Elizabeth Wayland Barber begins her book Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years with a description of her setting up a loom for weaving together with her sister. 

“For nearly eight hours we had been working on the warp, between and around the interruptions. In the morning we had wound off the requisite number of green and chocolate brown threads of fine worsted wool, stripe by color stripe, onto the great frame of warping pegs—pegs that hold the threads in order while measuring them all to the same length. By lunchtime we were ready to transfer the warp to the loom, tying one end of the long, thick bundle of yarn to the beam on one side. Then began the tedious task of threading the ends through the control loops (heddles) in the middle on their way to the far beam. It would have been simpler if we had intended to use the plainest sort of weave. But because we were setting up to weave a pattern—the fine diagonal pattern called twill that is used typically today in men’s suit material—it was taking far longer”(18).

Barber explains that what she and her and sister are doing, helping each other set up the loom and weaving together, is something women have done together for millennia. On this day they are weaving a pattern that Barber saw in a museum in Vienna from the prehistoric shafts in the Hallstatt salt region and wanted to recreate. Barber also informs us that the cloth in the museum containing the pattern we now call twill, a pattern we typically associate with the Celts, was woven by their ancestors in what is now Austria, Hungary and Germany between 12,000 – 600 BCE. “Twill, like tweed, comes from the word two and refers to a distinctive method of pattern weaving in which the threads are paired”(21).

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, born in 1940, is a weaver, archaeologist, linguist and folk dancer! She taught linguistics and archaeology at Occidental College in Los Angeles for 37 years. She is the author of seven other books, including The Dancing Goddesses, and Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special reference to the Aegean. She curates exhibits at museums and choreographs dances. Her years of research into the history and pre-history of cloth and weaving has revealed vital information about the movement of people across Eurasia and Europe, the origin of cloth and weaving and women’s participation in the inventions of weaving, cloth and textile arts in general.

“Wherever we catch glimpses of the clothmakers themselves, they are invariably women”(101).

Women have been weaving together since the invention of string. Barber describes in detail early looms and weaving patterns. She examines images on ancient relics that portray spinning, weaving and patterns—as well as the women who are engaged in creating them—to deepen her study of the textile arts through time.

The book Women’s Work is a fascinating tour through many disciplines: archaeology, language (words that describe weaving and its tools) and art to reveal that a huge part of women’s ingenuity, culture creating and technological invention, up until the industrial revolution, centers around textile and food. From her research it is clear that for the first 20,000 years of weaving and cloth making, it was women’s work.

The Invention of String!! Or The String Revolution

Illustration from Women’s Work by Elizabeth Barber. p. 51

We have all heard about the stone age and the invention of stone tools, metallurgy and the invention of metal tools. Our world ages are named after them: Paleolithic (Stone Age), Iron Age, Copper Age, Bronze Age, but how about a huge invention that goes unspoken about and unnoticed? How about the invention of string which led to the inventions of weaving, cloth, clothes, ritual cloth, blankets, sheets, tapestries, tablecloths, embroidery, knitting and more. 

40,000 years ago in what is called the Upper Paleolithic or Old Stone Age “as the great ice sheets that had covered the northern continents retreated by fits and starts, humans started to invent and make new things at a tremendous rate…novel tools—such as awls, pins, and various chisel like burins—but they also began to sculpt animals, people, and other information (possibly calendrical) on pieces of ivory and bone to make quantities of beads for adornment. People of the upper Paleolithic painted pictures of animals and drew around their own hands on cave walls; this is the period of the famous Stone Age paintings from Lascaux, Altamira, and other caves in France and Spain. Just as important, and more to our purpose here, these ancestors invented string and sewing and thus provided the first chapter in the story of women’s long association with the fiber crafts”(43).

Illustration from Women’s Work by Elizabeth Barber p.44

Much early string was fashioned from plant fiber with early humans figuring out that twisting the cord made it stronger.  Nettle, hemp, flax, ramie, jute, sisal, esparto, maguey, yucca, elm, linden, willow are but some of the plants that lend themselves to making good quality string. For an archeologist, string and things made of string are difficult to find and catalogue because of their organic nature:  they break down with time. Though humans had been using and making string for a long time, the first evidence of it was found in a cave in Lascaux France from 15,000 BCE. String and cloth have also been found in sites in Neolithic Europe and the Near East between 700-5500 BCE and early artifacts of cord netting and basketry in the New World date to 8500-6500 BCE.

This “opened the door to an enormous array of new ways to save labor and improve the odds of survival, much as the harnessing of steam did for the Industrial Revolution. Soft, flexible thread of this sort is a necessary prerequisite to making woven cloth. On a far more basic level, string can be used simply to tie things up—to catch, to hold,  to carry. From these notions come snares and fishlines, tethers and leashes, carrying nets, handles, and packages, not to mention a way of binding objects tighter to form more complex tools. …So powerful, in fact is simple string in taming the world to human will and ingenuity that I suspect it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Paleolithic. We could call it the String Revolution”(45).

Illustration from Women’s Work by Elizabeth Barber p.38

Barber has another fabulous chapter on the spindle: the technology that was developed to spin thread long before the spinning wheel. Barber reports that this was so widespread a task for women that it is displayed and illustrated on art from many places through hundreds of years. The image of a woman with her spindle graces much ancient art and many artifacts. She tells us that women would spin thread as they walked or rode in carts, throughout their entire days, spinning spinning spinning. Weaving requires thread or strong string or yarn and someone had to create all that string and it was women who did it. 

After String Came Weaving

“String seems such a simple, almost inevitable invention, yet its appearance was a momentous step down the road of technology. Invented early, it was known worldwide. Weaving, on the contrary, is much more complicated and may have been thought up only once, much too late to spread with humankind. Many cultures were still ignorant of it as this century began”(70).

One thing that is interesting about the way Elizabeth Barber works is that she recreates weaving and patterns of cloth uncovered in archaeological digs or shown on wall paintings or etchings herself as mentioned in the beginning of this post. She finds that actually going through the process of recreating the weaving helps her understand how the cloth was woven, what was known and yet to be known about weaving and how the women were working. A weaver herself, Barber is also the daughter of a weaver.

As she continues to weave the twill cloth mentioned earlier, she realizes she has made an error and done the replica backward. But she is not upset or disheartened. 

“Far from being unhappy at my mistake, I was delighted. Most fragments of prehistoric cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines—and there are more than a hundred extant—are torn on all four edges, so it is not possible to tell which direction they were woven the way one usually does, simply by looking for the type of closed edges found only at the sides. But by trying to imitate the product, I discovered not only which way this shred was woven and some criteria for analyzing other pieces but also several interesting details about how Hallstatt weavers worked. The cloth ends up looking much the same either way, and the time had been doubly well spent. It was another lesson to me that the process of recreating ancient artifacts step by step can shed light on the lives and habits of the original craftworkers that no amount of armchair theorizing can give”(23).

Looms and Weaving

Illustration from Women’s Work by Elizabeth Barber p. 88

The earliest clear proof of woven cloth comes from Jarmo, Iraq, circa 7000 BCE. Weaving and cloth making became women’s work in general in early human societies simply because women were the ones who gave birth and took care of young children which in ancient times meant breast feeding for at least 2-3 years for each child. Once humans settled down in the Neolithic revolution, women’s work became focused on skills and roles in which they could multi-task, meaning carry out at the same time while watching children. Women took care of the cooking and the fire tending and the spinning and weaving and sewing. But even saying this is reductionist. Yes, women cooked and wove and stitched cloth but they also grew, harvested, prepared and stored the food and the plants to make the meals and cloth.

“In Europe conditions in the Neolithic and Early Bronze ages fostered a “courtyard outrider” economy. There were no draft animals, so the women with their children underfoot could take responsibility for the entire basic food supply: cereals, legumes, and such other fruits and nuts as might be available, plus eggs and an occasional lamb or mutton stew. That freed the men to go outside the community (outriders) for other resources entirely, if needed, returning at intervals with their contributions. Since war did not yet constitute significantly more of a problem than it had in the Paleolithic, the men did not have to stay home all the time simply for defense. (The rarity of warfare had to do with both the sparseness of the population and the lack of great difference between haves and have-nots.) . . . For textile work alone, in addition to spinning the thread and using it to sew, make nets, and mend, these activities included the many steps of preparing the dried flax or hemp for spinning. First the women place the dried plants in a stream or in the dew long enough to rot the unwanted parts of the stem away from the tough fibers—a process called retting.  Then they beat and twist loose the woody parts of the stem (called breaking or braking) and comb the fibers until they are free and clean (called hackling; a dog’s hackles, when raised, look like the coarse teeth of a hackling comb). Archaeologists have found tools for breaking and hackling flax in the muddy lake beds that surrounded some of the Neolithic villages in Switzerland along with hanks of flax in all stages of preparation”(85).

This was extremely difficult work, both time consuming and physically taxing. Barber speaks of how the tradition of women singing while they work arose to help take their minds off their sore muscles and the mind-numbing repetition

Illustration from Women’s Work by Elizabeth Barber p.92

Wool begins to come on the scene around 4000 BCE. Barber goes into detail of the continued refinement of weaving with new and different materials, how each culture focused on certain kinds of cloth—mostly plain white linen in Egypt and wool on Crete— because of the ecosystem and what was available and what made sense for the climate. She discusses the arrival of color through dyes and complex patterns and geometric forms and symbols which were a form of language that also often included protective spells and messages to deities. Then there is the invention of garments.

Women went on to sell their cloth as a way of supporting themselves when cultures became more about the marketplaces. With their industry, they became merchants and business people. 

The weaving became a form of story telling as well giving women voice in many cultures where their voices were not otherwise allowed. 

“Helen of Troy is described as weaving into her purple cloth ‘the many struggles of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-tunicked Achaians’”(153).

“We also know from Athenian records that young women periodically wove a new woolen garment to dress the ancient cult statue of Athena on the Acropolis and that this robe had scenes on it. Two priestesses called the “workers” (ergastinai), helped by two young girls chosen for the privilege from among the noble families of Athens, wove the saffron-colored robe over a period of nine months. This weaving took so long, even though the statue was only life-size, because it had woven into it in purple the important story of the battle between the gods and the giants”(154).

There were also the stories that were woven and erased. Even in the history of weaving we see the censoring and disappearing of women’s realities and truth. We see women telling their truths and being silenced. The story of Arachne, passed down in myth is one.

Carolyn Heilbrun writes,

“Women’s weaving was women’s answer to their enforced silence about their own condition, their own mutilation.
Here is the story of Arachne, who not only wove better than Athena, but in a weaving contest dared to illustrate crimes the gods had committed against women. . .
Where upon, as we all know, Athena, or Minerva, turned Arachne into a spider, who might weave forever, but who could not testify against male violence”(121).

Looks like  #MeToo actually started with Arachne who was subsequently shut down, yet her story remains. 

Read our story on Carolyn Heilbrun and Penelope, another famous weaving woman:
Carolyn Heilbrun: Writing and Reinventing Women’s Lives, American Woman Writer, 1926-2003.

Once nasty women wove, some still do, and they told their stories and truths on the loom. Now nasty women can write as well.  Some of us are also allowed to have and share our voices. For those who can, we must speak for the all. No more erasure. Let’s keep weaving Arachne’s web for all to see.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a Nasty Women Writer, Weaver and woman of STEM.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2021

Works Cited:

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Hamlets Mother and Other Women, New York: Ballantine Books, N.Y. 1990.

Wayland Barber, Elizabeth. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. W. W. Norton & Co, N.Y. 1994