is common in the Middle E to this day. Sometimes the thread was dyed before the weaver made the cloth. A large selection of cloth was made on the loom rather than in narrower strips “by the yard.” This may explain the seamless robe of our Lord. From these garment makers grew the large bazaars of the Middle E. Most of the dye came from animal or vegetable products. The shell fish (mulex) or the cuttlefish supplied a bright purple dye from the sea. The most esteemed color was purple, a sign of royalty and power. Beside the color, the cloth, once made into clothing, was embellished by all sorts of embroidery and jewelry.

Washing clothing.

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” (Ps 51:2, 7). If washing was by kneading or beating then the psalmist confesses he was ready for discipline and severe cleansing. The ancients even used soap. Archeologists say it was made from vegetable oil and alkali (Jer 2:22). Lydia was a dyer and seller of purple (Acts 16:14). Interesting enough there has been much documentation of the cloth and weaving processes of ancient times through the discovery in 1949 of many old textiles in the cave of Ain Feshkha in the Jordan Valley in Pal., textiles which were used for wrapping and packing a group of ancient scrolls and MSS. Old pieces of cloth made of wool, flax, hemp, linen, and silk were found. Some were interwoven with blue threads and the techniques of ancient weaving were thoroughly exemplified.

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.

Bibliography

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 in New Testament Times (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.

See also

  • Dress