Women's Work
September 29, 2019 9:50 AM - by Elizabeth W. Barber - Subscribe

New discoveries about the textile arts reveal women's unexpectedly influential role in ancient societies. Twenty thousand years ago, women were making and wearing the first clothing created from spun fibers. In fact, right up to the Industrial Revolution the fiber arts were an enormous economic force, belonging primarily to women. Despite the great toil required in making cloth and clothing, most books on ancient history and economics have no information on them. Much of this gap results from the extreme perishability of what women produced, but it seems clear that until now descriptions of prehistoric and early historic cultures have omitted virtually half the picture. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has drawn from data gathered by the most sophisticated new archaeological methods—methods she herself helped to fashion.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (6 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
So much of archaeology is focused on stone and metal, which is one of the reasons the discipline can be so alienating to women, as there has been almost a conscious ignorance of the prehistoric and early historic women and their work. Maybe in class you get a few throwaway lines in a lecture about gathering and child rearing and textiles and then it’s back to spear points. This book helps to close that gap using evidence to point to how without the work of women in prehistory, our ancestors would never have gotten the point where we span the globe. The clothes we wear help telegraph so much information and help us keep warm or cool in areas that don’t support us without said protection. A really fascinating book about textiles. (Word of warning, book written in 1995, fairly heteronormative, but not overly so.) Also be prepared, women in the early historical period- not treated so great! Still a really engaging and informative read.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:55 AM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

How timely, I just ordered the book! I got into knitting then spinning then now weaving in the last decade and it's been fascinating reconnecting with that part of history.

Granted, a lot of the information in hobbyist circles have been mostly Western-centric, so starting this year I've made a real effort to get into more formal references that would have more to say about other cultures and places, hence the book order. (You see, I really enjoy spinning but it was evident for some very important reasons this industry skipped my part of the world and we basically went straight to weaving with Indian and Chinese threads, so I've always been wondering why exactly. I've got theories and what I can find so far seems to support them)
posted by cendawanita at 11:33 AM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I read this book earlier this year! It had been on my radar for a while, and then I had some questions about how sheep's wool developed as a thing (it's pretty common to refer to sheep that can be rooed as 'primitive breeds', but being able to peel off a sheep's coat in one go doesn't seem like a thing evolution would go for), so I took the plunge.

Unfortunately, this book did seem outdated in some ways, and one of the ways it seemed outdated was how Euro-centric it was. The descriptions of non-Euro spinning and weaving were cursory at best and just plain patronizing at worst. There wasn't much discussion of Chinese or Indian textiles, and the most memorable thing about any discussion of the Americas was equating modern Hopi pottery to neolithic Anatolian pottery in a way that really didn't sit right with me. But it covers Europe and Mesopotamia really well, and as long as you go in understanding that there's more to the story, it should be fine.
posted by dinty_moore at 1:32 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I looooooove this book so much because I read it when I was just getting into knitting. I had an English course on the Odyssey and picked the textiles as my essay topic and read the text through the socio-economic values of all the textiles mentioned and it was an utter revelation. All the women became more powerful and active agents and the motives and characteristics of the story shifted from what a modern reader might assume because textiles meant something so very different in context.

I have a battered copy on my bookshelf next to several other much-loved historical textile books covering other areas and the few antiques I own are textile-related.

Oh! if you enjoyed this book, I thoroughly recommend getting a subscription (or get the back archives - it's my Christmas present this year I hope) of Piecework magazine which covers historical textiles for non-academic pleasurable reading.

Does anyone know of a good Asian-centric or South American textile history intended for non-academics? I had an Asian textile history which I eventually gave away because it was 60% images and 40% extremely dry dull catalogue & academic-ese. I know there are some good focused pieces on Batik and African Wax Textiles because they have specific cultural interactions as they've got visual imagery in them, but I can't think of a general reader work on textile production?
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:32 PM on September 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

She came and spoke at my college once. This book meant a lot to me, despite its flaws. The technology associated with women--sewing, textiles, and food preparation--is every bit as crucial to the spread of H. sapiens, if not more so, than weaponry.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:36 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think I lent my copy of this to another MeFite. Right now I am reading EWB’s ‘Prehistoric textiles’ book which is trying harder to be global (at least so far). One tidbit that killed me: museum folk scrubbing away irreplaceable textile impressions on pots so that the pots would look more shiny/attractive. Bye data!
posted by janell at 10:18 PM on October 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

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