A Look at Colors and Fabrics in Bible Times
IN THE Bible, we find many references to styles, colors, and materials of the clothing worn by people who lived centuries ago.
The Bible, of course, is not a book on fashions and styles. Yet, such details given in Bible accounts can make the events being reported on come to life in the reader’s mind.
For example, we read about the makeshift garb put together by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness—loin coverings made of fig leaves sewn together. These, however, were later replaced by garments that God gave them—more lasting “long garments of skin.”—Genesis 3:7, 21.
We also have the detailed accounts in Exodus chapters 28 and 39 regarding the garments worn by Israel’s high priest. These included a linen undergarment, a white robe, a woven sash, a blue sleeveless coat, and the embroidered ephod and breastpiece, together with a turban and its shining gold plate. Just reading the description of the way that the many precious materials were put together to make these garments is enough to give us a picture of how impressive they must have looked.—Exodus 39:1-5, 22-29.
The clothing of the prophet Elijah was so characteristic that people quickly recognized him by a description of his appearance: “A man possessing a hair garment, with a leather belt girded about his loins.” Hundreds of years later, some people thought that John the Baptizer was Elijah, perhaps partly because of the similarity of their clothing.—2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4; John 1:21.
Fabrics and Colors The Bible provides many references to the types of material used for clothing and to the colors and dyeing agents, as well as to spinning, weaving, and sewing.* The main fabrics mentioned were wool from domesticated animals and linen from the flax plant. Abel was called “a herder of sheep.” (Genesis 4:2) Whether Abel raised sheep for their wool, the Bible does not say. The earliest Biblical reference to fine linen relates to the garments that Pharaoh placed on Joseph in the 18th century B.C.E. (Genesis 41:42) The Bible makes virtually no mention of cotton as a clothing material used by the Jews, but it was used from early times in Middle Eastern lands.
Both flax and wool yielded fine fibers that were spun together to make threads of varying thicknesses. The threads were then woven into pieces of cloth. Threads and woven fabrics were dyed in a wide range of colors. The fabric was then cut to fit the wearer. Items of clothing were often decorated with embroidery, interwoven threads of varied colors, adding much to the appearance and value of the garments.—Judges 5:30.
Blue, purple, and crimson are frequently mentioned in the Bible as dyes for fabrics. The Israelites were commanded to put “a blue string above the fringed edge” of their garments as a reminder of their special relationship with their God, Jehovah. (Numbers 15:38-40) The Hebrew words tekheʹleth, a shade of blue, and ’ar·ga·manʹ, usually translated “purple,” are the colors associated with the high priest’s garments and other decorative items in the tabernacle and temple.
Tabernacle and Temple Fittings The tabernacle in the wilderness—and later the temple in Jerusalem—were the center of worship for the Israelites. It is therefore understandable that a great number of details were provided in the Bible in connection with the preparing and outfitting of the tabernacle and of Solomon’s temple. In addition to material and color, we find details regarding the weaving, dyeing, sewing, and embroidering of the tent coverings and curtains.
Under divine guidance and direction, expert craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab, as well as other men and women, faithfully accomplished a unique assignment, producing a meeting tent worthy of the worship of Jehovah. (Exodus 35:30-35) In chapter 26 of Exodus, the materials and construction of all the parts of the tabernacle are described in meticulous detail. For example, its expansive, colorful tent cloths were woven of “fine twisted linen and blue thread and wool dyed reddish purple and coccus scarlet material.” Much of this material was probably brought out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Special attention was given to the colorful thick curtain that was embroidered with figures of cherubs and divided “the Holy and the Most Holy” at the inner part of the tabernacle. (Exodus 26:1, 31-33) Similar details were repeated to those who worked with the fabrics for the temple in Jerusalem, under the direction of King Solomon.—2 Chronicles 2:1, 7.
From the details preserved in the Bible, we can see that the ancient Hebrews showed considerable initiative and ingenuity in utilizing the materials available to them. What we see is a picture, not of a society eking out a rather gray existence in drab clothing styles and homely fabrics, but of a people who enjoyed a variety of colorful fashions, available for different occasions, according to the seasons of the year and the means of the household.
The Bible tells us that the Israelites were given a good land, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” as their home. (Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 26:9, 15) As they pursued true worship of Jehovah, they enjoyed his blessing. Life was good, and the people were happy and contented. For example, the Bible tells us: “Judah and Israel continued to dwell in security, everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree, from Dan to Beer-sheba, all the days of [King] Solomon.”—1 Kings 4:25.
For details on these processes, see the accompanying boxes.
[Box/Pictures on pages 26, 27]
Wool and Linen
In Biblical times, sheep were raised mainly for their milk and wool. From a few sheep, a farmer would get enough wool for his family’s garments. If many sheep were raised, a farmer could sell the surplus to the local textile producers. Some towns and villages had their own textile guilds. From early times, sheepshearing was part of a year’s work for the people.—Genesis 31:19; 38:13; 1 Samuel 25:4, 11.
Linen, a popular fabric for clothing, was made from fibers of the flax plant. (Exodus 9:31) The plant was harvested when nearly full-grown. The stalk was allowed to dry in the sun and was then soaked in water to soften the woody parts. After drying, it was beaten and the fibers were separated, or sorted out, and spun into threads for weaving. Royalty and high officials preferred clothing made of linen.
Dried flax plant before soaking
[Box/Picture on page 27]
A single fiber—such as flax, wool, or goat’s hair—is too fragile and too short to be of use. So a number of fibers are twisted together, or spun, to produce thread or yarn of desired thicknesses and lengths. Of the “capable wife,” the Bible says: “Her hands she has thrust out to the distaff, and her own hands take hold of the spindle.” (Proverbs 31:10, 19) This is a description of the spinning process, using the distaff and the spindle, basically two simple sticks.
In one hand, a woman holds the distaff, with the fibers loosely wrapped around it. With the other hand, she draws out some fibers, twists them into a thread, and attaches it to a hook or notch at one end of the spindle. On the other end of the spindle is a weighted disk, called a whorl, that serves as a flywheel. Suspending the spindle vertically and turning it, she spins the fibers into thread of a certain thickness. The spun thread is wrapped around the shaft of the spindle, as on a bobbin, and the process is repeated until all the fibers on the distaff become one long thread, ready for dyeing or weaving.
[Box/Pictures on pages 28, 29]
After spinning and cleaning, the wool and flax threads—or the woven cloth—are dyed a variety of colors. Several soakings in the dye produce a deeper color. In view of its costliness, surplus dye is squeezed out to be reused after the material is removed from the vat. The dyed thread or cloth is then laid out to dry.
With no synthetic colors at their disposal, the ancients developed permanent dyes for a surprising variety of shades and hues from the animal and plant kingdoms. For example, yellow dye was made from almond leaves and ground pomegranate rinds, and black dye from pomegranate tree bark. Red dye was extracted from the roots of the madder plant or from the kermes insect. Blue coloring came from the indigo flower. The combination of pigments from various murex sea snails could produce shades and colors ranging from royal purple to blue to crimson red.
How many sea snails were needed to dye a garment? Each individual sea snail produces such a small amount of pigment that according to one study, some 10,000 were needed to produce enough secretions to dye one robe or cloak a deep shade of aptly named royal purple. During the reign of King Nabonidus of Babylon, wool dyed purple was said to be 40 times more expensive than wool dyed other colors. In view of ancient Tyre’s prominence as a renowned supplier of this costly dye, the color purple became known as Tyrian purple.
Sea snail shell
2nd or 3rd century B.C.E. purple dye vat found in Tel Dor, Israel
The Tel Dor Project
[Box/Picture on page 29]
A loom is used to weave spun threads into cloths of a desired size for making garments or other items. Sets of threads are interlaced lengthwise as warp threads and crosswise as weft, or woof, threads. The woof threads are woven alternately over and under the warp threads.
The loom used in Biblical times was either a horizontal frame, placed flat on the floor, or a tall, vertical frame. In some vertical frames, weights were attached to the lower ends of the warp threads. Ancient loom weights have been discovered in numerous locations in Israel.
Weaving was often a domestic chore, but in some places whole villages devoted themselves collectively to the trade. For example, at 1 Chronicles 4:21, we find a reference to “the house of the workers of fine fabric,” evidently an association of workers in that profession.
[Picture on pages 26, 27]
“Blue thread and wool dyed reddish purple.”—Exodus 26:1