History books often described women as being "relegated" to spinning or embroidery, and one thinks of a woman in a fussy dress wasting time with an embroidery hoop. Elizabeth Wayland Barber in her book Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years, however, describes in great detail a world where the work of women – and trading skills of women -- ran the world economy, producing the world's most coveted, sold, and plundered product.
Cloth Drove the Global Economy
You have to remember that until recently, with the invention of plastic and the availability of metals, everything was made of either fabric or wood. Objects were wrapped in cloth, carried in a sack, and even wooden boxes were frequently lined with fabric. Leather was too hard to work with and required killing an animal, so it was reserved for things that needed its strength like straps, belts and harnesses. Iron and bronze required intensive procedures using resources that weren't available everywhere. Wood was resource and labor intensive and so saved for things that lasted. Even pottery was not as ubiquitous as cloth. Fabric was key.
I have written before about the effort required to cloth one's family in Viking times, but throughout history, "the cloth made by women did not merely dress people but also functioned at the heart of the economy, both domestic and external," Barber says.
After all, it wasn't the Leather Road, or the Pottery Road. "As a pair, silk and horses made up one of the most common exchanges on the Silk Road."[i] And the silk weavers were, of course, women until demand grew to the point that both men and women were required.[ii]
As a coveted object, fabric "was one of the most frequent forms of plunder in the Middle Ages, as in many another time and place." (p. 290)
Women Were Cloth Traders As Well
While "most of the hours of the woman's day, and occasionally of the man's, were spent on textile-related activities," Barber says, Page 31 "at least some of the wives, daughters, and sisters were in business for themselves, acting as textile suppliers...and taking considerable profit therefrom to use for their own purposes." (p.169)
Textiles were also important gifts of diplomacy. "Women of the merchant class were not the only ones running textile establishments. Queens did it, too, but for the "state" rather than directly for themselves. The caravans for which these textiles were destined carried Royal gifts from one court to another, an important part of ancient diplomacy." (p.175)
Thread as a Symbol of the Divine
"One's life span was conceived by the Greeks as a thread, formed by the fates at birth, but the act of weaving the thread symbolized what one did with that life, the choices of the individual." (p.242) It's a metaphor that I worked with in my novel A Slender Tether, without knowing it's ancient origin.
Spinning thread (which Barber says takes 7-10 times more labor than weaving) was such an important part of historic life that it was part of ancient spirituality. "Fate, to the Greeks, was spun as a thread. Both thread and time were linear, both easily and arbitrarily broken. One could argue that, since women were the people who spun, the spinners of one's destiny would have to be women. These divine females spinners were called the Moirai or Apportioners, and are often mentioned in Greek literature as being three in number: Klotho, "spinner," who spun the thread of life, Lachesis, "Allotment," who measured it out, and Atropos, "Untenable," who chose went to lop it off. Homer is less specific, and in both the Iliad and Odyssey he repeats a stock couplet probably passed down from bards much older than he: and then [the person] will suffer whatever Fate and the heavy [handed] Spinners spun into their linen [thread] for him, coming into being, when his mother gave birth to him." (p. 235)
Mystery of the Venus de Milo: She was Spinning
"Close analysis of the musculature of the famous Venus de Milo – the ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite found on the island of Melos in 1820 and now in the Louvre – shows that she couldn't hold on to her drapery even before the statute lost its arms. Why? She was holding both arms out. One, the left, she held high and a little back, counterbalancing its weight by curving her body… The typical position for spinning thread in the Greek manner. Spinning was a common symbol for the creation of new life in Greece and elsewhere." (p. 237)
The String Revolution
We've heard of the agricultural revolutions, but Barber takes us back further, to 30,000 years ago and suggests that "so powerful 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 Paleolithic. We could call it the String Revolution." (p.45)
"Acquisitiveness is a Neolithic invention," she said. "String nets to catch a meal and carry it home for the family, plus wraps to keep warm and a few small tools and light containers to hold and prepare the food, for thousands of years were possessions enough. The heavier crafts like pottery awaited the advent of permanent houses to store things in." (p. 54)
[i] The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction by James A Millward, Oxford University Press, 2013, pg. 63
[ii] Ancient History Encyclopedia at https://www.ancient.eu/Silk/