Thursday, May 8, 2014

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Elizabeth W. Barber

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years
Elizabeth W. Barber
W. W. Norton and Company
Copyright: 2005

The product description:
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.
Highly recommended, and an interesting read as it turned out. There are points where it feels a bit more "popular" rather than scholarly in tone, but Elizabeth Barber clearly knows what she's talking about in this book. And, a lot of that is from her own experiences as a weaver.

I like the approach that she's taken with this book, combining linguistics, literature and archaeology to trace the history of spinning and weaving through pre-history and into the Minoan and Mycenaean times. From that, I learned quite a bit about fiber choices and preparation methods through those time-periods: nettles, flax and hemp preparation for spinning, for example, and innumerable hints about the techniques and skills various groups of people were using.

She even traces the theorized migrations of the different tribes and groups through the use of the different types of loom-weights and linguistic changes.

One of the big things that I learned on reading Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years aside from just about everything I now know about the processing of vegetable fibres, was about the two different types of loom that were used. I was slightly familiar (through reading) with the vertical loom of the style shown in the Greek black-figure vases, but knew nothing about the ground-looms that were used in Egypt through much of the same time-period.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles with the book - such as the way in the first chapter, she jumps from the spindle to the treadle-powered spinning wheel, completely skipping the great wheel. On the whole though, those are small things, and this book is one I'd recommend to anyone interested in women's history or the history of spinning and weaving - not always the same thing though.

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years is well illustrated, both with photos, maps and line drawings. However, all of them are in black and white. I wish there had been some color imagery, but perhaps color would have detracted from the clarity of the images in some cases.

Now, if only I could find a book like this for the Classical era through the Middle Ages, or even the modern period.

Definitely a book that I'm going to be keeping on my shelves though.

Reading this book does (at least in my mind) count towards the History Reading Challenge.

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