I am trying to condense the whirling cloud of thoughts, ideas and emotions inspired by Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Yearsdown to something that can be conveyed through the medium of words on a screen.
Best I can come up with is as follows: Read this book. (You can picture a bit of bouncing and flailing with that, if it helps.)
Honestly. If you’re interested in textile crafts at all, if you have the slightest curiosity about how and why humans developed these technologies (specifically, spinning, weaving, sewing), and how that development relates to the ways in which our societies have been structured over the millennia, this book will set your mind on fire.
I’ve written already about how the title of this blog comes from Barber’s second chapter. That’s the section where she talks about the really old stuff – from the Palaeolithic, the Old Stone Age, so long ago that almost nothing has survived. Elsewhere in the book, she deals with textiles in the Neolithic, the Bronze Age (including horticultural societies such as the Minoans, and urban manufacture in the Near East), Middle Kingdom Egypt, the Mycenaeans, and Late Bronze and Iron Age urban societies.
The book is rivetingly framed by descriptions of Barber’s research methods, which include such adventures as recreating faithful replicas of ancient textiles, a reflection on the challenges of “finding the invisible”, and a heartfelt critique of irresponsible archaeology (à la Indiana Jones). There are also detailed sections on why textiles have traditionally been classed as “women’s work”, why we actually use cloth and clothing, the symbolism that goes with them, the ways in which social class and gender influence this work, and how textiles are portrayed in myth.
Overall, it’s a superb read: engaging, surprising, challenging. I suspect I’ll be coming back to it again and again (brace yourselves, for I already have several post ideas in mind).
In the meantime, I’m seeking recommendations: what are some of your favourite craft books? Not necessarily academic stuff – just anything that inspires you. I’d love to know.
If you like the sound of this book, please consider buying through one of these links (I’ll earn a small percentage if you do):