The history of the modern patch for clothing is an interesting story to review. It is a testament to human ingenuity and creativity that something as simple and utilitarian as repairing torn clothes will be the beautiful art form it is today.
There are many people today who collect these patches as a hobby. They call themselves “scutelliplists”. A tongue-twister name, sure, but its actual transliteration is somewhat cute. The term “scutelliphily”, defined today as patch or badge collecting, is derived from two old words. The first word is “scutellus”, which literally means “little shield” in Latin, in homage to the small shield shape of badges. The second word is “philein”, which means “to love” in Greek.
What do these – tongue-twister alert again – scutelliplists collect? Well, for the most part, they collect souvenir patches.
Where did the idea for the stylized patch come from, anyway?
Most of the research literature concur that the first patch came from China, around three centuries before Christ. What was interesting with these first items is that they were embroidered. Embroidery is the process of decorating cloth and other material using needles and threads. The art of embroidery is one that has endured until today, extending even beyond the form of patches.
The first iterations of embroidery were made painstakingly by hand. However, even before these were made with the purpose of being decorative forms of art, their original purpose was to simply, well, patch clothing.
What does “to patch” something mean, really?
Well, to answer that, let’s first go through the connotation of the word “patch”. What does it mean? Well, in gardening, a small piece of land is referred to as a “patch”. What came to mind when you read the previous sentence? A small piece of land, right? You wouldn’t imagine a huge plain of land as a “patch”. “Patches” are small – a corner, a piece.
What do people need a “patch” for?
Well, in technical computer terminology, a patch is a small section of code – a “mini-program”, if you will – that is added to a bigger program, or even an operating system. A computer patch updates a bigger program, fixes the errors caused by “bugs”, and so on and so forth.
Now, after our short detour through gardening and programming terms, let’s see how patches are defined according to their original function. (Don’t worry, this discussion hasn’t forgotten its original point entirely.)
What is the simplest definition of patch?
Basically, it’s a small piece of cloth or plastic or any other material attached to another bigger piece of material (for example, a shirt or a tarpaulin) to repair a visible damage in that bigger material.
The patch was just that, in the beginning – a small piece of cloth sewn on to a bigger piece of cloth, usually clothing, to fix them. They weren’t in any specific shape yet. They were merely cut according to the shape the fix-up job needed, whether it was a small tear in the cloth, a frayed corner, or a huge hole.
However, for the ancient Chinese, it wasn’t enough. They thought, “These plain-coloured repair jobs are so boring. What designs were embroidered over them?” So they did – and so from a purely functional repair job, an art form was born.
Instead of fixing the formal clothes and other cloth materials of their royal and religious leaders with ordinary cloth, they chose to decorate them with intricate, hand-made designs.
Later on, the early Chinese versions of the embroidered patch were shrunk, and they began to resemble the modern versions people know today, in the form of “small shields” that adorn our clothing and proclaim our proud affiliation with our own groups.