Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review-- Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years

Women's Work:  The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber, might be the most important book on the history of clothing/textiles that I've ever read, and I have read a lot of them.

This book presents itself as a history of developments in textile technology from the Paleolithic through approximately the 5th century BCE, with a special focus on Bronze Age Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.  It begins with the invention of string in the Paleolithic, continues through the Secondary Products Revolution which followed the domestication of animals, and covers the invention of several different types of looms and weaving techniques and innovations in the way that workers were organized to produce textiles.  Throughout the book, the author combines evidence from archaeological evidence like spindle whorls and loom weights, ancient artwork, literature, folktales, modern folk costumes, and ancient textiles which have miraculously been preserved. 
If the book had stopped there, it would have merely been excellent, but it becomes so much more-- an argument that women's social freedom is tied to their economic freedom, and that this, in turn, was tied to textile production for much of human history.  Why textiles?  Spinning and weaving are safe, can be done at home, can be stopped and started at a moment's notice, and generally do not require intense concentration.  Thus, they are compatible with child care.
This book is fascinating, and extremely well-written. If you like sewing, you'll love the detailed discussions of how ancient garments were crafted, and the slice-of-life descriptions of how women would gather together to spin, weave, and prepare fibers.  I highly recommend it.


  1. You've sold me on this book! It's on the reading list.

  2. must look this looks gorgeous....

  3. It's a fabulous book! I know it and love it.

  4. Sounds like an eminently worthwhile read. I took a menswear history class last year and seem to remember that power in textile production shifted to men when new designs of looms required workers to stand. Perhaps they were less suited to the multitasking required of women at home caring for children?