Many great things that we use today were not created for their specific purposes, sometimes these items were made by mistake kind of like the Polio Vaccine, while some of these were just used in different ways then we know them today. I for one have always wondered where the materials used for yarmulkes came from, why are some materials used while others are not? Is their a significance to the color or shape? I have done some extensive research to find out about these important questions.
In the days of yore a leather item was not something you could buy off of some Jamaican selling brand name belts for rock bottom prices out of the back of a van parked on a side street. Until recently leather was a coveted item that could only be had by the wealthy. Bring in the suede yarmulke, which in recent years has been cast down as the “token bar mitzvah” yarmulke, prior to this demeaning class, the suede yarmulke was only found on the heads of the wealthy. Whenever you hear stories like that of “Yossele the holy miser” about the wealthiest guy in the shtetle- they are talking about the man with the suede yarmulke. This is also the reason that the suede yarmulke has been the choice of stock brokers and white collar lawyers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the lowly black velvet knockoff material that is similar to that of those cheap black pants you can buy at Conway or on those racks at street fairs. This rough to the touch material was reserved for patches on pants, because you couldn’t afford to just buy a new pair of pants. So they would just use the same method that truckers use to patch their truck tires. The problem with these pants patches is that, like truck tires they tend to come loose and rip off of the pants sending pants chunks and patches flying al over the place. In the shtetle little kids would pick these up and wear as yarmulkes. This was especially prevalent in the towns of Lubavitch, Mezritch and Berditchov. These cheap already pre-made yarmulkes caught on fast since the Chassidim in these towns were so poor. The minhag has held and the main wearers of the “cloth black velvet look alike” yarmulkes are Lubavitcher Chassidim.
The sources for the usage and ultimately the proliferation of black velvet were hard to come by. But deep in the vaults of Yeshivapedia I was able to find a source. Apparently the black velvet material was originally used to clean glasses off- it seems far fetched, but the Jews who wore glasses at the time figured that it was more convenient to wear their cleaners on their heads as yarmulkes, under their hats- so no one would be able to see them anyway- kind of like a Swiss army yarmulke that could kill two birds with one stone.
In further introspection I realized that in earlier times the people who wore glasses were usually old, wealthy and intelligent- what we today may call Rabbis. This is how black velvet achieved its status as the loftiest of yarmulkes in terms of frumkeit levels.
On a side note I have a whole bunch of black velvet yarmulkes that folks have left in my car usually of the small “hide those extra long bangs under it- yeshiva rebel variety” and I have in recent times used them as cleaning devices. Whenever I pick up a date I will clean off the font seat as well as the instrument panel and dashboard which gets rather dusty. Black velvet yarmulkes work best for this job.
Colored Velvet was added later in the forms of brown, blue and red and today are used mostly by Lubavitchers for some reason- though I could not find the source for this. It may just be a separatist thing- kind of like streimels for the chassidim and the pancake hats for the ubersatmirs.
Bright Colored Satin:
In the 1700’s cloth and other materials were made by hand and therefore they were rather expensive. This being the case it seemed a little foolish to make a bright orange shirt specifically for hunting and so in Eastern Europe where many folks revered the Pope and thought him to be good luck. They modeled a hat after the head covering that he wore; they created these medium sized frumpy looking yarmulkes that didn’t quite sit right on the head. They were made of satin for its reflective abilities and painted bright colors like orange, purple and yellow. These hats made the hunters visible to other hunters without giving too much of their other camouflage away. They were an instant hit and until the invention of the hunters vest- a staple in any white trash household.
It wasn’t long after these small hats that looked like yarmulkes got the interest of the always enterprising Jews. Although many orthodox Jews thought them to be to outlandish- they felt that they could be used as the yarmulkes for shgutzim and others who came to their shulls and were not religious.
Since this was around the time of the push to break away from orthodoxy it solved two problems, first of all- shulls never used to have yarmulkes for their non-members because they assumed that everyone in the shtetle was religious, secondly they could now tell who in fact was not religious and therefore would not call them up to the torah or eat from the food they brought as gifts.
Nowadays the bright colored satin yarmulke is used for almost the same reason. It is placed in bins just outside the door to the shull reminding people entering the shull to don their yarmulke. It also allows the Gabbi to know who the cousins of the bar mitzvah bochur are so that he can call them up to the torah. It also allows for the do-gooders to go over and show these colored yarmulke types what page they are currently on.
Believe it or not the knit yarmulkes are derived from an ancient Arab cooling method of taking a white knit hat and filling it with water and placing it on ones head. When Jews started migrating to Israel in the 1860’s and they were at a semi peace with the Arabs they were looking for new ways to cool down. They were also having a hard time walking around with black yarmulkes which felt like solar panels on their heads. Eventually from living amongst the Arabs the Jews learned their ways and this is one of things they adopted almost immediately. At first they would just wear the water filled hat until the water had all leaked out, then the intellectual Jews started to cut down the fabric and fashion them into yarmulkes and hence knit yarmulkes which today are a symbol of modern orthodoxy- because they shed the black ways of the old country and Zionism because these were worn by the first Israel émigrés.