Good Girls Weave

  Pottery dated 470-450 BC depicting a woman holding a hoop. Image source:

imageplaceholder Deborah Gerish
Group Content Manager

No one really knows how long humans have woven cloth, because simple looms probably predate written and visual records. Somehow, people figured out that if they couldn’t beat fibrous materials into a fabric, they could interlace threads into sturdy fabrics. Then they devised frames to hold these threads under tension, essentially making a box out of empty air to speed up the weaving process. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has argued that because weaving could be done at home, women supplied all the textiles for their households while men gathered, hunted, or grew food. Men might also weave cloth for sale or barter outside of the household, but that’s a different story. Barber’s fascinating history, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), vividly demonstrates an early and lasting association between cloth production, female labor, and male approval of that labor. It’s no accident that in cultures all across the globe, women’s graves often included spindles, needles, and other artifacts associated with cloth. Respectable women contributed to the household by clothing its members.

Ancient Greek and Roman societies provide my favorite examples relating fabric with female domesticity, largely because both these cultures also wanted to differentiate good girls from bad girls. They often used textiles to do so.

Athenian pottery made for use in the home (we know that specific jar shapes had designated functions) often featured the household’s female slaves spinning or winding yarn while the matron wove at her loom, perhaps with children at her feet. Barber’s book displays one such vase painting on its cover. The not-subtle message: respectable women produced, and productive women were respectable.

Athenian potters also made many items showing “bad girls” with looms, spindles, and other textile equipment. We know these females weren’t respectable because in these paintings, the women are wearing nothing but a smile. It’s not clear if the painters were mocking these women (“Look at her–she’s trying to pretend she’s a good girl. Like she knows how to weave!”) or if male customers were supposed to find the combination of nudity and respectability attractive. I can’t provide any of these images because this is a family newsletter, and I don’t recommend searching on the Internet at work, but you can find pictures in recent books on women in Athens.

The Romans borrowed lots of their domestic attitudes from the Greeks. In fact, Roman men credited a respectable woman with inadvertently founding their beloved Republic. Livy provides all the details: one night a bunch of men, including the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, sat around drinking and arguing about who had the best wife. They settled the matter by visiting each man’s house in turn, to find that the ladies were lazing around drinking wine and gossiping. Only one wife, Lucretia, was still industriously working with wool. Sextus Tarquinius found her virtue so intoxicating, he came back the next day and raped her, warning her never to tell her husband. Lucretia was so virtuous, however, that she told her husband, father, and two of their companions before committing suicide. These men swore on her bloody knife to eject all kings from Rome, which would henceforth be a republic instead of a monarchy. European artists and intellectuals ever since have venerated Lucretia as a paragon of female honor, a cautionary tale about the evils of kingship, and a guilt-free way to portray women’s chests. (Seriously. Look for images of Lucretia online, and you’ll see tons of them.)

Nowadays, most of us don’t have to make all the fabric for our families, and the household’s respectability doesn’t generally rise or fall depending on our textile output. It’s nice to have escaped these pressures so that we can weave for the joy of creating. Now if only there were more time to create.



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