No Medical Tool is More Venerable Than Gauze
If you practice medicine or work someplace that does, it likely has your hands on gauze several times a day. When you hold it, you can think of it like handling a piece of ancient history.
As far as we know, save a few synthetic blends and added adhesives, the basic formula of gauze has changed very little since before recorded time.
What most astounding about gauze is that, despite the advancements in medical technology and textiles, gauze is still the universal tool in medical kits around the world.
When it comes to wounds, accidental or otherwise, one can separate them into two categories: those which stop bleeding in short order and those which do not. We’ll be dealing with the latter in this blog.
Good wounds, if there is such a thing, are the sort that coagulates on their own. For the bad wounds, gauze is the tried and true, the mainstay of medical practitioners since they were called healers.
Gauze was not always kept en masse for sopping up blood. Humans once considered gauze a desirable fabric, versatile, and light but strong.
It was so desirable, wearing gauze was not allowed for everyone, especially for monks and nuns. It tends to be a little see-through, borderline sexy. Monks and nuns tend to avoid see-through and sexy clothing.
Still, they kept it on hand for other uses.
This all begs the obvious question: what is gauze? The easy answer is it is the most versatile textile ever created by humans…
GauzeMany textiles could fall under the definitions for gauze. It's a weave, not a fibre. One knows gauze when she holds it. No other weave behaves quite the same.
Ancient textile makers wove earliest forms of gauze from silk, which is probably why it was so popular.
It’s hard to imagine everyone getting all excited over see-through cotton or linen fabric, the most often used fibres for gauze nowadays. We’ll come back to the popularity aspect in a moment.
The weave for Gauze is most often a leno-weave, which also hails as gauze weave. Gauze may also be a plain weave, with the warp and weft fibres crossing under and over each other like the weaves of a basket, not as in a textile basketweave but as in an actual picnic basket weave.
The plain weave is the least common of the two. The net results, regardless of weave, is a loosely-woven sheer fabric, which is typically stronger than one might expect for something so delicate.
From the best of our archaeological knowledge, the first gauzes came from Palestine, thus the obvious etymological connections to the city of Gaza or the Gaza Strip.
Gaza is an anglicized version of the Arabic غزة (ghazza), possibly derived from the French gaze (gazz), but undoubtedly all from the root word in Arabic and Persian for raw silk: qazz.
Who invented this fabric remains as unknown as who first called raw silk gazz. Gauze may have been a textile from before Palestine, adapted and perfected there, but we’ll never know because it predates human records.
Palestinians used gauze for making clothing, not for dressing wounds, but people found gauze useful for many applications once word got out, once gauze left Gaza.
The European religious network of traders of the 13th century began to import this silky gazzatum fabric for use in non-clothing.
It was forbidden for the religious orders to wear it, but they found other applications for gauze. The hot textile of Europe at that time was wool—not the lovely treated sort found in that Christmas sweater from grandma—itchy, itchy wool.
Wool was not so versatile, but gauze worked well in book bindings, for making cheeses, amongst other uses. It worked particularly well for stopping bleeding and dressing wounds.
Most readers of this blog know that the church, especially nuns, and early medical practitioners share a common history before medical care went secular. It during that time the use of gauze in crossed over.
It's easy to imagine the hypothetical scene: A patient comes in with a wound bleeding in that bad wound sort of way. Someone grabs the nearest absorbent material, gauze, and stops the bleeding.
Afterward, they wrapped the wound in fresh gauze and found the results positive. Gauze didn’t stick to wounds like other fabrics, making it perfect for those bad wounds.
For people in the textile industry, they see a broad spectrum of gauze woven from different fibres in varying thicknesses, woven for a variety of applications.
Beyond clothing and wound care, gauze has a place forging strong paper, by infusing it into the paper during manufacturing.
Theaters use gauze in their scrims, which are flat curtains for creating lighting effects and backdrops. As such, window curtains are often a gauze weave of cotton fibres.
Flag makers use a form of gauze to make flags. Cheesemakers use a form of gauze for making cheese, as in cheesecloth, and tobacco manufacturers use gauze for covering plants.
It’s likely that humanity will not do much to change gauze, although we may someday move on from the versatile textile.
Until such time, when you handle a tuft of it, remember you hold a weave tying together the ends of recorded history, which is pretty cool if you think about it.