In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve realized they were naked, “and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Gen 3:7 KJV). What isn’t mentioned is what they used for thread. What do you think?
Fig leaves began the trend, and today, recycled soda bottles are included in the array of fabrics that clothe the human body. (By the way, if you are imagining a dress made of empty water bottles, while that would be artistic, it would also be impractical. The fabric I’m talking about is rubbish that has been chemically transformed into polyester.)
The notion of creating textiles from things like crude oil or wood chips is ingenious. Fabric can be made from all kinds of things! Interested in what they might be? A visit to the American Textile History Museum will have you in stitches when you find out.
But you don’t have to go to Massachusetts to recognize that textiles have undergone quite an evolution. Just look at old photos of sporting teams and you’ll see for yourself.
From Buttons to Bras
As I research what fabric a medieval monk might wear, the pious ones often wore hair shirts, or shirts made from . . . wait for it . . . hair. Not the soft horsehair used in luxurious upholstery, but hair shirt fabric that was itchy to an extreme. Some nuns are believed to have covered their bodies with pig skin, the hair of the animal still intact and the hairy part on the inside (as did the founder of the religious Order of St. Clare). The more common fabric was made of horse hair, specifically hair from the tail and/or mane.
The mane [sic] reason religious people wore coarse animal fibers against their skin was for self-mortification. My understanding is that self-mortification is used to train the body toward something. A soccer player may, for example, work out regularly and refrain from eating junk food while training for a game. This denial achieves a greater end than the suffering of saying no to chocolate cake. Religious people who deny themselves are also in training, but for spiritual reasons. Often, medieval religious inflicted bodily pain as a companion to denial, both regimes focused on the goal of sanctification (a topic I’ll leave for theologians).
In medieval stories, self-flagellation, or personally administered punishment, cannot be ignored because it was a common practice. A truly repentant soul would have performed their punishment in private. It is said that fray Daniel, a friar on the Vasquez de Coronado expedition, wore a coat of chain mail under his tunic just for this purpose–hot weather or cold, all the better if he had to walk far–chain mail is heavy. A hair shirt made from a goat was especially agonizing.
Time to Zip It Up
Would I want to wear sack cloth, hair shirt, horse, goat, or pig? No thank you please! But I cannot condemn those who think differently from me, especially in the light of centuries gone by. And while I would not wear an itchy item for the purpose of sanctification, I do see the need to remain close to the essentials and not think of myself as better than anyone else. How to do that isn’t difficult. Volunteering to help people who have a need greater than ours often reveals our own great need.
There is a lot more material I could cover, but that’s enough for now. I suddenly feel a strong urge to clean out my closet.