Book review – Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Me and the book

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):


7 thoughts on “Book review – Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

  1. The only craft book I’ve really read is Knitty Gritty by Aneeta Patel — it’s so wonderfully easy to follow for a beginner like myself! I’d looked at a couple of other knitting guides, supposedly for beginners, and found that they launched pretty quickly into territory I found terribly confusing. (“Right side”? “Stitch markers”? “Gauge”? What?) Aneeta Patel has a lot of experience of teaching beginners — she teaches knitting in London — and her approach is to make it as simple as possible, and to identify the places where people get confused or frustrated and give up. For instance, all of the patterns in the book are patterns where tension doesn’t matter, because that way the beginning knitter can get started straight away without having to knit up a bunch of gauge swatches first.

    She gives a very good bit of general advice early on in the book:

    “You are now learning something completely new that might be totally outside of your previous experience. KNITTING DOES NOT COME NATURALLY! It is easy when you know how, but until then, don’t be hard on yourself… embrace the joy of undoing your work and starting all over again — just remember that you are getting extra use out of your yarn and needles.”

    Bearing this in mind has kept me going when I might have given up.

  2. Oooh. I’ve just popped this on my wish list – thank you!

    My favourite craft books are the Readers Digest guides – one for “sewing” and one for “needlework”. Any time I’m unsure about a technique, you can pretty much guarantee that there are instructions for it in one or other of them!

  3. I dunno. I like Laura Ingalls Wilder, and even the bits in Jean M Auel. I like finding it in my ordinary about-people reading much more than reading it standalone. I think I want to read “The I hate to sew book” by Peg Bracken; I wonder if she ever wrote it?

  4. @Katherine: That book sounds great. I learnt about tension/gauge some time in my twenties, when I’d been knitting for nearly two decades!

    @Magpie: Ah, I’ve heard recommendations for the Reader’s Digest books before. *goes off to add to wishlist*

    @Ailbhe: Re Peg Bracken, I just went to look. No sewing, as far as I can see. I’d heard of “The I Hate to Cook Book”, which appears to be being reissued next year, but not the etiquette book or the memoirs. Wow.

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