Fiber Acquisition

Textile production is a multi-phase process, which involves numerous specialists from beginning to finished product. The first stage entails the acquisition of fibers with which to make threads. Fibers are divided into two categories based on their source, bast or plant fibers and animal fibers. The two bast fibers commonly used in the Bronze- and Iron-Age southern Levant were flax and hemp. Wild flax grows naturally near water sources, such as those where early domestication must have occurred. Domestic flax (Linum usitatissimum) was first cultivated in Mesopotamia, at least as early as 5000 BCE; from there it seems to have spread in all directions. The most significant of these was Egypt, where flax became highly cultivated; the finest linen clothes were produced in Egypt for centuries. Fibers from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) tend to be coarser than flax and are better suited for making sails, ropes, and shelters. In either case, once the plants have been harvested and dried, the thick outside stem covering must be removed in order to retrieve the fibers within. This process is known as retting or rotting, and it entails the soaking of the stems in the fields, in designated pools of water, or even on rooftops, as described in Joshua 2:6. The fibers, which are then dried, can be stored and later processed utilizing a series of techniques known as scotching (breaking), which removes any of the stiff outside stem material that remains. The fibers are then heckled (combed), to produce the longs strands of soft flax or hemp, which will be spun and woven.

The predominant animal fiber of the ancient Near East was wool. Sheep appear to have been domesticated by the mid-eighth millennium BCE. Wool, a secondary product derived from sheep, was easily accessible and easier than fibers to process for spinning threads. At first sheep were plucked for their wool, but the development of flint scrapers and, in the Iron Age, of metal shears increased the production of wool. The shearing of sheep took place in the spring and was considered a community event involving feasting, as is described in the Bible (1 Sam 25, 2 Sam 13:23-28).