Saturday, March 31, 2012

Weaving, women and history

The last couple of weeks I have been immersed in reading a couple of books by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Dr. Barber is a professor emerita in archaeology and linguistics at Occidental College in California, and also a weaver since childhood. She has written a number of books, the two that I have been reading are The Mummies of Urumchi and Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years.

In The Mummies book Dr. Barber uses her knowledge of archaeology, linguistics and the craft of weaving to draw out some amazing information from her study of a set of mummies found in central Asia. The mummies were found in the 1980s and turned out to be several thousand years old. Due to the extremely dry conditions where they were dug up they were well preserved, the colours of their clothing as bright as anything you could buy new today. Dr. Barber could piece together interesting facts about how these people lived and where they came from just from the details of the construction of their clothing.

One of the interesting things about the mummies is that they are Caucasian, not Mongoloid. Their hair is brown and they have the big noses typical of Caucasians. Some of them are well over six feet tall. Urumchi is located in western China, an area now inhabited by Uighurs, who are also Caucasian in origin. It is quite possible that they are direct descendants of the people who left the mummies there. The mummies were collected from ancient cemeteries in the region, in particular from the Tarim Basin which is one of the bleakest deserts in the world.

Among other things Dr. Barber says that these were Indo-Iranian people who kept sheep and wove textiles from their wool. They also made felt products. One mummy had brightly coloured felt leggings, an infant wore a beautiful blue felt bonnet.

The Silk Road, the route taken by merchants and traders between the far east and the near east, passes through the Tarim Basin. One branch follows the northern edge of the desert, another follows the southern edge. Ancient documents describe some of the people living along that route, and between those documents and what can be gleaned from the mummified remains, it is probable that these were people who moved westward into that bleak part of the world in order to live in relative peace. They were not warriors.

The infant with the blue bonnet was buried close to another grave containing a man and two women. The infant was buried with a "baby bottle" fashioned from a sheep's udder. Dr. Barber guesses that one of the women in the other grave was its mother; someone tried to keep the infant alive with sheep's milk and a baby bottle but failed.

I am halfway through the other book, Women's Work. This book focuses on the ancient history of textile making, in particular spinning and weaving. It is rare to find textiles in very old archaeological sites, they simply don't survive. The mummies of Urumchi are very unusual in that regard. However, the imprint of textiles are sometimes found on clay objects, and sometimes clay or stone objects associated with spinning (spindle whorls) and weaving (warp weights) can be found. Also there are depictions of textile making in some ancient ceramics and wall paintings.

Ancient peoples were not particularly modest, they wore clothing for warmth and/or decoration, but not to hide "private" body parts. Also, they were more tolerant of cooler temperatures than many of us moderns are, going naked or near naked in temperatures most of us would prefer to be clothed in. Woven textiles were probably preceded by belts and string skirts. In fact Dr. Barber talks of a "string revolution", how a whole new dimension of tool making was opened with the invention of string. Think of all the things you can do with a bit of string.

Dr. Barber thinks that string skirts were probably the first bit of non-essential clothing invented. They would have been specifically intended to draw attention to a woman's fertility. Of course, you need something to attach the strings to, this would have been a kind of belt or strap, or girdle. The first fibres used in the making of these strings and belts would have been plant fibres like hemp or flax. These plants provide long strong and flexible fibres to work with. In those days wool was not yet available because sheep were not yet woolly. The first domesticated sheep would have been more hairy than woolly, and they would have been kept only for their meat. But along the way woolly sheep were bred and the multiple uses that sheep could be put to---meat, milk, wool---was recognized.

Wool is quite different from hemp or linen (flax). It takes a dye better and it is more stretchy. It is also a relatively short fibre. Yarn spun from wool is not as strong as the longer-fibred hemp and linen yarn. For this reason somewhat different weaving techniques were developed to handle it, in particular twill instead of plain weave, which put less tension on the warp threads.

In Egypt wool was rare, most clothing was constructed from linen. Since it does not dye well ancient Egyptian clothing was plain white. Instead of coloured textiles Egyptians adorned themselves with jewelry. In other areas where wool was more available people generally wore two or more layers of clothing, an inner plant-based layer and an outer wool-based layer. The wool layer could be brightly coloured and woven in interesting designs. Wool was scratchy so it was nice to have softer plant-fibres against one's skin. The French term "lingerie" derives ultimately from the term "linen".

Looms used for weaving were of several types. Egyptians used a horizontal loom staked out on the ground. This would have been very appropriate in a warm dry climate where you could set up outdoors where there is lots of space.

Another type was semi-vertical, the warp (the long direction of the textile) hung from a horizontal bar and was held in place by clay weights tied to the bottom end of the warp. This was the warp-weighted loom. This type of loom could be used indoors because it took up less floor space, it was better suited to cooler and wetter climates than a horizontal loom. But since it was set up to lean against another vertical surface, it could be moved around, indoors and outdoors if needs be. Warp weights have been found in many locations in Europe, it is safe to assume that this was the main type of loom used there.

The third major type was a vertical loom without weights, instead the warp was attached to both an upper and a lower horizontal bar. This type of loom was usually anchored to the floor by two vertical poles inserted in holes. It is thought that this was the main type of loom east of Europe since no warp weights have been found east of Kiev or south of the Black Sea.

Textile making was largely a women's activity. It was highly compatible with minding children and could be done in the home or nearby. Dr. Barber says that textile making was a hugely time consuming activity, more time consuming than anything else that humans did. Men also wove, but it was predominantly women's work.

Once invented, textiles became very popular and were in great demand. The earliest trade caravans packed tin for bronze making and textiles. Graves were filled with piles of clothing. It was also a prized item for theft; the word "robber" has the same root as the word "robe". Women in every culture spun and wove, it was probably considered as important if not more important than childrearing. Only highborn women did not, instead they were responsible for overseeing other women in those activities.

When industrialization got started in Europe, the first industry to be mechanized was textile making. This necessitated moving the activity out of the home and into the factory. Yanking women out of their homes and into factories was probably the single most disruptive aspect of industrialization.

Dr. Barber shows how the movement of peoples around Eurasia can be traced through the different styles and designs of textiles they left behind. The Celts of Europe are probably distantly related to the people of the Tarim Basin, as shown by their common use of twills and plaids, and also by some linguistic commonalities. Dr. Barber wrote these books in the 1990s when the use of DNA evidence for tracing human movements was still in its infancy; she looked forward to a time when that could be used to contradict or to corroborate her ideas about those movements based on her own studies of textiles and linguistics.

Other than Egypt Dr. Barber does not discuss the history of textile making in Africa, nor in the Americas. She touches only briefly on south and east Asia. Silk textiles were important in east Asia and cotton in south Asia and the Americas. Each of these types of fibres are quite different and require different techniques and tools for manipulating.

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