woolen fabric, either dyed or in its natural color, or
linen made from a plant called flax.
Wool was easier to work with, and it took dyes better. It was also waterproof to some extent, giving better protection against the weather. Linen was finer and more expensive.
Women were largely responsible for production of clothes. They
shared responsibility for tending the animals in the flock
sorted and carded the wool after the goats and sheep had been shorn
spun the wool into lengths of yarn
Clothes in ancient times. Clothing was hand-woven and embroidered
collected plants and crushed stone for dyes
wove the fabric using portable looms
grew and harvested flax for linen.
Their work was by no means finished. When the flax had been harvested they
dried the flax
carded and spun the flax into either fine or coarse linen strips (linen produced by the Egyptians could be woven finer than the fabric in a modern handkerchief).
prepared dyes of various colors: blue from wood, yellow from pomegranate, lilac from myrtle, etc. Even the poorest Jewish women used vegetable dyes to get a range of colors for the family’s woolen clothes. Flax did not take dye well.
A 2nd century Roman priestess of Isis in a loose tunic and cloak, draped to be practical and attractive
Design of clothing
The Bible covers a time span of several thousand years, but the type of clothing worn by most Jewish people during that time did not change much. Jewish styles seem to have been influenced by both the simplicity of the Egyptians and the flamboyance of the Mesopotamians. Jewish clothing was fringed, but not like Mesopotamian clothing, which had fringes, overlapping fabric, frills, borders and colored braiding – less was not more in ancient Mesopotamia.
A widow’s clothing
‘Widows were apparently set apart by wearing special clothing, such as in Gen- 38.14, where Tamar “. . . put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim . . .” in an effort to appear like a prostitute when she seduced her father-in-law Judah. Upon leavng Judah, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes once more (Gen. 38.19).
These may be similar to garments worn by women who were in mourning for other reasons; 2 Sam. 21.10 records that Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, prepared sackcloth for herself to wear in mourning after her sons were handed over to the Gibeonites.
Clothes of the nobility, men’s and women’s, in ancient Israel
Although we cannot guess the color of a widow’s garments, it seems that they were made of rougher material than was typically used to make clothing.’
Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, Jennie R. Ebeling, T & T Clark International, p.133
Items of clothing
Both women and men wore a loincloth, the equivalent of underpants. This was a long thin strip of cloth which was wound around the waist and then between the legs, with the end tucked in at the waist. Women probably wore some sort of binding around their breasts.
The main garment, worn by both women and men, was the halug, a tunic. This was made of two rectangular pieces of cloth joined in a long seam along the top of the arms, with a hole left for the head to go through. It also had a seam running down both sides, with holes left for the arms.
Jewish women had hard-wearing clothes for daily life, and richly decorated clothing (dyed and embroidered) for festivals
The halug could be gathered up in a bunch at the shoulders, either with a clip or a tip-loop, or it could be tucked up at the waist if heavy work was being done. Halugs made of fine linen or wool could be draped to fall gracefully.
The halug was worn with a belt, either leather or metal, the decoration depending on the wealth of the wearer.
A cloak could be worn over the halug. The edges and fringes of the cloak were often decorated.
When women went into public places, they wrapped their long hair in a piece of cloth. This cloth held their hair in place and acted as a head covering in the hot climate. It could also be used as a face covering. Rebecca used it to hide her face when she first met Isaac (Genesis 24:65).
Total veiling, as worn by some Islamic women today, was not practiced. Sarah’s beauty was obviously visible to those around her (Genesis 12). Rebecca was not veiled when she was drawing water from the spring (Genesis 24:16).
Ancient people loved to decorate themselves with jewelry, which, as today, was valued for its beauty and for the status it gave to its owner. Every woman had jewelry of some kind, which was part of her personal wealth.
If it was part of her dowry, it would be worn conspicuously, especially on festival days when prospective suitors might be visiting the village.
Note: ‘An interesting ostracon (a piece of inscribed pottery) dating from the seventh century BC from the site of a fortress at Mesad Hashavyahu, near the coast of southern Israel, shows the value of clothing in ancient Israel. In this inscription, which was apparently dictated to a scribe, a field worker appeals to the governor of the fortress for the return of an item of clothing that he complains had been unjustly confiscated by a man named Hoshabyahu ben-Shobi. Although the item of clothing is not specified, it was probably a mantle or cloak given its apparent worth to the worker.’ Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, Jennie R. Ebeling, T & T Clark International, p.93
Jewelry is transportable wealth. It is also an in-your-face status symbol letting everyone know just how rich you are. Women have used jewels for thousands of years. Even Cro-Magnons had necklaces and bracelets. For photographs of some of the fabulous jewelry worn by women in biblical times, see Bible Archaeology: Jewelry
Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st century AD, Roman, Pompeii.
were used by women at all levels of society. We know that women in ancient times manicured their nails, tweezed superfluous hair, and outlines their eyes in colors including black, green, aqua, terracotta and charcoal. Make-up, especially for the eyes, was popular.
Of course, there is no direct evidence that women in ancient Israel wore make-up, since there are no Israelite statues or images similar to the Egyptian ones shown here. But Israel was always influenced by its powerful neighbor to the south, and it is reasonable to suppose that this influence also affected Hebrew/Israelite women.
Above: 1st century wooden combs found at Qumran in the Judean Desert
Below: Women's hairpins of ivory and metal
We have a good idea of clothing in New Testament times because of a discovery made in Israel in 1960. Bedouin tribesmen found many artifacts in a cave near En-gedi on the Dead Sea, which were dated to the Bar Kokhba War in 132CE.
It appears that during the Bar Kokhba War a group of 17 people, including six children, were trapped in the cave. They starved to death there, rather than surrender to the Roman soldiers who were camped immediately above the entrance to their cave.
A range of textiles was found with their skeletons. There were women’s cloaks, a child’s linen shirt, and skeins and balls of unspun purple wool.
Laboratory analysis showed that three basic dyes had been used to obtain 34 different colors of thread (the three dyes were saffron yellow, indigo blue and alazarin red).
Hairstyle, jewelry and clothes of a wealthy 2nd century AD woman; Fayum coffin portrait
Among the artifacts found in the cave were pieces of jewelry, a box for powder and a brass mirror in a wooden frame.
Dressed for the Occasion Using the information in this section or from the webpage below, design an outfit you might have worn if you had lived in biblical times. You may use drawings or a written description to show the clothes you have chosen. Describe the cut, the fabric and the color of each item.
There were two types of dwelling in ancient Israel:
tents used by nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, and
houses, either large or small, used by ordinary people.
Tents were used by
nomadic people, who followed their flocks to pasture and water, and moved around according to the seasons
semi-nomadic people, based in a village but living part of the year in upper or lower pasture areas.
The tents used were larger than modern tents. They had two sections:
a front section, where the men of the family lived and visitors were entertained
a private section at the rear, for the women and their children.
A nomadic family’s tent, made of goat’s hair
The tents were made from goats’ hair, woven in strips on large looms. Women wove the fabric for the tents, stitched them together, kept them in good repair, set them up when the camp was established, and folded and stowed them when it was time to move on. It would seem heavy work to us, but the Israelite women were strong and skilled, and they were used to working as a group.
Women set up the tents each time the clan/tribe moved. They selected a suitable site, then used wooden mallets and tent pegs to secure the unwieldy tents. When it was time to move on, they took down the tents, folded them and stowed to for the journey. This would seem heavy work to us, but the Hebrew women were sturdy and skilled, and they worked as a group. See Bible Tents and Houses
Houses gradually replaced tents when agriculture and villages replaced the nomadic way of life, but they both continued in use through biblical times. Stone for building was plentiful in most of Palestine, and was generally used at least in the foundations.
Reconstruction of an ancient village with streets and houses
The basic floor plan used for houses was usually similar to the one used for the Roman insula: a central courtyard with a number of rooms opening off it. These rooms were small by our standards, with a minimum of windows. Lattice work and shutters were used to cover window openings (see the story of Sisera’s mother in Judges 5:28).
The size of the rooms was limited by the fact that rooms could only be as wide as the beams that supported the roof. Beams, usually wooden, reached from one wall to the other, and were covered with a mixture of woven branches and clay, which was smoothed with a stone roller.
The inner walls were finished with a smooth coat of clay or plaster, which could be decorated with frescoes, elaborate ones in the houses of the rich, simpler ones in peasant houses. Wide stone benches for sitting and sleeping, and shelves for storage were built into the structure itself.
Artist’s reconstruction of a 1st century household complex
Ancient houses: reconstruction of a kitchen in Roman times
A wooden ladder or a set of stairs led to the roof, which was used as an outdoor room partly shaded by matting or a tent-like superstructure. Because the inside rooms tended to be small and dark, the courtyard and the roof were important parts of the house, and were used for tasks that needed a good light, for example spinning and weaving, and food preparation. The flat roof area might also be used for sleeping, working and drying food or textiles (see the story of Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 2:6).
In the courtyard you might find
the mikveh, for both men and women
a cooking area with a fire, cooking utensils and possibly an oven
implements for grinding small amounts of grain
a covered area where people sat while they worked or talked
the family animals, possibly a donkey, goats or a cow
As you can imagine, this area was crowded with people, animals and activity at almost any time of the day. There is several reconstructions of this type of dwelling at Bible architecture: Houses.
By modern standards, the houses of ancient people were sparsely furnished, with only necessities such as a table, stools and lamps. People often sat on cushions or mats on the floor. Joseph, the husband of Mary of Nazareth, was probably a builder rather than a carpenter, since a small village wouldn’t need much furniture.
Ancient kitchen interior with woman serving food. Windows were small, interiors were dark.
There’s No Place Like Home
Using your school, local library or the Internet, find out about the manufacture or construction of one of the dwellings described in this section.
Present your findings visually, using either a scale drawing or a model of the reconstructed dwelling.
Add an explanation of the methods used in the manufacture or construction of the dwelling you have chosen.