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Fruits of the Loom

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Norton, 334 pp., $13.00 (paper)

When Pythagoras’ wife Theano was asked how she could ever become as renowned as her husband, she replied, quoting theIliad, “by plying the loom and sharing his bed.” In the Iliad these words are spoken by Chryseis, the young woman captive who became Agamemnon’s favorite concubine. The ancients, in short, seem not to have thought it surprising that the wife of a famous philosopher in the relatively settled world of the sixth century BC demanded of life little more than a woman captured in war might expect.

Aside from sex, sleeping, and cooking, weaving was one of the main occupations of women in antiquity. Penelope spends her waking hours weaving, and it is for her “skill in exquisite workmanship” as well as for her extraordinary intelligence that her suitors want her for their bride. Rich or poor, slave or free, Greek or Egyptian, an ancient woman would spend most of her life spinning and weaving, since cloth for all family needs was made at home from start to finish. In the odyssey, even the goddesses Calypso and Circe work at their looms—although in their immortal lives they, unlike real women, have ample time left over for other activities.

The work was demanding, because in addition to time it required great skill and thorough planning. In the Iliad Homer describes how Helen, while in Troy, weaves a double cloak of purple cloth decorated with scenes of the war being fought on her behalf. When Andromache is told of the death of her husband, Hector, the greatest Trojan fighter, she too is weaving a double cloak of purple cloth, this time a pattern with flowers on it. Centuries later, the Roman poet Ovid tells how the talented weaver Arachne, in her ill-fated contest with the goddess Minerva, wove the stories of the gods abducting mortal women. For her part, Minerva wove stories of how the gods punish mortals who challenge them, like Arachne herself, whom she then turned into a spider. Ovid also relates an old story about Philomela, who wove a cloth that told, in writing, of how she had been raped by her brother-in-law. (She did this because the brother-in-law had cut her tongue out.)

Although the possibility of weaving cloth into such intricate patterns may sound unlikely, in reality, even into the fifth century AD, the leading women and girls of Athens made each year a tapestry showing the battle in which Athena, along with the other gods, defeated the Giants. There is testimony to the weaving skills of many different Athenian women of the fourth century BC in an ancient list of offerings left at the temple of Artemis at Brauron, near Athens: a dotted, sleeved tunic; an embroidered tunic with letters woven into it; a frog-green garment; a woman’s cloak with a broad purple border with a wave design. We know from other sources that these items of clothing were offered in thanks for recovery from women’s diseases and childbearing. Each piece would have taken a year or more to make, and would rank in value with offerings of gold and silver.1

Yet despite the central importance of weaving in women’s lives, and the remarkable artistry in their execution of it, recent histories of women in antiquity say little about it. Modern writers tend to emphasize the kinds of occupations that are more highly valued in our own time: writing poetry, giving lectures, leading armies, ruling cities. But in the ancient world women with few exceptions stayed at home and wove. One could not do the job well and simultaneously do something else that required any degree of serious application. When a male colleague accused the female philosopher Hipparchia of having “abandoned her shuttle beside her loom,” Hipparchia replied that she needed the time for her education instead. She could not have woven and studied. Even if she had had slaves to work the wool for her, she would have needed to supervise them constantly and to spend hours planning the patterns.

No ancient writer bothers to describe in detail the process of clothmaking, presumably because everyone knew how it was done. Ovid, writing in the sophisticated world of first-century Rome, gives a brief and accurate account of making yarn: gathering the wool in a ball, working it with the fingers, drawing strands of it from the distaff (the stick to which one end of the wool is anchored) with a sweeping gesture, then twisting the strands into a thread and drawing the thread around a spindle. It was only then, when the yarn was made, that the weaving could begin, and this required yet another skill, dexterity with the shuttle, or needle. But no one explains how looms were set up, how the weft (the yarn that is actually woven) was pulled through the warp (the yarn that is fixed to the loom), or how women made the intricate patterns that Ovid and other writers describe.

In the Iliad Homer gives a hint of the process when he describes a pair of runners standing beside each other with the simile of a woman working at her loom: they are close together, “as when the rod is close to a woman’s chest, the rod that she stretches with skill as she drags out her spool [her shuttle?] from the warp and holds it near her breast.” We learn from this passage that women wove while standing at vertical looms, that they separated some threads from the others with a rod so as to create a “shed” through which they could pass the weft thread without laboriously working it over and under each thread of the warp. But Homer’s simile provides not a shred of further information about how women made cloth in his day. Were the warp threads attached to the rod by the little loops weavers term “heddles”? Was there another rod to pull the other warp threads back, as on looms in other early European cultures?

Such details must be gleaned from vase paintings that show women with their spindles and working at looms whose warp hangs down from a bar suspended on poles, with each thread attached to a weight. Until recently, if one needed to know how women actually worked these looms, it was necessary to turn to a German book that first appeared in 1875, Hugo Blümner’s Technology and Terminology of Crafts and Arts of the Greeks and Romans.2 But now, fortunately, this most distinctive of female occupations has a sympathetic and authoritative chronicler in Elizabeth Wayland Barber, a professor of linguistics and archaeology at Occidental College and herself a weaver.

Barber is also the author of Prehistoric Textiles, a comprehensive account of cloth in the early cultures of the Mediterranean and Europe,3 which is the source of most of the detailed technical research behind Women’s Work, a more general account of the role of weaving in ancient civilization. Since virtually none of the sources at her disposal offers a complete picture of how weaving was done in any one time or place, Barber finds analogies in different societies and periods. For example, no Greek writer tells us about heddles; yet neighboring cultures had them, and without them it would have been impossible to create sheds large enough for the thick shuttles portrayed in Greek art.

The history—or rather non-history—of the heddle could aptly stand in for the history of women’s work in general. Barber suggests that whoever invented the heddle should be recognized as a genius. She believes that because the invention is complex it must be the work of one person, who probably lived in northern Iraq or Turkey around 6000 BC. In his Book of Looms, Eric Broudy puts him or (more likely?) her on a level with the inventor of fire, since heddles made it possible to work looms much more quickly, and more productively, and to design more complicated patterns.4

Indeed, one of the most interesting ideas in Prehistoric Textiles is that the fabric women wove may have suggested the stilted figures and complex geometric patterns painted on the surfaces of Greek vases in the ninth and eighth centuries BC. Portrayals of chariots, funerals, flowers, and animals on these vases could well be the analogs of the designs on the cloths that Helen and Andromache are portrayed as weaving in the Iliad. Barber discovered that women in Indonesia a century ago wove figure-filled designs on ceremonial cloths, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the ceremonial cloths hanging over or behind the deceased at funerals depicted on Greek Geometric vases. In complex designs of this sort, wefts of different colors are woven back and forth as needed to fill in the details of the tapestry, and packed in close so that the warp does not show through to spoil the pattern. The earliest surviving examples come from Egypt and date from the fifteenth century BC, but the technique was already widely known throughout the Near East and Europe; the two-beam tapestry loom may have been brought to Egypt from Palestine. Making cloth of this complexity would have taken considerable time and skill; it is for this reason that Penelope’s suitors (who were unaware that she was undoing her work at night) did not seem to think it remarkable that she had been weaving for three years to make a shroud for Odysseus’ father, and that she made scant progress in any single day.

In Women’s Work Barber places these and other discoveries against a wider historical, sociological, and economic background. She plausibly argues that women began to weave when communities became more agricultural. She believes that the first cloths may have been decorative rather than practical, since the animal skins men and women had been wearing for millennia were perfectly adequate for keeping them warm. One of the earliest examples of such decorative clothing was the string skirt, a garment designed not so much to conceal what it covered as to reveal it: indeed, its purpose may have been to advertise the fact that its wearer was of an age for mating or marriage. These skirts date from paleolithic times, but tasseled aprons are still worn by marriageable young women in Serbia, Romania, and Yugoslav Macedonia. The hundred-tasseled girdle that Hera wears when seducing Zeus in the Iliad, Barber suggests, may also be a distant relative of the neolithic ceremonial string skirt.

Weaving provided women with an opportunity to work together in such tiresome routines as stringing out and fastening the warp for larger cloths. Almost every phase of textile making could be speeded up or at least made more agreeable by companionship, whether stripping the unwanted stem parts from dried flax plants, twisting loose their strong fibers, or combing the fibers free. Preparing fibers, as well as spinning and weaving them into cloth, could easily be combined with child care, since each stage could be abandoned and taken up again as needed, or even carried out in combination with other courtyard arts: pottery making, egg painting, and, of course, cooking.

In a fascinating chapter Barber describes how the arts and crafts flourished on the island of Crete in the Bronze Age. Cretan weavers discovered how to work with wool, and how to use the different natural colors of fleece to make elaborate patterns in their cloth. They also experimented with dyes, as the bright hues in surviving wall paintings suggest. A fresco from the island of Thera shows women gathering saffron, which provided the yellow dye used in women’s clothes. They also worked with dyes made from woad and madder, and possibly with the gorgeous red obtained from female kermes beetles. Red and blue dyes proved to be the most durable of all—it is no accident that many national flags, particularly from older countries, are made with those colors. Cretan women’s clothing was unusually elaborate, with flared skirts and open bodices. Their outfits are curiously reminiscent of the flamboyant costumes worn by women some two thousand years later in the court of George III.

Barber speculates that the women of Crete were able to create this new finery for themselves because of the relative freedom they enjoyed in the safety afforded by their geographic isolation. But her notion of a special “island fever” of creativity unfortunately cannot explain why physical isolation has little or no part in other notable cultural developments. What about the Etruscans, who flourished in the hostile environment of Italy? What about ancient Egypt? It was not, as Barber supposes, a virtual island, surrounded by the Sahara and accessible only from the sea. The Egyptians had important connections with Nubia and other civilizations to the south. Nothing in the archaeological record suggests that island women had significantly more control over their lives than their mainland sisters.

Barber bases her assumption that they did so largely on Homer’s account in his Odyssey of life on the imaginary island of Phaeacia. Since there the queen, Arete, and her daughter, Nausicaa, make decisions and help determine policy, Barber argues that, owing to the custom of matriliny, the women in Phaeacian society were able to own and direct their households, and to trace genealogy through the female line. But that is to go beyond even such historical evidence as Homer’s fictional portrait might be supposed to provide. Elsewhere in the Odyssey Penelope makes decisions and takes action, even in her husband’s presence. Women in antiquity may have had no formal political power, but they were also never without influence, especially in the home, and even in the relatively sheltered atmosphere of fifth-century Athens.

After her discussion of the ornamentation of women’s clothes on Crete, Barber returns to a history of weaving. In Egypt, where linen was worn rather than wool, signals of rank were sent not by clothing color but by jewelry, since linen is notoriously difficult to dye. Egyptian weaving was different from European weaving in other respects as well. The benign climate allowed weaving to take place outdoors, while European women had to keep their looms inside the house, away from rain and snow. Hence, instead of vertical looms, the Egyptians used horizontal looms, which could be leaned against a wall when not in use.

But whatever the type of loom used to make cloth, the resulting clothes seem to have been relatively uniform throughout antiquity. Because they took so long to make, clothes were meant to last, and loose-fitting garments like cloaks and tunics could be adjusted easily throughout their wearer’s lifetime. Tunics are made by attaching two smaller tubes (sleeves) to a larger tube; the world’s oldest surviving body garment is a shirt from Egypt dating to 3000 BC, with fine pleats at the shoulders that allowed its wearer to move his arms more easily.

By the second and first millennia BC, women had become an important part in the economy everywhere from Babylonia to Anatolia, because cloth was traded as a commodity, and they made and controlled its production. In Egypt linen was used as currency. Much of the economy of the palaces of the Bronze Age (including, one would think, the one at Knossos) was devoted to the manufacture of clothes, but here, as Barber points out, the workers were specialized: male shepherds harvested the fleece, which was then distributed to female workers within the palace, each of whom made a special type of cloth, while young girls were trained as apprentices. The slave women made the basic sheets and cloaks and blankets, but the noble women—if Homer is an accurate guide—made the cloths that recorded the achievements of the men in their family, and perhaps also of the women themselves.

Near the end of her fascinating and informative account Barber describes the central place of weaving in many fairy stories and myths of Europe and the Mediterranean, most famously in Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin. She might also have looked at some of the many funerary inscriptions that mention women’s working in wool throughout all periods of Greek and Roman history. Woolworking was so much the mark of a good woman that one concubine’s lovers could ruefully say that her yarn never left her hands without reason, and that her hands were hard from working in wool. The funerary texts provide additional support for the importance of women’s work in the ancient world, and the respect owed to the intelligence and diligence demanded of the women who until quite recently made most of the world’s clothing.

Letters

It Was Agamemnon August 14, 1997

  1. 1

    See M.R. Lefkowitz and M.B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 402-403, p. 284.

  2. 2

    Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern, second edition (Leipzig: Teubner Verlag, 1912; reissue Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1969).

  3. 3

    Princeton University Press, 1991.

  4. 4

    Eric Broudy, The Book of Looms (University Press of New England, 1979), p. 26.

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