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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Cloth, Clothing

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Biblical and archaeological sources concur that the earliest clothing resources were the hides of wild animals (Genesis 3:21 ). The Bible contains little information, however, about the process of manufacturing clothes from vegetable fibers. Technological developments predate biblical history.

Natural resources Cloth production in the ancient Near East dates to the Neolithic period when natural flax fibers were spun and woven into linen fabric. Nomadic cultures continued to prefer the hides of animals, some of which were left with small amounts of fur. The growing sedentary urban cultures preferred fabrics made from vegetable fibers such as flax and cotton and from animal fibers such as wool, goats' hair, silk, and the limited use of other wild animals.

Wild flax originated in the regions of Palestine and the Caucasus. Domesticated plants were brought to Egypt early where it grew abundantly and was used to produce fine linen (Genesis 41:42 ) for soft garments and sails (Ezekiel 27:7 ). Linen from Syrian flax was deemed finer than Egyptian. The importance of flax production in Palestine is reflected in the Gezer calendar. Quality fabrics were made from plants grown in Galilee and the Jordan valley. Flax stalks were also used in making sturdy baskets.

Cotton, which seems to have originated in the Indus Valley region, was grown on small trees. In the Iron Age the cotton tree was introduced into Assyria, but the climate of southern Mesopotamia was more suitable to crop cultivation. Cotton needs a warm humid climate for quality growth and processing and thus was produced less widely in Palestine. Still, it was highly prized by leaders from Egypt to Babylon for its bright color and its soft, yet durable, qualities. During the Hellenistic period, production and usage increased dramatically.

Wool was the most commonly-used raw material among the Semitic peoples for felt and other fabrics. By patriarchal times wool spinning was advanced sufficiently to warrant no description in the Bible. Natural wool tones ranged from white to yellow to gray. These gave rise to a multitude of color possibilities in conjunction with natural dyes. The development of metallic shears in the Iron Age greatly facilitated removal of wool and hair. Wool was at first plucked by hand and later by a toothed-comb. Wool fabrics were quite fashionable among the Sumerians, who spoke extensively of all aspects of wool production.

Other resources included silk, hemp, camel hair, and goat hair. Silk was imported from China and spread to Mesopotamia and eventually to the Mediterranean islands, where the moths were cultivated. Silk was generally reserved for royalty and the wealthy. Hemp and hair produced coarse garments when used alone, but when used with wool produced rugged quality garments.

The fuller would take the newly shorn wool or flax, and sometimes woven linen, and prepare the products for use in garments. Oil, dirt, or other residues were removed by first washing the material in an alkaline-based liquid made from ashes, lime, etc., and then repeatedly rinsed with clean water. Sometimes it would be tread upon and beaten against rocks in the rinse stage. Finally, the material would be left in the sun to dry, bleach, and shrink before final usage (Isaiah 7:3 ). God's justice is compared to the fuller's wash soap (Malachi 3:2 ). In Jesus' transfiguration (Mark 9:3 ), His garments are said to have been whiter that the best fuller's work.

Weaving Biblical sources indicate that the raw materials were spun and woven into fabric sections about six feet in width and as long as necessary (Exodus 26:1-2 ,Exodus 26:1-2,26:7-8 ). Egyptian murals indicate that their looms were large and technologically advanced. Three kinds of looms were employed during Bible times: the Egyptian vertical, the Greek vertical, and the horizontal. Models of the horizontal loom have been found in Egyptian tombs. The Greek vertical primarily was used in wool production. Primitive warp-weighted vertical looms, using hand-molded clay weights, were prominent even in the Iron II period in Israel. Examples of the baseball-sized loom weights have been excavated in numerous Old Testament sites. These looms consisted of two uprights, a horizontal beam, and a warp stretched between the beam and a series of loom weights. Greek vase-paintings also show many excellent examples of this type.

In the construction of the tabernacle, skilled women spun wool with their hands, and even interwove gold threads into the fabric (Exodus 35:25 ; Exodus 39:3 ). Spinning wheels were better developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Book of Proverbs depicts a woman who spends much time spinning and weaving fabric (Proverbs 31:13-24 ).

Dyes and colors Predynastic Egyptians (about 3000 B.C.) had begun to master the art of dyeing fabrics. Reds, purples, and blues (indigo) were the known natural dyes of the Mediterranean and African regions, having been derived from marine life, plants, and insects. Natural tones from different breeds of animals gave some variety to fabric colors (brown and black goats' hair; white, gray, and yellow wool). Available natural dyes and variable natural tones offered a wide spectrum of color possibilities. Mixing of dyes and fabrics could result in colors such as green, orange, brown, yellow, black, and pink, each with varied shades. Natural Tyrian purple was considered the most beautiful color of all throughout ancient history, according to Strabo.

Those who could afford them preferred more colorful garments. Biblical descriptions indicate that dyed textiles were generally reserved for special garments and occasions. In Exodus 26:1 , indigo, purple, and scarlet are listed as hues of tabernacle raiments. Jealousy over favoritism in the gift of a brightly colored coat is reflected in the Joseph conflict with his brothers (Genesis 37:3-4 ).

Clothing styles The Bible gives only general descriptions of the types of garments worn in biblical times. Egyptian, Assyrian, Roman, and Hittite monuments provide extensive pictorial evidence of dress in the ancient world. The need for clothing derives its origin from the shame of nakedness experienced by Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:7-8 ). God's provision for His people is reflected in the animal skin garments given in response to human need.

Men and women wore tunics made of linen or wool hanging from the neck to the knees or ankles. The Beni Hasan Tableau from the tomb of Khnum-hotep in Egypt depicts tunics worn by Semitic peoples as having diverse patterns and colors.

Loin cloths or waistcloths of linen (Jeremiah 13:1 ) or leather (2 Kings 1:8 ) were worn by men and used to gird up the tunic for travel. For comfort it could be loosened at night or when resting. Priests were to have their hips and thighs covered (Exodus 28:42 ) so as not to be exposed when in service in Yahweh.

The cloak was an outer garment used for a night covering, and thus was not to be loaned (Deuteronomy 24:13 ). This article is often referred to as a mantle, which was worn by sojourners (Deuteronomy 10:18 ; Ruth 3:3 ). In John 19:2 , Jesus' outer cloak was draped over him during the beatings inflicted by the Roman soldiers. Jesus' tunic was probably the garment for which the Roman soldiers cast lots at His death (John 19:23 ). Long sleeveless external robes of blue or purple fabric were worn by royalty, prophets, and the wealthy (1 Samuel 18:4 ; Ezra 9:3 ; Luke 15:22 ). Mantles of various types were worn by kings, prophets, and other distinctive persons. In times of sorrow or distress, this garment might be torn (Job 1:20 ). Another kind of outer garment was the ephod, usually a special white robe (1 Samuel 2:19 ).

Women likewise wore inner and outer garments, but the differences in appearance must have been noticeable since wearing of clothes of the opposite sex was strictly forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:5 ). The undergarments were loose fitting or baggy apparel (Proverbs 31:24 ), and the outer robes were more flowing. The woman also wore a headcloth of brightly colored or patterned material which could be used as a wrapped support for carrying loads (Isaiah 3:22 ), a veil (Genesis 24:65 ; Song of Song of Solomon 5:7 ) or a hanging protective garment against the hot sun. A long train or veil adorned women of high social stature (Isaiah 47:2 ).

Festive clothing for both men and women was generally made of costly white material, adorned with colorful outer wrappings and headclothes. Gold, silver, or jewels further decorated one's festive attire (2 Samuel 1:24 ). Priestly dress (Exodus 39:1-31 ) likewise consisted of only the best of fine linen, which was dyed scarlet, indigo, and purple, and of gold ornamentation. See Weaving ; Dress ; Wool ; Garments.

R. Dennis Cole


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Cloth, Clothing'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/c/cloth-clothing.html. 1991.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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