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

by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Paperback, 1996




W. W. Norton (1996), Edition: 1st, 336 pages


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. In a "brilliantly original book" (Katha Pollitt, Washington Post Book World), she argues that women were a powerful economic force in the ancient world, with their own industry: fabric.… (more)


(126 ratings; 4.4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member keylawk
The "untold" story of women, done with rigorous absence of speculation and direct application of scientific methods. Barber not only shows that "women spent most of their time raising young children and preparing the daily food and household cloth..." [294], but she shows Why and How, and Why this
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is important.

The author gets particular accolades for explaining her method, and then executing the work within scientific perameters so as to reveal actual facts of what people in previous times were doing. Not content with ignoring "work" for which there is little monumental evidence, she has found "data" in our physiology, the plants, myths, and language. With restraint on mere guesswork and speculation which is remarkable, Barber pieces together the role of women's work in the ancient communities. She is able to "explain"--objectively--why women did things that left almost no hard evidence: preparing food and weaving textiles. (For the 3 years of breast-feeding child care, it had to be work that could be interrupted and "safe"--unlike mining, carcass-rendering, stone-chipping and piling, or warfare, all of which tend to leave more obvious remains).

Barber takes us on a 20,000 year odyssey [283] to show us women working. In the Paleolithic period, the fiber crafts were connected to high social status and posed no danger to toddlers. Clothing, which became the "the next language after speech--unique in its ability to convey important information [if simple) continuously and relatively permanently".

With the advent of more settled life, the world changed. Cloth-making shifted from merely useful to essential, and finally commercial, importance as a commodity. By the start of the Late Bronze Age (2500 BC), women's textile work lost economic ground, while still busy with children.

As a scholar, Barber's work on "work" is particularly important not only for its rigor but its methodology in reconstructing what other scholars had dismissed as unreconstructable--the history of easily perishable commodities like textiles. Before Barber, apparently no one had bothered to reconstruct, and wear, a String Dress, or even a 2500 year old tartan. The woolen guide-string recovered from the caves of Lascaux is now considered part of the importance of the paintings.

The presentation is not wooden or theoretical-- it is delightful to re-read Homer and the Xenophon with Barber to re-visit the mystery of change and activity. Until recently, excavators would often throw away the remaining and scarce fiber, or assume the loom weights held little information.

Archeology did not become an investigative science until in 1898 a horrified WMF Petrie rushed in to glean from the remains of the smashing and burning ordered by Emile Amelineau at his excavation of Abydos. Known as the l'affaire Amelineau, the tomb raiders were deliberately trying to make their relics more valuable because "unique". And the world started to realize the value of SOCIAL information recovered from the Past. [288]

Ancient Texts are not only studied for the stories, the lessons, but also for the revealing etymologies. Barber is an accomplished linguist. The importance of "tunic", "shirt"[290], and "zone [zoster]" [66] not only to show the source of techniques and goods, but illustrates that Language is remarkably durable evidence even as messages perish as they are uttered [13, cf 66, 291, cautionary fn at 292].

Barber concludes with a careful examination of her methodology -- this is her great contribution. The techniques -- beginning with the technique for removal of "unwarranted assumptions"! [298] -- for finding the facts.

The INCLUSION of the facts about 1/2 the population in "history" turns out to be helpful answering virtually all the critical historical questions -- migration, source-points, influences, etc. For example, understanding the role of women--finding the artifacts of their presence, understanding their work--reveals whether migrants were "invaders" (men engaged in plunder or trade), or "colonizers" or settlers with entire families. For example, Egyptian records show "attackers" known as "PLST" settling around Gaza in 1200 BC. But the excavation of numerous crumbly clay donut weights tells us women had moved in. The sudden appearance of clay weights with little intrinsic "trade" value, far outside the early homeland of the warp-weighted loom, suggests the arrival of entire families from Europe via Anatolia. Thus, the earliest permanent settled inhabitants of the still-disputed Gaza of "Palestine" are likely to be Mycenaean Greeks.[294] {Not to say that wandering tribes, or even piratical coast-raiders, have no "territorial" legitimacy!}
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LibraryThing member ScotDeerie
Not only does this book tell us how spinning and weaving became "women's work", it tells us how long ago and how hard women have been working to clothe their families for thousands of years. It is a fascinating history of women even if you aren't a spinner or weaver and it will make you appreciate
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textiles that you've always taken for granted. Just think, Columbus sailed three grand ships to find America but there were hundreds, if not thousands, of women's hands making the threads and weaving the cloth that channeled the wind into the sails that powered those ships. I read this book long before I thought about being a weaver/spinner but today when I sit down to do either of those things I feel the connection of thousands of years of other women doing the exact same things I'm doing today. It's an awesome connection that will make you feel both proud AND humble.
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LibraryThing member Coruca
This well-written history explores the importance of textiles on early civilizations. The author persuasively argues that much of early commerce was dependent on cloth as this was a lightweight product with a good shelf life and plenty of customers. Using recent archeological evidence, Barber looks
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at textiles that had been found, as well as designs left on pottery, sculpture and other artifacts. The author also presents evidence that the majority of cloth was made at the hands of women, both for home use and for sale.

A fascinating and easy-to-read work, I highly recommend it to any interested in an area of history that has received less attention.
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LibraryThing member bunwat
Extremely readable and still scholarly overview of women's textile work from the Stone Age through to the very early Iron Age in Eurasia. Fascinating information about all sorts of wonderful things. The nature of women's work, what textiles tell us about women's social roles in different ages and
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societies, the development and spread of various techniques and materials and what that spread can tell us about the movement and status of different peoples in the ancient world. The uses of cloth and clothing to send social signals, in religious observances, in diplomacy and trade.

The most wonderful thing about this book is that all of this information is firmly rooted in the evidence of real textiles, loom weights, texts, sculptures, account records, wall paintings, recreations of historical textiles and techniques and so on. So much of the traditional work of women doesn't precisely leave a record graven in stone. As a consequence the subject of women's work gives rise to huge temptations to speculate in advance of the evidence or even in the absence of evidence altogether.

Given some of the patronising tosh that has been said about women's work in the past I do understand how tempting it can be to make a large cake from a small bit of flour. One longs to create a different fantasy if only to combat the old ones. But understanding how tempting it can be makes me appreciate Barber even more, how she teases real information and knowledge out of such small details as the orientation of fallen loom weights, and how if she can't find evidence she doesn't make stuff up.

Its worth reading the book for her discussion of methodology alone; how to seek and organize evidence for the more ephemeral occupations like clothmaking, cooking, music, dance. I am deeply impressed by the mountain of hard thoughtful work on which this book is perched. At the same time, as I said its still very readable - another considerable achievement - when someone is so close to so many tiny details its impressive to be able to pull back and tell a coherent and interesting story about them.

My enjoyment of this book is partly due to my deep interest in the subject matter, but I highly recommend it to anyone.
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LibraryThing member byroade
Someday I will read more than the opening chapter or two. However, the summary of the requirements for "women's work" in prehistory is worth the price of the book alone.
LibraryThing member catsinstacks
Fasinating and informational. Reading this book gave me a connection to all women before me. I can't wait to try weighted loom weaving.
LibraryThing member maryh10000
If you read no other book on my list, read this one.
LibraryThing member SwitchKnitter
This was a really good book. I tore through it in less than a day. It was a great look at the history of fabric creation (weaving and spinning) through prehistory to Classical Greece. It talked about textile technologies, fashions, and the role of women in both. Recommended.
LibraryThing member RuTemple
Oh, even better than I'd hoped! This is a splendid, readable!, work of scholarship in textile and socioarcheological history. Delicious.
LibraryThing member Kamaka
I read this book when it was first published. I remember that I so enjoyed how the author made this esoteric subject engaging, accessible, and captivating for a lay reader. 15 years later I am now knee deep into a Master's Degree wading though a class on Mesopotamian Religion. The specter of the
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final term paper has been haunting me. I simply could not think of a way to reduce three thousand plus years of ancient religious thought into a term paper. Then I remembered this book. What triggered the memory I can't say, but in an instant I had the flash of inspiration for my paper's thesis and the sense of reconnecting with an old and wise friend in this book.
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LibraryThing member SBetzenberger
This book pieces together the development of textile history from ancient times.
LibraryThing member honnoria
It's an easy read with lots of information. It gives you the places to look deeper but leaves you with enought that if you want/need to stop you feel ok.
LibraryThing member kgreply
Extremely readable and still scholarly overview of women's textile work from the Stone Age through to the very early Iron Age in Eurasia. Fascinating information about all sorts of wonderful things. The nature of women's work, what textiles tell us about women's social roles in different ages and
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societies, the development and spread of various techniques and materials and what that spread can tell us about the movement and status of different peoples in the ancient world.
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LibraryThing member ddailey
Really enjoyed it.
LibraryThing member thornton37814
Barber's book focuses on the history of spinning and weaving in ancient civilizations. Most of what we know came through archaeological discoveries. While some consider this book scholarly, its lack of citation footnotes or end notes limits its usefulness in academia. Most footnotes used are
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explanatory in nature. The author provides notes on her sources by chapter, but facts lack individual citation. Some of the source comments do describe how she used the work in her narrative. Extensive illustrations are used, but in the paperback edition, all appear in black and white. It is unknown if the hardcover edition makes use of needed color illustrations of some of the discovered textiles. I expected the book to be a little broader in scope than it was, but it seemed to focus mainly on spinning and weaving. Those who adhere to "young earth" theories will question the dating of materials as they do with most works focusing on this era.
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LibraryThing member Tikimoof
What an interesting read!

Barber introduces her book with a very relevant story that also proves why she is the perfect choice to tell it. She weaves as a hobby, a profession that women have undertaken for many, many thousands of years. It’s a relatively simple craft, but there tricks of the trade
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that can only be deduced by somebody who has actually woven. But as Barber shows, women have been weaving for thousands of years, and academia has traditionally been male (for reference, the publish date of this book is 1994). Her postscript also calls out a tradition in academia to not attempt the craft to understand the difficulties ancient peoples would have experienced, and therefore likely draw incorrect conclusions.

There’s a few other things that have relegated the history of women to the wayside. Cloth rots, so unless it’s sunk in a bog or buried in an extremely arid tomb, it likely won’t survive to modern days. Sites that were dug up in the 1800s weren’t always kept separate by strata, so the timelines of technology can get very messy. Women are doing a lot of the monotonous duties at home, which are less worthy of great stories because they’re so unremarkable (e.g. a modern book would not explain every detail of how to drive a car, with how to put the car in reverse, how to use a turn signal, how to moderately apply the gas pedal, etc. It would just say that somebody drove somewhere).

Barber’s fascination with weaving is both a strength and a weakness for arguing her thesis. Her interest is obviously more towards the mechanics of weaving, such as the making of yarn, technological advancements to ease the craft and how they spread across the world. She’s much less focused on the intricacies of the life of the women. This isn’t immediately apparent - Barber definitely tries to share what cultural tidbits she’s been able to glean (one imagines that those remote European villages are losing more and more of their traditions as internet/globalization becomes more ubiquitous) - but her interest is pretty obviously more towards the actual making of fiber and fabric, than with what women were doing. There are a few offhand comments that they're also making food, but not in any kind of detail.

So while I appreciated the stories we got, I think I would have liked some more on all of the professions available to women. Obviously cloth-making was tremendously important (consider the fact that even noblewomen wove or embroidered. There was no escaping the necessity of clothing, even if a noblewoman’s products would likely be used as noble gifts or something like a storytelling tapestry that a serf woman wouldn’t have the luxury of time to detail), but if women are also in charge of daily food preparation, I would have liked to hear more about that. Barber postulates that women end up in the home because they need duties that are easy to put down to go deal with childcare. I can accept that hypothesis, but there absolutely has to be more to that life than just spinning or weaving.

In summary: good talk on the mechanics of weaving, I would have preferred more on actual treatment of women.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
In contemporary western society, fiber arts are practiced mostly by women. And, it turns out, that’s the way it’s been for thousands of years. But crafts like spinning and weaving were more than just hobbies. Textiles were integral to the economy as far back as paleolithic times. In this book,
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Elizabeth Wayland Barber describes why women came to be responsible for making cloth. Then she describes the various types of cloth, production methods, and end uses from the invention of string and sewing over 20,000 years ago, up to Classical Greece around 500 BCE.

Because textiles naturally degrade over time, researchers cannot rely solely on archaeological evidence. Barber found several other avenues of inquiry which she used to develop a picture of these early societies. For example, she obtained a great deal of insight from studying early language. If language included a word for cloth or a garment, then that item must have existed even if no physical remains have been found. The geographic scope is limited to what is now Europe and the Middle East, not because these were the only societies producing cloth, but for practical reasons: a broader scope would have made for a larger and possibly less accessible book.

I appreciated the way this book not only outlined the evolution of fiber arts, but validated the role of women and their contributions to society.
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LibraryThing member crankybookwyrm
The author has done a fabulous job of making her subject interesting (I had to keep reminding myself that I really don't need a new hobby). The title was a little misleading: it's more about the creation of cloth, and the basics of clothing people with women, their other work, and how they interact
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with society secondary. I'm more interested in the latter than the former; the author did a good job of making me forget that when I was reading.

This was less about sewing, embroidery, etc, and more about spinning and weaving, with regular side trips in the materials used and how to prepare them to create thread and rope.

A book to keep in mind when discussing, or looking into, how women fit into society. I highly recommend it.
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Physical description

336 p.; 5.5 inches


0393313484 / 9780393313482
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