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…

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