Musing about Ancient Textiles, with some Interesting Links

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask) circa 550–530 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Deirdre Mundy is musing about Penelope and the shroud of Laertes: ” I started wondering about the economic value of labor that was destroyed by Penelope’s nightly unweaving on her loom.”

And she shared a couple of links, which I also found fascinating.

1. Women and textile manufacture in classical Athens by Sarah Muller

“In ancient Athens, women of all classes were responsible for the manufacture of textiles. Spinning and weaving, the methods by which textiles are made, were essential skills. The perceived value of these skills to the domestic economy of classical Athens is difficult to measure as they represented very different things to women of different classes. Slaves were forced to engage in the monotonous and time-consuming labour by their masters, whereas for women of the elite weaving was seen as an honourable task. For the ‘average’ Athenian citizen woman, weaving was simultaneously the mark of a good wife, a religious duty, a domestic responsibility, her traditional role, and, of course, a contribution to the oikos. Some modern historians maintain that the textile industry was forced upon citizen women to keep them secluded in the house and that it was too closely associated with slave labour to be especially valued.1 Through an analysis of ancient texts and archaeological evidence I examine this proposition, but my principal argument is that the creation of textiles contributed directly to the Athenian domestic economy.”

I wonder how much scholars struggle with correctly understanding the value of textiles in the past precisely because of contemporary biases against and devaluation of tasks traditionally conceived of as women’s work as well as the devaluation of textiles in a post-industrial world. And how much of that denigration of women’s work is the result of living in a post-industrial world where cottage industry and subsistence living and domesticity were devalued by the shift to an industrial economy?

“The role of women in textile manufacture dates back to the Neolithic period. This seems to be because women were charged with the care of children and, as a result, tended to work in ways that were compatible with this duty. Dangerous work and tasks that demanded uninterrupted attention were unsuitable for women and tended to be done by men, whereas tasks such as cooking food and spinning and weaving wool were well suited to and compatible with child-rearing.”

This seems almost self-evident to me now, but I remember a time when it was a revelation: that the traditional division of labor wasn’t necessarily about oppression of women but a common sense approach rooted in the biology of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. The problem isn’t women focusing on different tasks than men or people dividing labor. The problem is when certain kinds of work are stigmatized and devalued.

“It is important to remember, however, that this binary male/female divide may not necessarily have represented reality: we should recall the case of Demosthenes, who makes and sells ribbons with his mother (Dem. 57.31). Nevertheless, the traditional demarcation of the roles of men and women attests neither to the servitude nor the liberty of women, merely that each has their separate responsibilities, and that both contribute to the functioning of the community.”

I love this point that maybe roles weren’t as rigid as we imagine. Maybe the rigidity is our own cultural baggage that we are reading into the past. And maybe so is the attitude that certain tasks are servile and demeaning.

” Because of this, social historians such as Pomeroy have argued that, although women’s work was necessary to the functioning of society, it was too closely associated with the monotonous and laborious work of slaves to be especially honourable.19 The work of men, on the other hand, included tilling the fields and sowing and harvesting crops – work which was also undertaken by slaves and which seems itself dull and demanding. This work, although equally as important to the Athenian household as was the production of clothing and bedding, seems not to hold the same stigma.

Wool working was not restricted to citizen women, freedwomen and slaves, but was also undertaken by highborn women. Each year in Athens two young women were responsible for the creation of a woollen garment for the statue of Athena that stood on the Acropolis. This was part of a major religious ceremony, the procession of the Panathenaea, which honoured Athena, the patron goddess of Athens and the patroness of weaving. The privileged women were chosen from among the elite class to weave the garment over a period of nine months.20 Their involvement in the religious procession demonstrates that women had a firm place in public worship.”

It struck me recently that we moderns have a historically weird attitude towards work that is monotonous and laborious. I found myself engaged in playing a monotonous game on the ipad, enjoying the rhythm and low-grade mental effort of problem solving and a task that required a certain amount of hand-eye coordination. A game that was rhythmic and regular enough to let me also attend to a television show, a conversation, or the drifting of my own thoughts. And it occurred to me that maybe we’ve evolved to enjoy a certain kind of monotonous work, a rhythmic kind of labor that busies our hands and part of our mind but once we’ve achieved a degree of mastery allows our minds to wander, to daydream, to create. I write poetry while walking, sing songs while working. Maybe mindless hand work allows room for a certain kind of creativity? Maybe it’s not merely servile but indeed can be freeing?

“Archaeology indicates that the household, as we have seen above, rather than being a place of isolation was in fact a backdrop for social integration. We can see that men and women from different classes would meet in the oikos and that the evidence to support exclusively female and male spaces in Athenian households is tenuous.”

“Studies of ancient Athenian women have too often focused on their lack of economic freedoms rather than their contributions to the economy. I argue that if work is valued, then workers are valued, and in fifth-century BCE Athens, thread and cloth mattered. Representations of women spinning and weaving abounded within this period, which indicate that the work of women was a valued asset to society. Women who could weave were more desirable and well-respected. For ancient Athenians, spinning and weaving was a necessity; it was also a metaphor for human skill, honour, cohesion and life. To confirm the importance of thread work, it commonly appeared in mythology and is strongly tied with the most important goddess of ancient Athens: Athena. Textile manufacture was central to the ancient Athenian domestic economy and the role of women in the Athenian textile industry was significant.”

I love the point about how often spinning and weaving were important metaphors in myth and legend. They were an integral part of the imaginative life. The Fates were spinners. Athene’s great gift to mankind is weaving. Maybe we devalue these jobs because we have become accustomed to cheap textiles made in factories by people who are underpaid and treated badly. At a time when queens did their own spinning and weaving, it was hardly servile work. It was understood to be vital.

2. The Shroud of Laertes and Penelope’s Guile by Steven Lowenstam (incidentally, I love that you can now read up to six academic articles online on JSTOR in a month for free!)

This is an excellent piece of textual criticism with a close reading of the three almost-identical passages that describe Penelope’s weaving and unweaving in the Odyssey, with especial attention to the different contexts of each iteration of the story.

“The story of Laertes’ shroud, which Penelope weaves during the day and unravels at night, is the only narrative that is told almost verbatim three times in Homer (Od 2. 93-110, 19. 137-56, 24. 129-48). Although this unique statue should indicate its importance, Homeric scholars have strangely paid little attention to the story itself, and focused instead on subsidiary questions.”

I really love the implicit poke at scholars who neglect to root their scholarship in a close reading of the text. It’s fine to look at subsidiary questions, but shouldn’t we first dig into the text and understand it before haring off into the weeds of rabbit trails? This is the kind of scholarship I value most, that which really values the text and deems it worth of exacting attention.

“If we inquire into the function of a story that is told only once (eg Odysseus’ description of the marriage bed in Book 23), we connect the details of that account with the motifs that are salient at that particular point in the poem. What happens, however, when the same story is related at the beginning, middle, and end of the epic? Must the meaning and function of the shroud story necessarily be vague because of its repetition, a narratological equivalent for instance of the repeated epithet [redacted because I cannot figure out how to write the Greek characters] or can the story fit into each of its three contexts as adroitly as the description of the bed in Book 23? The fact that there are differences in the three versions suggests the possibility of particular functions in each of its tellings, but only an analysis of the story in terms of its contexts can answer this question.”

This article is well worth reading at length, but I’m going to limit my excerpts because I can’t copy and paste and transcribing from another browser window is rather tedious and laborious.

* * *

And then to turn back to one of the articles from the initial discussion that inspired Deirdre’s Odyssey rabbit trail: No Wool, No Vikings.

Once a boat like Braute would also have smelled of wet wool. As recently as a couple of centuries ago, that sail could have been woolen—dense cloth woven on looms in small, dark cottages strung along coasts once dominated by the Vikings. Meter upon meter of fabric was painstakingly woven in strips and sewn together. Outfitting a single warship about twice as long as Braute and its crew might have required the wool of 1,000 sheep or more.

All that wool! It took land and farming skills to raise the sheep that supplied the wool, and a support network of (mostly) women whose spindles and looms produced the cloth. Textile archaeologist Jørgensen says the introduction of sails must have greatly increased the demand for wool and grazing land. Norway-based historical textile researcher Amy Lightfoot has even speculated that the demand for pastureland might have driven the Viking expansion as much as the gleaming temptations of stolen treasure and legitimate trade. Clearly the classic image of wild-haired Viking warriors isn’t the whole story.

Until recently, many historians thought that what we’re doing—sailing into the wind—was impossible for Viking boats with their square sails; they believed that the boats could only sail with the wind behind them. However, Langeland and others have demonstrated that square sails can indeed sail into the wind, if not as efficiently as triangular sails. But what about woolen sails? Surely woven wool would leak too much air for efficiency. How did the Vikings turn wool into functional sailcloth?

In 1989, workers repairing the roof of a medieval church in Trondenes in northern Norway found pieces of 600-year-old woolen sailcloth stuffed into the attic. While it dates from about three centuries after the height of the Vikings’ dominance, it belongs to the same sailing tradition. Chemists, historians, textile experts, and archaeologists have pored over the chunk of fabric. They learned it was a variation of wadmal, the basic woolen cloth woven for everyday use throughout the North Atlantic region, from Viking days right through the Middle Ages. The wool itself came from northern European short-tailed sheep—the kind the Vikings kept. Jørgensen says their unusual coat was a key element in making woolen sails.

The sheep are double-coated, with an outer coat of long, strong guard hairs and a soft, warm inner coat. Both kinds of fiber showed up in the old sail. To create a strong fabric, the weaver used the coarse outer hairs in the sail’s warp (vertical fibers on a traditional warp-weighted loom). The weft (horizontal fibers) came from the soft inner coat that fluffs out a bit, filling the gaps in the weave. The finished material was “fulled”—that is, treated to shrink it slightly and tighten the fabric.

But that wasn’t the whole secret of a windproof woolen sail. Analysis showed that the sail fragment was soaked with resinous material. After centuries crammed between the joists of the old church, it was almost as stiff as the boards that protected it. That goopy stuff proved to be crucial to making a functional woolen sail.

But they need a mind-boggling quantity of wool. Based on her first sail, Lightfoot estimated that a 100-square-meter sail (about one-quarter the size of a basketball court and big enough for a 30-meter longship) used two tonnes of fleece, the annual production of about 700 sheep. Researchers at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, calculated that by the mid-11th century, the Viking fleet—fishing boats, coastal traders, cargo ships, and longships—carried roughly one million square meters of sail, requiring the equivalent of all the wool produced in one year by about two million sheep.

The amount of wool working is just as mind-boggling as the amount of wool. “It’s actually more time-consuming to produce the textiles than to produce the boat,” Lightfoot said in a 2009 documentary about woolen sails. Building a boat might take two skilled boatbuilders a couple of weeks, she estimated, but creating its sail would take two skilled women a year.

Finally, one more link: a The Penelope Project: A Study of Weaving as Technical Mode of Existence:

Our aim is to integrate ancient weaving into the history of science and technology, especially digital technology. The project encompasses the investigation of ancient sources as well as practices and technological principles of ancient weaving. We set up a PENELOPEan laboratory where we detect the models and topologies of weaves and develop codes to make them virtually explorable.

So many articles to read and ideas to explore there.

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