The origin of the liturgical stole came about in the first century B.C. when it became fashionable to carry about a rectangular piece of fine linen usually embroidered with silk and gold.
People used it as a handkerchief. Latin authors referred to it as a sudarium.
Then in the first century A.D., people began carrying the sudarium about their necks or in the folds of their togas. They also began to call it the orarium. Eventually people started wearing the orarium over their left shoulder or forearm, and servants would use it to clean vessels and utensils.
Eucharist Use Begins
By the fourth century, the deacons in the Eastern Church began wearing a longer, thinner version of the oraria. While it was still a linen napkin, it was now about 3-4 inches wide and 8 to 10 feet long. No longer useful as a napkin, it was now worn as an ornament by the deacons.
Adopted by Deacons in the Western Church
Deacons in Western Churches eventually began wearing these as well. In the seventh century, the Fourth Council of Braga described in detail how a deacon should wear the orarium.
It was to be worn over the left shoulder and then tied with a cord under the right arm with the ends hanging loose. Fringe was added in the eighth century.
The Orarium Becomes the Stola
In the ninth century, people began referring to it as a stola rather than an orarium. Normally, the word stola refers to a garment worn by women, and the reason for the change of terms remains a mystery, but the name stola remained.
Priests started wearing the liturgical stole all the time, even when traveling, so they would be recognized by their vocation. Elaborate needlework began to appear as early as the seventh century. Some of the stoles were elegantly embroidered, and by the thirteenth century, some of the stoles were extremely beautiful.
Although the decoration and embroidery has changed, the style of the liturgical stole has now remained unchanged for centuries.
Read more about this history of vestments by clicking here.