Above: Fragment from the neckband of a tunic (detail); ca. 5th-7th c. CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Creator: Cleveland Museum of Art. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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

Elizabeth W. Barber, 1994

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. In a "brilliantly original book" (Katha Pollitt, Washington Post Book World), she argues that women were a powerful economic force in the ancient world, with their own industry: fabric.

Textiles comprise a vast and wide category of material culture and constitute a crucial part of the ancient economy. Yet, studies of classical antiquity still often leave out this important category of material culture, partly due to the textiles themselves being only rarely preserved in the archaeological record. This neglect is also prevalent in scholarship on ancient Greek religion and ritual, although it is one of the most vibrant and rapidly developing branches of classical scholarship. The aim of the present enquiry is, therefore, to introduce textiles into the study of ancient Greek religion and thereby illuminate the roles textiles played in the performance of Greek ritual and their wider consequences. Among the questions posed are how and where we can detect the use of textiles in the sanctuaries, and how they were used in rituals including their impact on the performance of these rituals and the people involved. Chapters centre on three themes: first, the dedication of textiles and clothing accessories in Greek sanctuaries is investigated through a thorough examination of the temple inventories. Second, the use of textiles to dress ancient cult images is explored. The examination of Hellenistic and Roman copies of ancient cult images from Asia Minor as well as depictions of cult images in vase-painting in collocation with written sources illustrates the existence of this particular ritual custom in ancient Greece. Third, the existence of dress codes in the Greek sanctuaries is addressed through an investigation of the existence of particular attire for ritual personnel as well as visitors to the sanctuaries with the help of iconography and written sources. By merging the study of Greek religion and the study of textiles, the current study illustrates how textiles are, indeed, central materialisations of Greek cult, by reason of their capacity to accentuate and epitomize aspects of identity, spirituality, position in the religious system, by their forms as links between the maker, user, wearer, but also as key material agents in the performance of rituals and communication with the divine.

Fragment of the gammadion border of a tunic; Egypt, Byzantine period, ca. 400 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Creator: Cleveland Museum of Art. License: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The mid second millennium BC material record of the southern Aegean shows evidence of strong Cretan influence. This phenomenon has traditionally been seen in terms of ‘Minoanisation’, but the nature and degree of Cretan influence, and the process/processes by which it was spread and adopted, have been widely debated. This new study addresses the question of ‘Minoanisation’ through a study of the adoption of Cretan technologies in the wider southern Aegean: principally, weaving technology. By the early Late Bronze Age, Cretan-style discoid loom weights had appeared at a number of settlements across the southern Aegean. In most cases, this represents not only the adoption of a particular type of loom weight, but also the introduction of a new weaving technology: the use of the warp-weighted loom. The evidence for, and the implications of, the adoption of this new technology is examined. Drawing upon recent advances in textile experimental archaeology, the types of textiles that are likely to have been produced at a range of sites both on Crete itself and in the wider southern Aegean are discussed, and the likely nature and scale of textile production at the various settlements is assessed. A consideration of the evidence for the timing and extent of the adoption of Cretan weaving technology in the light of additional evidence for the adoption of other Cretan technologies is used to gain insight into the potential social and economic strategies engaged in by various groups across the southern Aegean, as well as the motivations that may have driven the adoption and adaptation of Cretan cultural traits and accompanying behaviors. By examining how technological skills and techniques are learned and considering possible mechanisms for the transmission of such technical knowledge and know-how, new perspectives can be proposed concerning the processes through which Cretan techniques were taken up and imitated abroad.

Textile imagery is pervasive in classical literature. An awareness of the craft and technology of weaving and spinning, of the production and consumption of clothing items, and of the social and religious significance of garments is key to the appreciation of how textile and cloth metaphors work as literary devices, their suitability to conceptualize human activities and represent cosmic realities, and their potential to evoke symbolic associations and generic expectations. Spanning mainly Greek and Latin poetic genres, yet encompassing comparative evidence from other Indo-European languages and literature, these 18 chapters draw a various yet consistent picture of the literary exploitation of the imagery, concepts and symbolism of ancient textiles and clothing. Topics include refreshing readings of tragic instances of deadly peploi and fatal fabrics situate them within a Near Eastern tradition of curse as garment, explore female agency in the narrative of their production, and argue for broader symbolic implications of textile-making within the sphere of natural wealth The concepts and technological principles of ancient weaving emerge as cognitive patterns that, by means of analogy rather than metaphor, are reflected in early Greek mathematic and logical thinking, and in archaic poetics. The significance of weaving technology in early philosophical conceptions of cosmic order is revived by Lucretius’ account of atomic compound structure, where he makes extensive use of textile imagery, whilst clothing imagery is at the center of the sustained intertextual strategy built by Statius in his epic poem, where recurrent cloaks activate a multilayered poetic memory.

Fragment, sleeve ornament of a tunic; Egypt, Byzantine period, ca. 400 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Creator: The Cleveland Museum of Art. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Declaration.

Textiles and Gender in Antiquity: From the Orient to the Mediterranean

ed. Mary Harlow, Cecile Michel, and Louise Quillien, 2020

This volume looks at how the issues of textiles and gender intertwine across three millennia in antiquity and examines continuities and differences across time and space – with surprising resonances for the modern world. The interplay of gender, identity, textile production and use is notable on many levels, from the question of who was involved in the transformation of raw materials into fabric at one end, to the wearing of garments and the construction of identity at the other. Textile production has often been considered to follow a linear trajectory from a domestic (female) activity to a more 'commercial' or 'industrial' (male-centred) mode of production. In reality, many modes of production co-existed and the making of textiles is not so easily grafted onto the labour of one sex or the other. Similarly, textiles once transformed into garments are often of 'unisex' shape but worn to express the gender of the wearer. As shown by the detailed textual source material and the rich illustrations in this volume, dress and gender are intimately linked in the visual and written records of antiquity. The contributors show how it is common practice in both art and literature not only to use particular garments to characterize one sex or the other, but also to undermine characterizations by suggesting that they display features usually associated with the opposite gender.

The European Textile Forum was founded as an annual meeting for academics, craftspeople, re-enactors and enthusiasts to share their experiences and compare notes. The conference takes place over a week, which not only allows time to learn new techniques and discuss new findings, but to also undertake lengthy experiments that require a large number of experienced specialists. Textilforum is the practical proving ground to test archaeological theories in appropriate surroundings. This book is the publication of a series of lectures and experiments that were undertaken at the First and Second European Textile Forum in 2009 and 2010. Each had a new approach, exploring a question of textile manufacture in a scientific way, revealing answers and outcomes that were unavailable before. The First European Textile Forum hosted an experiment that found the relationship between archaeological hand-spinning finds and the yarn they produce: only a meeting such as the Textilforum could generate sufficient data for analysis. This scientific approach reflects in contributions describing the reconstruction of tablet-woven artifacts, with explorations of the method of tablet-weaving and a reassessment of archaeological finds and depictions. The Second European Textile Forum explored the practical aspects of undertaking reconstructions such as Stone Age fabrics, Roman dyeing or the clothing of Gunnister Man, including the deconstruction of the original artifact, allowing for the unexpected and the implication of new findings. Techniques for treating raw materials, creating fabrics and finishing artifacts are explored. The wider purpose and legacy of the European Textile Forum is as a foundation for the coming years. The basis for research and communication, with a market for exchanging tools and materials, means that each participant can avoid individually ‘reinventing the wheel’. The purpose of this book is to share these findings.

Textile Production in Classical Athens

Stella Spantidaki, 2016

Textile technology is older than any other ancient craft and is an instance of cognitive archaeology that provides vital information about society. In ancient Greece, textiles were considered among the principal and most fundamental cultural expressions. Athena, the goddess of the city, of intelligence and of skill was also the patron goddess of weaving. She taught the craft of textile production to women thus making them conduits of civilization. During Classical times, textile production was a fundamental part of the economy and was practiced also by men in both the domestic and artisanal spheres. The resulting technological sophistication is reflected in depictions of discrete or elaborate patterns, in the rich diversity of textile implements and in the variety in the quality of the extant textiles. In this work, Stella Spantidaki provides the first synthesis of the available evidence from textual, iconographic and archaeological sources on textile production in 5th and 4th century BC Athens, employing an interdisciplinary perspective that sets the frame for future research in the field. As such this study is of special importance for textile specialists, ancient history scholars, historians of technology and students and will lead to a better understanding of ancient Greek textile production and Classical Athenian society.

The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History

Kassia St. Clair, 2019

From colorful 30,000-year-old threads found on the floor of a Georgian cave to the Indian calicoes that sparked the Industrial Revolution, this book weaves an illuminating story of human ingenuity. Design journalist Kassia St. Clair guides us through the technological advancements and cultural customs that would redefine human civilization—from the fabric that allowed mankind to achieve extraordinary things (traverse the oceans and shatter athletic records) and survive in unlikely places (outer space and the South Pole). She peoples her story with a motley cast of characters, including Xiling, the ancient Chinese empress credited with inventing silk, to Richard the Lionhearted and Bing Crosby. Offering insights into the economic and social dimensions of clothmaking—and countering the enduring, often demeaning, association of textiles as “merely women’s work”—this book offers an alternative guide to our past, present, and future.

Clockwise from upper left: (1) Roundel from a curtain; Egypt, Byzantine period, 4th/5th c. CE. Source/creator: Cleveland Museum of Art. (2) Ornamental square from a tunic; Egypt, Byzantine period, 5th c. CE. Source/creator: Cleveland Museum of Art. (3) Fragment of embroidery from a Byzantine curtain; ca. 300 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Cleveland Museum of Art. (4) Fragment, with a segmentum, from a tunic; ca. 600 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Cleveland Museum of Art. License for all four images: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Declaration.