Was Dorcas a poor widow or a woman of means?
The scriptures don’t say if Dorcas supported herself by weaving and did charitable works on the side, or if she had enough means to serve the widows without earning a living.
That she was “full of good works and charitable deeds” might mean she was free to devote herself full-time to doing good, or it may indicate she was fully committed to doing good deeds with the time available to her.
That the widows mourned her death and showed Peter the things she had made “while she was with them” may indicate she, too, was a widow and among a group of widowed ladies who encouraged and supported one another.
Whether Dorcas owned a weaving business or made garments for charitable purposes, she practiced her craft. The Holman Bible Dictionary under the topic of “Cloth and Clothing” states that the “Book of Proverbs depicts a woman who spends much time spinning and weaving of fabric.”
Unger’s Bible Dictionary states, “The making of clothes among the Israelites was always the business of the housewives, in which women of rank equally took part” (p. 319).
In her hometown of Joppa, would Dorcas have been known as a “weaver” or a “seamstress”?
Dorcas would have been known as a weaver. Weaving was common in Israelite homes—primarily the business of women. Families made their own fabrics for garments, sails, tents, covers and curtains. Widows who owned looms were known to support themselves by weaving.
A garment such as a tunic could be woven without a seam. Jesus’ tunic is described as seamless (John 19:23-24). His tunic was woven without a seam and valuable enough that the soldiers casts lots for it. The cloak they divided into four parts. Christ’s cloak may have been constructed by seaming together four smaller woven panels. The word “divided” is used rather than “ripped” or “torn.”
Iron needles were common, so weavers were able to sew larger garments from smaller panels of fabric woven on a household loom.
Did men and women wear the same kind of clothes?
Men and women wore tunics under their outer garments. Their cloaks differed slightly in materials or length, but both men and women wore loose, flowing attire. The word translated “garment” in Greek also means apparel, cloak, clothes, robe, dress and vesture (Strong’s 1440). Illustrators and commentaries describe a tunic as the garment worn under the outer cloak, which may have sleeves.
The main distinction between the dress of men and women had to do with veils and headdress (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 320).
Was Dorcas a member of a weavers’ guild?
Scripture doesn’t say if Dorcas was an independent weaver or a guild member. It is likely that weavers’ guilds existed in large towns. Holman’s Online Bible Dictionary states that weavers were professionals and specialists in particular types of work: weaving, designing and embroidering.
Whether or not Dorcas belonged to a guild, she was probably acquainted with all aspects of her craft. Scripture states that she made “tunics and garments,” the ordinary clothing worn by poor widows. She may have produced festive and decorative garments, too, but attention is called to the everyday clothing she made.
The most popular home loom in Dorcas’ time was a “warp weighted loom.” Threads were attached to a horizontal beam at the top of this small vertical loom. The threads were held to the ground by stones or hunks of clay called “loom weights.” The weaving proceeded from top to bottom (Holman On-line Bible Dictionary, “Spinning and Weaving”).
What were clothes made of?
The most common fibers used in clothing were linen from the flax plant and wool. Flax grew wild in Palestine and was domesticated in Galilee, Egypt, and Syria. Cotton grew in Egypt on tree-like plants and was expensive. Cotton and silk were used in clothing for the wealthy.
The linen industry at the time of Christ was highly esteemed (Jewish Encyclopedia, “Flax”). The finest linen came from Egypt and Syria, but Galilee produced a very acceptable quality of linen. Flax fibers are stronger than cotton although less elastic. Of golden color and lustrous, the flax fibers when woven into linen repels insects and dirt. When properly prepared, linen resists shrinkage and is cool to wear. The production of linen, however, was labor-intensive.
“Flax was planted in…November and gathered almost four months later. It had to be separated from its seeds, bunched, retted, laid in the sun, and immersed in water to bleach and soften it for crushing. The flax fibers were beaten out of the woody portions, and it was drawn by a comb like implement into thread for weaving on looms” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 778).
Likely Dorcas spun her own thread from the prepared flax, as there are many biblical references to spinning thread. The prepared, flax fibers were gathered loosely and twisted by hand to make thread or twisted on a spindle, a hand-held twirler that draws out the thread (Prov. 31:19). The earliest drawings of spinning wheels come from China and Baghdad in the 11th century (Wikipedia, “Spinning Wheel”), so Dorcas did some form of hand spinning.
After the fibers were spun into thread, the women loaded their home looms with the threads and wove them into fabric. Linen panels were sewn into loose fitting cloaks. Linen threads were woven as one-piece into tunics, scarves, and headdresses.
The natural linen fabric was cream, ecru, and shades of beige. The festive garments were dyed purple, blue, and red. Natural dyes from plants, insects and marine life created a variety of colored fabrics. Skilled clothiers decorated white festive garments with shells, stripes of colored material, gold, silver and jewels.
What does this background add to our understanding?
The widows greatly valued the clothing Dorcas made for them. Hers was a labor of love. Working with flax, the primarily fabric of her day, was labor intensive. If she supported herself by weaving, the garments she made for the poor were done with the time she had after regular work.
If she didn’t run a clothing business, her weaving efforts were still significant. The widows acknowledged that by showing Peter the things she made.
Scripture does not say that her good works and charitable deeds were limited to making garments.