Women create thread; they somehow pull it out of nowhere, just as they produce babies out of nowhere. The same image is latent in our own term lifespan. Span is from the verb spin.
—Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, (238).
About a year ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Elizabeth Wayland Barber on the history of fabrics. I wrote down the title of one of the books she wrote (mostly because I loved the title—and the title’s sense of humor was very much in line with her personality which made for a wonderfully lively, fascinating, and fun lecture style). More than a year later, I finally got around to reading it.
If the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen (29).
Barber begins by working out what we are talking about when we use the term “women’s work.” She points to Judith Brown’s criteria in which women’s work must be suitable for the people that are bearing and tending to children (and there are no societies in which men take on the latter—the former being, obviously, unlikely). Therefore: “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home” (30). Spinning, weaving and sewing all fit nicely into this criteria.
Cloth survives poorly in most of Europe, subject to the destructive effects of alternating wet and dry weather; yet our surviving textiles from Neolithic are astonishingly ornate. Clearly these Neolithic women were investing large amounts of extra time into their textile work, far beyond pure utility, far beyond our concept of “subsistence level” (90).
This suggests that a reconsideration of our assumptions of what ‘level’ humans historically lived at needs to be reexamined, as well as the obvious (to me) fact that—human beings like making the useful beautiful. As I always say—art is the constant.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Barber herself weaves. This enables her to reconstruct ancient textiles so that the arm-chair archeologist’s assumptions about the level of sophistication of a given society are not only challenged, but disproven. Only a weaver would know what the warp and weft denote. Only a weaver would know that a given pattern makes no sense unless more than one color is being used—thereby pushing certain knowledge in the dying of fabrics to significantly earlier dates than had been thought.
By looking at murals, previously discarded archeological evidence of spindles, looms, weights and the odd scrap of fabric, as well as art, a tremendous fount of the previously silent or discarded history of women can be known.
Simply following the language trail reveals so much of how and when sewing and weaving skills emerged.
But it is Barber’s knowledge that exists in her hands, rather than her head that so greatly impressed me. Understanding what one is looking at—true understanding of the art involved is an enormous advantage. For instance, in regard to the historical ubiquity of “string skirts” which are used (Barber cogently conjectures) to signify a woman’s readiness for childbearing—and thereby again shows how the visual is used as a form of language, perhaps even a precursor to language—Barber notes that on a Paleolithic Venus figure the sculptor has rendered the string skirt as fraying out at the bottom into a “mass of untwisted fibers” which shows that in c. 20,000 BC certain knowledge of twisted fibers, and therefore knowledge of sewing, existed.
Barber weaves a wonderful history of textiles. A history that greatly contributes to one’s understanding of ancient societies, language, myth, culture, and art.
We women do not need to conjure a history for ourselves. Facts about women, their work, and their place in society in early times have survived in considerable quantity, if we know how to look for them” (300).
Knowing how to look at what is, as well as, significantly, what isn’t, is true scholarship.
*title from p 232