Why has the creation of cloth primarily been Women’s Work?
An answer that appeals to me is as follows:
Work that allowed women to contribute to subsistence living had the following requirements, as proposed by Judith Brown in 1970 – “Note on the division of Labour by Sex“
the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.
In other words, relying on women to contribute economically, required that the work that they do meet the above requirements, so that they could provide childcare.
Spinning, weaving and sewing meet these requirements (and later knitting). Food preparation also meets the above requirements. Clothing and food having become the core responsibilities for women (with young children to care for).
The methodology of creating string/yarn was surprisingly similar, with little variation for thousands of years. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, women stuck with methods that were tried and proven. Deviating from time-honoured ways was not an option, as women could not risk failure of an already working system. It could spell out economic failure. Elise Boulding writes in her book, The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time:
The general situation of little margin of error leading to conservatism might apply to the whole range of activities carried out by women. Because they had so much to do, slight variations in care of farm or dairy products or pottery could lead to food spoilage, production failure, and a consequent increase in already heavy burdens.
The introduction of the Spinning Jenny (invented by a man), revolutionized the production of yarn.
At the core of cloth production is thread or yarn. Made from a variety of natural materials, such as flax, wool, silk and cotton. These fibers are prepared for spinning by brushing them and lying them side by side and then spinning them.
The first evidence of twisted thread/string is from a sculpture from 20, 000 BCE on a small Palaeolithic Venus figure that wears a string skirt (sculpted detail). For a more detailed and wonderful exploration of The String Revolution, Chapter Two in Women’s Work, the first 20, 000 years
Enter the spindle. Which is an ancient tool that allowed people to turn fibers to yarn for weaving and later knitting. It is becoming popular again as a low tech option for knitters to create their own yarn at home and on the move.
Spun thread was then woven. By making a warp (threads laid parallel to each other under tension) and weaving the weft under and over at right angles to the warp threads. I will go into more details on how climate influenced the way people set up their weaving, in a later post. I am a bit of a geek for such details
Knitting only really became a method of creating cloth in the last millennium. It is far more portable than weaving. The first evidence of knitting is from Egypt, from +-1200 BCE, in the form of knitted socks.
I have drawn very heavily from the book Women’s Work, the first 20, 000 years for my content in this piece. It is a fantastic book! With Elizabeth Wayland Barber being an accomplished and respected expert on textiles, amongst other accomplishments.