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Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

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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 cl 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.


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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 cl 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.

30 review for Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lanea

    It took me far too long to write about this book. Barber is the most engaging of fiber-art historians, hands down. The discipline has received far too little attention for far too many years, and it is wonderful to see so well respected a scholar attack, and love, the subject. She is a weaver and general fiber-artist as well as a linguist and archaeologist. That combination of disciplines lends her rare insight. She can spot bad research miles away and can also admit when she makes mistakes in h It took me far too long to write about this book. Barber is the most engaging of fiber-art historians, hands down. The discipline has received far too little attention for far too many years, and it is wonderful to see so well respected a scholar attack, and love, the subject. She is a weaver and general fiber-artist as well as a linguist and archaeologist. That combination of disciplines lends her rare insight. She can spot bad research miles away and can also admit when she makes mistakes in her own experimental archaeology projects. That is rare. I first came across Barber because of her work on P.V. Glob's The Bog People, one of my favorites. I read this book slowly because I was loathe to finish it, but decided I could wrap things up once I had a copy of When They Severed Earth from Sky in my hot little hands. Page after page, I found answers to questions that had been percolating in my head for years, decent illustrations of woven goods, pottery, and tools, and an open celebration of women's arts through history. In short, string-skirts are holy, spinning is truly revolutionary in every sense, sheep are our friends, women who make textiles rock, and this is a great book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    This is basically the Guns, Germs, and Steel of textiles, fabrics, and the women who weave with them. My entry point in this book was Gregory Clark's excellent Big History book A Farewell to Alms, where he discussed how in large part the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was almost entirely driven by productivity improvements in the textile industry. Weaving being then as now a primarily female-dominated industry, I was interested to learn more about the sociological effects of that revol This is basically the Guns, Germs, and Steel of textiles, fabrics, and the women who weave with them. My entry point in this book was Gregory Clark's excellent Big History book A Farewell to Alms, where he discussed how in large part the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was almost entirely driven by productivity improvements in the textile industry. Weaving being then as now a primarily female-dominated industry, I was interested to learn more about the sociological effects of that revolution, and though this book wasn't what I was expecting at all, covering "only" from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age, there's still lots that should be right up the alley of anyone looking for something in the intersection of archaeology, textiles, and the feminization of labor. There are probably many different economic rationales for why some professions have been considered "women's work" for tens of thousands of years, but the most basic one is pretty straightforward: if some relatively simple task is compatible with having to take care of children, it will probably be women who are doing it. Barber quotes a researcher who lists the following characteristic of such jobs: "they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible [I see a rueful smile on every care giver's face!] and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home." There's a lot to ponder in that description. It's interesting that even in the 21st century it seems like knitting is still almost exclusively a female hobby, even when the woman in question doesn't have kids. Barber doesn't go into why that is, but she does discuss the question of why, given that women dominated the ranks of knitters, most labor-saving technology like the spinning jenny was invented by men. Barber's explanation is that women were so busy trying to keep up with demand that didn't have the time to sit around and play with technology. That sounds plausible, although it seems like even in ancient times enough clothing was being made for luxury use that at least one woman would have the time to think "There's got to be a better way." Regardless of how weaving came to be considered women's work, it's obvious that most of the women who did the work took pride in it and developed traditions around it. Barber discusses how the basic style of string skirt that survives today in Eastern European peasant garb has been almost unchanged for nearly 20,000 years, which is pretty mindblowing. Fascinatingly, it appears that certain more advanced weaving concepts like the heddle were so conceptually difficult that they were only actually invented once - thus allowing archaeologists to roughly date when various tribes split off from each other by whether they possessed the advanced concepts or not. In between defining important terms like carding, twill, or worsted, Barber follows weavers from the earliest records of the Paleolithic through the Neolithic and the agricultural revolution, to Bronze Age societies like the Minoans, Middle Kingdom Egyptians, and Myceneans, and finally to the Iron Age and classical Greek civilization. There's lots of good discussion behind things like the storytelling-through-fabric tradition that includes the famous Bayeux Tapestry, or why different types of looms were adopted in some places but not others, or how class structure did or did not affect weaving (a surprising number of powerful queens wove just like commoners, albeit with higher-quality fabrics), leavened with citations from all over the place, such as the Odyssey, Greek mythology, and peasant folklore like the stories in Grimm's. I was disappointed that she ended two thousand years before the vast changes of the Industrial Revolution (even aside from the economic impact of the women in the textile industry then, surely the cultural impact of tricoteuses such as Madame Defarge in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities would have been worth a mention), and even today, women in the garment trade are a vital part of the development of countries like Bangladesh. Probably the additional scope would have resulted in a book several times the size, but even with its limits, this is a very well-researched and interesting look at the history of weaving and its role in the world from a primarily female perspective. Barber is funny too; here's her relating a story from Xenophon about Socrates' friend Aristarchos buying a bunch of wool to keep his female houseguests busy: "As a result, resources were found, and wool was bought. The women ate their noon meal while they worked, and quit working only at suppertime; and they were cheerful instead of gloomy. Presently Aristarchos returned to tell Socrates how splendidly everything was working out. But, he adds, the ladies are displeased at one thing - namely, that he himself is idle. The story ends with Socrates suggesting that Aristarchos tell them that he is like the apparently idle sheepdog, who gets better treatment than the sheep because his protection is what allows them all to prosper. We do not hear how that fable went over with the women, but we know how it would be received today."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lois Bujold

    I first read this book many years ago, and was recently reminded of it. Very much an answer for all those people who look at standard histories and ask, "But what were the women doing all that time?" It was also once favorably reviewed in Scientific American, I happily recall. Highly recommended. For everyone, really, but very much for any writer thinking about their world-building. Ta, L.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Iset

    The book really has more of a focus on the Bronze Age than the Stone Age, with extensive sections on weaving in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Aegean – so much so that I’ve moved it from my Stone Age section to my Bronze Age section. It is worth noting that, being published over 20 years ago, the book is out of date in some of its information. For example, the author repeats the hypothesis of goddess worship at Catalhoyuk, something which site director Ian Hodder and his international team The book really has more of a focus on the Bronze Age than the Stone Age, with extensive sections on weaving in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Aegean – so much so that I’ve moved it from my Stone Age section to my Bronze Age section. It is worth noting that, being published over 20 years ago, the book is out of date in some of its information. For example, the author repeats the hypothesis of goddess worship at Catalhoyuk, something which site director Ian Hodder and his international team have disproved, and she also ascribes to the ‘creative explosion’ notion whereby 40,000 years ago in Europe some sort of neurological or cultural change suddenly resulted in a flourishing of art – but that proposition has been on shaky ground for years now, with more discoveries turning up every year of art predating that arbitrary point. However, I admit I didn’t spot any other boo-boos in the text, and the book is still a valuable resource, particularly for informing one about the life and occupation of Bronze Age women. I’ve never before read a book that is wholesale devoted to examining the work of women in the Bronze Age near east; usually it just gets a few paragraphs or perhaps a chapter in a book about the Bronze Age in general, so this is a very valuable resource, and I can definitely see myself coming back to it for future reference. 8 out of 10

  5. 5 out of 5

    K.A. Jordan

    I don't care who you are - 20,000 years is a long time! What this book tells us is simple: Women clothed the human race because it was something they could do while raising the next generation. There are cultures where this is still the case. It was a tradeoff - and a good one. But the sheer skill required to create first thread then weaving it into cloth is very hard to grasp. Unless, of course, you're learning to spin yarn, like I am. I'm going to step out on a limb -> Women have evolved with spin I don't care who you are - 20,000 years is a long time! What this book tells us is simple: Women clothed the human race because it was something they could do while raising the next generation. There are cultures where this is still the case. It was a tradeoff - and a good one. But the sheer skill required to create first thread then weaving it into cloth is very hard to grasp. Unless, of course, you're learning to spin yarn, like I am. I'm going to step out on a limb -> Women have evolved with spinning and weaving serveing an integrial need in the brain. We've been bred for this for - well - 20k years. So when I hear a woman say she loves to spin because it is relaxing (soothing is my phrase) I get it. We live in a stressed out society. One where we are separated from creation in it's most basic forms. We are crammed into molds that fit our work, not who we are as humans. (De-humanizing happens in all aspect of our lives.) The pull of spinning is no longer a mystery to me. There is a part of me that WANTS to spin when I'm waiting for something. I'm not looking for something to occupy my mind, like Spider or Face Book. I'm not tempted to spend endless hours on the internet. I can spin wool into yarn anywhere and any time. It's like fidgeting or smoking, without the cancer.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Some Small Silence

    One of the most interesting books I've ever read, although I'm sure it won't sound that way when I describe it. It's a discussion of weaving and its relation to women's historical roles. The two are interconnected in some complicated and fascinating ways. I borrowed a copy from my school library a few years ago because I'd heard it was a good read, and actually need to get one of my own now so I can reread it sometime soon.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Who knew there was a history to string? Or how much can be deduced from ancient cloth fragments which have survived? This is a fascinating book about recent theories and discoveries about weaving and cloth work in the ancient world based on archeological findings and cultural research. Great illustrations. With many references to Homeric women spinning and weaving, this was a good companion read for The Odyssey, but would appeal to anyone interested in the history of clothing or fabric arts.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Crispina Kemp

    Whether your interest lies in the history of textiles, or in the history of woman's role in society, Elizabeth Barber has it covered--from 20,000 BCE to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The book developed out of her previous publication (Pincetown University 1991) 'Prehistoric Textiles', which itself was the result of 17 years of research. Ms Barber draws on every possible source: archaeological finds; modern forensic research; ancient texts and drawings; ancient sculptures; as well as more rec Whether your interest lies in the history of textiles, or in the history of woman's role in society, Elizabeth Barber has it covered--from 20,000 BCE to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The book developed out of her previous publication (Pincetown University 1991) 'Prehistoric Textiles', which itself was the result of 17 years of research. Ms Barber draws on every possible source: archaeological finds; modern forensic research; ancient texts and drawings; ancient sculptures; as well as more recent folk costumes, and not just from Europe but from across the globe. She considers the materials available, the demands upon a woman's time, her changing place in society as agriculture developed and city-states grew. She examines the potential output of the two main types of loom, and their geographical distribution. I found there wasn't an aspect of early textile production that she didn't cover, and all in easily accessible language. I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more of a woman's life in days gone by.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Brenda

    Excellent book on the origins and development of spinning and weaving in Middle East and Europe. Ms. Barber, an archeologist and weaver, has an engaging style. She not only tells us what we know about the early history of weaving, she shows us how we know. She is also very apolitical in her approach; she neither praises nor condemns the treatment of women throughout this early period of history (Neolithic to the Iron Age). She restricts herself to the data. Highly recommended for those intereste Excellent book on the origins and development of spinning and weaving in Middle East and Europe. Ms. Barber, an archeologist and weaver, has an engaging style. She not only tells us what we know about the early history of weaving, she shows us how we know. She is also very apolitical in her approach; she neither praises nor condemns the treatment of women throughout this early period of history (Neolithic to the Iron Age). She restricts herself to the data. Highly recommended for those interested in social history, textiles, and women's history.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Wonderful book, full of insights. Women's role changes through history, but the constant is that women have the primary responsibility of early childhood rearing. Women's work always has to be something that could be combined with a safe atmosphere for the children. When farming was done with little more than sticks, farming was women's work. When farming was done with horses and a metal plow, farming was too dangerous for the children, so it became men's work. So pragmatic. Rational.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    I love this book--very informative and interesting simply for the way the author approaches research. Anyone who wears clothes or uses sheets or towels or any other sort of textiles should read this.

  12. 4 out of 5

    skein

    This book is lauded in crafty-fiber circles, apparently for being the only one of its kind to focus on women's history rather than for giving any great insight about archaeology or, you know, the titular women's work. I mean, okay, it's still interesting and informative and fairly well-written. But it's more "non-fiction" than "scholarly", and I took off a star for that; there isn't enough meat on these bones, not enough exploration or discussion. Some parts are deeply repetitive and some parts b This book is lauded in crafty-fiber circles, apparently for being the only one of its kind to focus on women's history rather than for giving any great insight about archaeology or, you know, the titular women's work. I mean, okay, it's still interesting and informative and fairly well-written. But it's more "non-fiction" than "scholarly", and I took off a star for that; there isn't enough meat on these bones, not enough exploration or discussion. Some parts are deeply repetitive and some parts build off each other, so it doesn't pay to read straight through and it doesn't pay to pick and choose chapters (that's another star gone). The author learned to weave as a child, and it shows. She probably knows how to spin, too -- there's some familiarity with spindles -- but I am a spinner myself and her explanations gave up more questions than answers. She says this low-whorl type of spindle is suited for wool, and this high-whorl one for flax -- well, why? (I've spun both fibers on a drop-spindle; I prefer low-whorl, but there is no real difference that can't be adapted for by using different techniques, like starting the spin between your hands rather than twisting with your fingers). She says the Egyptians "spliced" the flax before spinning -- how? Why add the extra step? (Europeans spun both flax and wool using a distaff.) I imagine it gives a stronger, finer thread -- but without trying, there's no way to know. Barber spends the final chapter reminding us that we don't know the limits of our knowledge; there are questions we never think to ask. I know a little bit about spinning and it opened a hundred holes in her writing. What else am I too ignorant to question?

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dymphy

    Women's wok by Elizabeth Barber is truly one astonishing read. In this book, Barber explaines the role of women in the prehistoric era by letting their main craft speak for them: weaving cloth. Quite a lot of societies are included, such as the prehistoric syrians, greeks and egyptians. Based on archeological, ethnological, linguistic and mythological evidence, Barber weaves an story about women and cloth. What I love about this book is because this book is easy to read and doesn't require much k Women's wok by Elizabeth Barber is truly one astonishing read. In this book, Barber explaines the role of women in the prehistoric era by letting their main craft speak for them: weaving cloth. Quite a lot of societies are included, such as the prehistoric syrians, greeks and egyptians. Based on archeological, ethnological, linguistic and mythological evidence, Barber weaves an story about women and cloth. What I love about this book is because this book is easy to read and doesn't require much knowledge beforehand. Theories and hypothesis are well explained, and the topics the author covers, long bogged my mind. Why were there stringskirts? Why was the main occupation of women weaving and cooking? Next to it, it gives an outstanding view of the prehistorical societies by focussing at daily life and not on wars (although there are some mentioned). Honestly, this is one of the most refreshing non-fiction books I've read in years - and I consider this book a must read for anyone who claims to be an history or textile fan.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Squirrel

    4.5 stars. This would be 5 stars if it 1)hadn't been written 25 years ago and 2)the illustrations weren't primarily drawings done by the author. Otherwise, there's a reason why this book has been checked out 9 times and used on course reserves. This is a solid, accessible work examining the economic and cultural lives of women through the lens of textile production. It's a book about the subtle clues in artifacts, like loom weights in an area that does not usually have vertical looms weaving sug 4.5 stars. This would be 5 stars if it 1)hadn't been written 25 years ago and 2)the illustrations weren't primarily drawings done by the author. Otherwise, there's a reason why this book has been checked out 9 times and used on course reserves. This is a solid, accessible work examining the economic and cultural lives of women through the lens of textile production. It's a book about the subtle clues in artifacts, like loom weights in an area that does not usually have vertical looms weaving suggests an influx of women from another area, either through migration or through abduction and enslavement. There are sections that aren't especially clear to this non-weaver, such as when Barber describes the patterns along textiles' edges and how they were created. In general a half dozen youtube videos would go a long way towards explaining the how-to as well as the history of fabric production.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Marian Snowe

    This book was fantastic. It was not only easily readable and super informative, it was actually funny--which isn't all that common in history or archaeology books in my experience. Because it was so fascinating, I tore through it much faster than I usually read. As somebody who weaves and spins wool with a drop spindle, I really loved learning the history (all the way back to paleolithic times) of how people make cloth. It had a great mix of literal "here's how this physically worked" and more c This book was fantastic. It was not only easily readable and super informative, it was actually funny--which isn't all that common in history or archaeology books in my experience. Because it was so fascinating, I tore through it much faster than I usually read. As somebody who weaves and spins wool with a drop spindle, I really loved learning the history (all the way back to paleolithic times) of how people make cloth. It had a great mix of literal "here's how this physically worked" and more conceptual "here's why it developed like this." I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who loves textile history, clothing, fiber crafting, women's history, or archaeology in general.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Cheri

    Venus de Milo has lost her arms, but if you know what to look for, you can tell that she was spinning. This wonderful book is a master course in getting the maximum amount of information from the tiniest bits of surviving evidence -- archaeological, linguistic, textual, artistic, etc. Even present day activities can help us interpret ancient ones. I responded to this book as a quilter, who works with textiles; as a woman, who is habitually left out of history books; and as a person, who is dazzl Venus de Milo has lost her arms, but if you know what to look for, you can tell that she was spinning. This wonderful book is a master course in getting the maximum amount of information from the tiniest bits of surviving evidence -- archaeological, linguistic, textual, artistic, etc. Even present day activities can help us interpret ancient ones. I responded to this book as a quilter, who works with textiles; as a woman, who is habitually left out of history books; and as a person, who is dazzled by the myriad detective skills needed to delve into our ancient past.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I love handwork and this book helped me understand the history of women and textiles, fabrics, threads, yarns of all kinds. elizabeth Wayland Barber has assembled a wonderful collection of artifacts and documentation about this primal work. I felt connected to the sisterhood of women through the ages!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    Women's history and textiles! This is my wheelhouse. A very readable interesting examination of textiles and what we can deduce about them and about the women (almost always women) who made them. This book makes me want to learn how to spin and weave, but I'm not going to, because NO NEW HOBBIES, especially those that require new equipment.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Pancha

    A fascinating look at human history told through weaving.

  20. 4 out of 5

    MJ

    Read for my thesis. Really great collection of material but I wish she'd organized the book a little better once it got past ancient Crete

  21. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    What an interesting read! Barber introduces her book with a very relevant story that also proves why she is the perfect choice to tell it. She weaves as a hobby, a profession that women have undertaken for many, many thousands of years. It’s a relatively simple craft, but there tricks of the trade that can only be deduced by somebody who has actually woven. But as Barber shows, women have been weaving for thousands of years, and academia has traditionally been male (for reference, the publish dat What an interesting read! Barber introduces her book with a very relevant story that also proves why she is the perfect choice to tell it. She weaves as a hobby, a profession that women have undertaken for many, many thousands of years. It’s a relatively simple craft, but there tricks of the trade that can only be deduced by somebody who has actually woven. But as Barber shows, women have been weaving for thousands of years, and academia has traditionally been male (for reference, the publish date of this book is 1994). Her postscript also calls out a tradition in academia to not attempt the craft to understand the difficulties ancient peoples would have experienced, and therefore likely draw incorrect conclusions. There’s a few other things that have relegated the history of women to the wayside. Cloth rots, so unless it’s sunk in a bog or buried in an extremely arid tomb, it likely won’t survive to modern days. Sites that were dug up in the 1800s weren’t always kept separate by strata, so the timelines of technology can get very messy. Women are doing a lot of the monotonous duties at home, which are less worthy of great stories because they’re so unremarkable (e.g. a modern book would not explain every detail of how to drive a car, with how to put the car in reverse, how to use a turn signal, how to moderately apply the gas pedal, etc. It would just say that somebody drove somewhere). Barber’s fascination with weaving is both a strength and a weakness for arguing her thesis. Her interest is obviously more towards the mechanics of weaving, such as the making of yarn, technological advancements to ease the craft and how they spread across the world. She’s much less focused on the intricacies of the life of the women. This isn’t immediately apparent - Barber definitely tries to share what cultural tidbits she’s been able to glean (one imagines that those remote European villages are losing more and more of their traditions as internet/globalization becomes more ubiquitous) - but her interest is pretty obviously more towards the actual making of fiber and fabric, than with what women were doing. There are a few offhand comments that they're also making food, but not in any kind of detail. So while I appreciated the stories we got, I think I would have liked some more on all of the professions available to women. Obviously cloth-making was tremendously important (consider the fact that even noblewomen wove or embroidered. There was no escaping the necessity of clothing, even if a noblewoman’s products would likely be used as noble gifts or something like a storytelling tapestry that a serf woman wouldn’t have the luxury of time to detail), but if women are also in charge of daily food preparation, I would have liked to hear more about that. Barber postulates that women end up in the home because they need duties that are easy to put down to go deal with childcare. I can accept that hypothesis, but there absolutely has to be more to that life than just spinning or weaving. In summary: good talk on the mechanics of weaving, I would have preferred more on actual treatment of women.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Koen Crolla

    Rather a shallow and necessarily fragmentary overview of spinning and weaving in mostly the Bronze Age in Central Europe (Hallstatt), the Aegean (Minoans and Greeks), and Egypt (Middle Kingdom), but a book needs a title. That the central subject holds no real surprises now is, I suspect, largely thanks to Barber's significant influence on the consensus understanding thereof, presumably more through her 1992 book Prehistoric Textiles than through this more popsci one, but it's a good read nonethe Rather a shallow and necessarily fragmentary overview of spinning and weaving in mostly the Bronze Age in Central Europe (Hallstatt), the Aegean (Minoans and Greeks), and Egypt (Middle Kingdom), but a book needs a title. That the central subject holds no real surprises now is, I suspect, largely thanks to Barber's significant influence on the consensus understanding thereof, presumably more through her 1992 book Prehistoric Textiles than through this more popsci one, but it's a good read nonetheless. Barber is a professor of archaeology and linguistics, but some of her views on both are oddly naïve; some of that may be due to her target audience, and some of it could be down to the age of the book (though the early '90s weren't that long ago), but some of it is certainly a deliberate political stance. Barber's conception of the Indo-Europeans as violent invaders overrunning previously peaceful Neolithic Europe, down to Gimbutas—on whose lunatic Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe she also bases an illustration of a Gravettian Venus figurine—is likely the latter, and her identifications of the string skirt on that same Gravettian Venus figurine with both Aphrodite's banded girdle (translated, shamelessly misleadingly, as "string skirt" by Barber) in Homer and certain modern Romanian folk costumes (on which every decorative lozenge is also clearly meant to represent a vagina), and of that one Minoan snake goddess figurine with a 19th-century embroidery pattern of Berehinia holding two peacocks, are obviously meant to provoke at least as much as to draw any legitimate parallel, but other asides are harder to place. Certainly her advanced case of "and still in Europe today" is an American disease, and many of her less mainstream claims are, at least, second-tier legitimate rather than fully fringe (Poseidon as a borrowed Pre-Greek god (possible), Homer's Phaeacians (or Phaiakians, if, like Barber, you prefer) as half-remembered or holdover Minoans (not unlikely), the Titanomachy as a memory of the Thera eruption (full of holes but fashionable in some circles), &c.). There's also no shortage of surprising asides that turn out to be uncontroversially true, anyway, and even if the main thrust of Barber's explanations is familiar by now, there's enough here to keep your attention in a pleasant way. I can't help but suspect some of her other books will be better, though, and I intend to find out.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sandy H

    For what seems like it would be a dusty, dry, academic tome, Women's Work was really quite an enjoyable read. Reconstructing women's life and position in society from Paleolithic times to the Iron Age using advanced archeological methods as well as methods borrowed from other areas of research (linguistics, for example), Barber delves into the world of textiles--in particular, spinning and weaving--for what it reveals about the culture and society of the day. As a quiltmaker, I was interested in For what seems like it would be a dusty, dry, academic tome, Women's Work was really quite an enjoyable read. Reconstructing women's life and position in society from Paleolithic times to the Iron Age using advanced archeological methods as well as methods borrowed from other areas of research (linguistics, for example), Barber delves into the world of textiles--in particular, spinning and weaving--for what it reveals about the culture and society of the day. As a quiltmaker, I was interested in the development of cloth-making techniques but even more fascinated by the social and cultural connections being made. As I was reading, I was reflecting on possible connections with the textile world today--how cloth is used in fashion and in craft as a form of expression. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Barber's writing style is engaging; her own experience as a weaver, having been taught to weave by her own mother, gives a more direct insight into exploring methods of weaving through centuries. Whether or not you choose to accept all of her conclusions, you can't walk away from this book without a far deeper understanding of the connections between textiles and society in general, and a deeper understanding of a woman's daily life in a variety of contexts over the centuries. My one critique, although it's an understandable one, is that she focuses solely on the Western world. Clearly there is an ancient tradition of textiles in the Eastern world as well. To cover both in one book would most likely lead to either more cursory and therefore dissatisfying examinations of each, or a book so long that anyone would hesitate to crack open the front cover! I would love to see a sequel by Barber following the Eastern tradition; or by another author (as long as that author was as easy and enjoyable to read as Barber!). If you're interested in textiles, in weaving, in women's issues, or in the exploration of culture, I do highly recommend this book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Genuinely fascinating social and economic history of textile manufacture, including the neolithic string revolution (snare, nets, cloth), that traditional folk costumes often continue patterns and techniques from the neolithic (string skirts, patterned borders), spinning in folk tales, clothing that can be made without cutting precious cloth (togas, chitons, tunics, plaids as skirts), textiles as royal gift exchanges, the value of weavers as prisoners, the technological developments of looms as Genuinely fascinating social and economic history of textile manufacture, including the neolithic string revolution (snare, nets, cloth), that traditional folk costumes often continue patterns and techniques from the neolithic (string skirts, patterned borders), spinning in folk tales, clothing that can be made without cutting precious cloth (togas, chitons, tunics, plaids as skirts), textiles as royal gift exchanges, the value of weavers as prisoners, the technological developments of looms as well as the immense value of reproducing the technology to gain insight into the social organization of its use (many weaving patterns, once actually reproduced, show that it requires two or more people working in concert). All of this is supported by vivid and carefully chosen material from visual and written records (Athenian comedy took home weaving as a baseline for a large number of jokes).

  25. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    As an enormous textile nerd, I was excited to pick up this book and learn a bit more about the origins of fabric and clothing, going all the way back to the development of string in the Stone Age. I found this book accessible and interesting. The evidence for textile work can be thin - fabric doesn't often survive the ages - but the author was clear about how she interprets scant fragments to create a fuller picture of the work women were doing. (Her methods included recreating ancient fabrics o As an enormous textile nerd, I was excited to pick up this book and learn a bit more about the origins of fabric and clothing, going all the way back to the development of string in the Stone Age. I found this book accessible and interesting. The evidence for textile work can be thin - fabric doesn't often survive the ages - but the author was clear about how she interprets scant fragments to create a fuller picture of the work women were doing. (Her methods included recreating ancient fabrics on her own using the techniques ancient people would have used, which is very cool!) My one complaint was that, while the earlier chapters talked a lot about central and northern Europe, the Bronze Age sections stuck to the Mediterranean. I assume that's just because we have more documentation about Greek and Egyptian life than other areas, but I was really fascinated by the sections on the rest of Europe as I don't know as much about that, so I wanted more there!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    As an anthropology student, I'm surprised to say I very thoroughly enjoyed this book. The book was written so that it was a successful balance of intriguing and sensational, as well as sourced pretty well through archaeological and historical findings. Though towards the end it felt more like a chronically textbook, this book was a really fun read and I think literally anyone who has an interest in Ancient/Classical history and wishes to uncover the (sadly little recorded) history of certain wom As an anthropology student, I'm surprised to say I very thoroughly enjoyed this book. The book was written so that it was a successful balance of intriguing and sensational, as well as sourced pretty well through archaeological and historical findings. Though towards the end it felt more like a chronically textbook, this book was a really fun read and I think literally anyone who has an interest in Ancient/Classical history and wishes to uncover the (sadly little recorded) history of certain women, should read this book!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    I read the first few chapters, then my daughter saw it and wanted to read it, which she did. Her view: that it was a good book, though it helped to have some background in weaving, but as she had a lot of background she thought she'd prefer Barber's academic text on the subject- which she then got by interlibrary loan. I hope sometime to pick this book up again to find out about women's lives and work in traditional societies, not being so interested in the a fabric arts per se.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bethany

    This book explores the history of textiles, a perishable craft that reveals so much about culture. Women have always made cloth and clothing, so the history of textiles is also a history of women. What did they do all day in ancient times? They cared for children and made food, but they also spun an awful lot of thread.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sigrid Ellis

    Oh good heavens, I loved this book! I learned SO MUCH. Like about the trades routes of the bronze age, and HOW we find evidence of the work women do! And when I went on vacation to London and went through a number of museums, I SAW the kinds of archaeological evidence the book describes! IT WAS SO GREAT.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Interesting, well-researched book. I have to admit that my mind wandered or leaked information sometimes, but I found the way in which Elizabeth Wayland Barber figuratively, and sometimes literally, pieced together the history and lives of women in the past in various ways (weaving, linguistic interpretation, ancient accounting, depictions in art, myths) to be persuasive.

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