Sunday, October 9, 2022

Weekend Review: Women's Work

Women's Work / Elizabeth Wayland Barber
NY: Norton, c1994.
334 p.

As I read the book that I talked about last week, I kept thinking about this book, which I read many years ago. I realized I'd never shared it here! So I have reread it, well, skimmed through it again and reread the parts I was most interested in ;) 

It's similar in some ways to the new book I just read, even if the focus is a bit different. Women's Work is really focused on textiles in the historical record, and how work with and on textiles was generally assigned to women. Barber shows that the role of textiles in women's lives was varied, but that one way or another, most women had something to do with the production of textiles in the ancient world and forward. 

She covers Neolithic uses of fibre -- from early thread making to later weaving and tapestry in Classical Greece and beyond. The focus is on mostly European or well-studied cultures like Egypt, middle Europe, and Greece. The range is limited to that historical context and doesn't move into later developments; it really is about the early years of textile work. 

It's the kind of fascinating book I enjoy, taking elements of social history, archeology, mythology, ethnography, and practical experience, and tracing developments using all these tools. It's a trail which follows the curiosity of the author, who herself learned to weave at a young age, which helped her to identify objects and the meaning of varied finds in the historical record. As an academic, she saw the connections which earlier (mostly male) researchers had missed: as she says, "it's hard to see what's not there" unless you know it should be there in the first place. This practical knowledge of weaving and cloth production helped her to interpret Egyptian friezes, understand early migration of technology and people, and identify simple things like why there would be a line of stones in a straight line at a dig (loom weights). 

There is one story she shares at the beginning of the book of trying to replicate a cloth from a shred found in an excavation of an early Celtic settlement -- it was a small piece and as she warped and wove her sample she realized that it was difficult because she'd mixed the process up -- her warp really should have been the weft and if she'd done it that way it would have made sense right away, both numerically and in ease of creation. It was neat to see that hands-on experimentation suddenly brought new understanding of the culture that had made that original scrap.

There are lots of great tidbits in this book, and although it is an older book now, still lots that is entertaining and informative. It makes me want to read a lot more on the subject now that there is so much more being published. Postrel's The Fabric of Civilization, which I just read, takes this story further in time, and focuses on some of the mathematical elements of weaving; The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker, another older read, looks at the role of stitching or embellishing the cloth rather than weaving it but has a similar female focus. And there are many more to look at. However, as one of the original studies of cloth and women's lives, this is still a solid read with a scholarly thoroughness. I'd love to read something like this that focuses on Africa, Asia or South America, all areas that aren't covered here. If anybody knows of a specific title, please share! 

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