The String Revolution

I want to give credit for this blog’s title to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, who wrote the utterly brilliant Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.I’m not finished reading the book yet, but it continues to set off fireworks in my mind at the rate of about one every three or four pages.

I’d also like to thank Jane Brocket, who wrote about this book on her blog a couple of years ago (I can’t find the post now, unfortunately) and prompted me to add it to my wishlist.

The book is a history of textiles, from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and if you think that sounds dry and remote, well … read itand see how totally engrossing it is.

Barber had me hooked from the start: in the Introduction she describes setting up her loom to weave “a thread-for-thread replica of a piece of cloth lost in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps some three thousand years ago” (p.18). The bit where she works out why the warp was so difficult to set up made me laugh out loud in sheer glee. And I’m not even a weaver.

To me, there’s something so juicy about the idea of a modern woman reproducing the work of a prehistoric woman making cloth. Finding that connection – the (literal) thread, passing through everything that has served to obliterate women’s history in the interim – is liberating and dignified and audacious. (I’m not explaining this very well. Perhaps you understand anyway.)

Barber’s second chapter is entitled “The String Revolution”. In the Upper Palaeolithic, she explains, about twenty to thirty thousand years ago, “some genius hit upon the principle of twisting handfuls of little weak fibers together into long, strong thread” (p.43).

We don’t know how early to date this great discovery—of making string as long and as strong as needed by twisting short filaments together. But whenever it happened, it 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 together 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 conquer the earth, that enabled us to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Palaeolithic. We could call it the String Revolution. (p. 45)

Baby sling, I must admit, was the first thought I had when I read that paragraph. I’ve often said to myself, while carrying a child around using a simple length of cloth, “forget the wheel – this is where it’s at, as far as human invention is concerned”.

But then I had another thought, and it was this: String Revolution, eh? I wonder if anyone’s registered (They have, alas, but they’re not using it. The hyphenated version isn’t quite as great, but I wasn’t about to ditch my lovely title.) I was already planning this blog, of course, and I just couldn’t get over the idea that my string-based craft work, here in twenty-first-century Ireland, is part of an unbroken tradition going back tens of thousands of years.

Yours is, too, you know.

If you like the sound of this book – enough to buy it, maybe – and if you like my blog at all, and if the stars are auspicious and the moon is in the right quarter, please buy after clicking on one of these links (I’ll earn a small percentage if you do):


3 thoughts on “The String Revolution

  1. Hi Léan, saw your personal ad.First time ever commenting on a blog. Loved yours, will come back. Just bought a little bit of yarn, irregularly ´hand-died in shades of orange. It’s from southern Chile, and I was so surprised you could buy this kind of yarn in Dublin! (Your Araucanía Aysén yarn). Actually, there’s a huge knitting, spinning and weaving tradition in Southern Chile, that connects with our native american roots. Not where I live, though, the capital city. But I was taught the basics by my grandmother, like you. I just learnt in your blog that there were different ways to cast. My grandmother taught me to hold the yarn in a triangle..(wait, I’d better photograph this, I´ll post it in the casting post.) I’m waiting to see what happens with the purple yarn!

    1. Wow – thanks so much for this. I love that we have the same yarn, and the same experience of learning to knit from our grandmothers 🙂

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