A Costumer’s Bookshelf: Woman’s Work: the First 20,000 Years

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1994. ISBN 0-393-03506-0

My definition of a classic book is that the book seems to grow with you. Every time you read it, you notice things that seemed unimportant on your previous readings. Of course, the book doesn’t change; a classic is just so rich in ideas that, as you, the reader, learn and grow, more of what’s there becomes relevant to your new experiences.

I’ve just read Women’s Work for the fourth time. I had to use a library copy, because, although I’ve bought the paperback several times, I always end up giving it to another costumer, or a textile artist, or someone who’s interested in women’s studies or archeology or mythology or ethnic embroidery or…. This book covers a lot of ground.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a woman archeologist. She realized that the work women have done since pre-historic times usually involves textiles, but, because cloth is perishable, and looms made of wood are perishable, as are wooden distaffs and spindles, the huge contribution that textiles made to ancient economies has been overlooked by [mostly male] archeologists.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women's Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women’s Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Thousands and thousands of loom weights have been found at Troy and other ancient sites where vertical looms were used. (Loom weights are made of non-perishable clay or stone.) But when Troy  or Knossos or Kültepe burned, so did the looms and the textiles that were part of their treasures.

I am simplifying here, but Barber’s point is that half of the products, and at least half of the objects that determined the ancient world’s trade and economy, have disappeared from the historical record – the half that was women’s work.

Textiles: Traditionally Women’s Work

Barber explains that spinning and weaving were tasks compatible with child-minding, while hunting and herding large animals were not.

“Among the thousands of archeologists who have written about pottery or architecture, how many have actually tried to make a pot or build a building? Precious few….” she writes on page 24.

But Barber taught herself to spin and weave so that she could analyze ancient textiles – even reproducing some – to get insight into the differences in societies that lead to different kinds of looms and spindles, etc. A nomadic society, for instance, can’t use a loom that hangs on the wall and uses loom weights for tension on the warp, so archeological evidence of their textile work rarely survives. We know about horizontal Egyptian looms primarily because of wall paintings and models left in tombs; archeologists didn’t need to find piles of loom weights to know that the Egyptians produced vast amounts of cloth.

Things I never really thought about until I read this book:

1. Thread. Fiber. String.

"Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing." From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women's Work by Tamar Schick.)

“Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing.” From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women’s Work by Tamar Schick.) Click to enlarge.

On vacation years ago, I was hiking along the Welsh border. Small clumps of white stuff drifted across the road and were caught in the hedges. I stopped to read a map, alone – I thought – and a voice on the other side of the tall hedge cried, “Maa!”  There was a flock of sheep on the other side of the hawthorn bushes, and that white stuff caught on the branches was wool. I was in the position of some paleolithic woman or man who, more clever that I am, gathered some of the animal hair or plant fibers she found, twisted them in her fingers, added more, twisted them together, and invented string or thread.

Drawing from Women's Work by Barber, after Glory

Drawing from Women’s Work by Barber, after Glory

2. Textiles were necessary for trade.

Archeologists find non-perishable items like obsidian, pottery, tin, gold, ax-heads and knives, beads, beakers, and statuettes – trade items that show us how far pre-historic people traveled and how wide-spread and interlinked ancient societies were. But a pack animal can carry only so much metal or stone. Textiles are lighter; they can be used to wrap the precious metals and objects and then sold or traded at the end of the journey.  “The records tell us that one particular donkey [that left Assyria] carried twenty-six cloths of two sorts, sixty-five units of sealed tin, and nine units of loose tin [used to pay for expenses on the way.]”  An ancient letter written from a trader to his wife says, “If you don’t manage to make fine textiles [in time for the caravan], … Buy [them] for me and send [them] to me.” (pp. 170 -171)

3. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the ancient Greek plays confirm the economic importance of women’s textile work.

A Spinster. "Woman spinning with a drop spindle, depicted on a Greek vase of ca. 490 B.C." From Women's Work, by E. W. Barber

A Spinster. From Women’s Work, by E. W. Barber

At the end of a war, the losers were killed or enslaved.  Numerous female slaves were needed because it takes much longer to spin the thread for a garment than it does to weave the cloth – “as much as seven to ten times as long, using a hand spindle.” (P. 87) “Spinsters” were especially valuable prizes of war.

4. Textiles are part of our language and proverbs. “Spinster.” “On the Distaff side.” “Cut your coat to suit your cloth.” “Man must work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” That was literally true. A woman can spin thread while walking, while ‘resting,’ and even in the near-darkness of a fire-lit hut or cave. A woman would spin day and night for most of the year in order to have enough thread to weave cloth for her family: that was woman’s work.

You don’t have to know anything about textiles or archeology before reading Women’s Work. Barber’s writing is scholarly, but never stuffy or condescending. There are plenty of illustrations from Egyptian, early European, and Middle Eastern cultures, and a wealth of odd facts about everything from Egyptian eye makeup to “dragon’s blood” dye.

Every time I read Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, I enjoy it. I learn from it. It’s a classic.

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4 Comments

Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf

4 responses to “A Costumer’s Bookshelf: Woman’s Work: the First 20,000 Years

  1. Beautiful! I’m going to get that book.

  2. I’m going to get it too. Great review.

  3. Pingback: The Evolution of the Shirt and Cut My Cote: Book Recommendation | witness2fashion

  4. Pingback: Neanderthals, Needles, and Fur Clothing | witness2fashion

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