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Leon Burman

International Women’s Day: Women and Weaving

By admin 08.03.2022

For International Women’s Day we’re celebrating our wonderful weavers and the skills and traditions passed on from weavers past to Shannon and Olivia our weaver-tacklers, on to our weekend weavers Amy and Emma.

There is both archaeological and written evidence throughout history showing weaving and cloth production was the remit of women. From classical times we hear stories of weaving women. In Greek myths Penelope weaves a funeral shroud to ward off her suitors and control her own destiny; Arachne challenges Athena to a weaving contest and weaves the god’s misdemeanours only to be turned into a spider; Ariadne’s thread leads Theseus to safety from the labyrinth; once her tongue was cut out Philomela wove the story of her violation, allowing her and her sister to enact revenge. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” is a Medieval saying showing the early Christian’s view that the manual labour of textile making was Eve’s punishment, with Eve often being displayed with a spindle in art.  In Norse mythology, it is the three Norns who assign destiny and weave the fate of mankind and gods alike into the tapestry of life. The Valkyries were often portrayed as weaving on a loom, with severed heads for weights, arrows for shuttles, and human gut for the warp. We still see the deep connection with women and weaving in our language; the word distaff, used to describe the female side of a family comes from a tool used in the spinning process.

Dora Wheeler, Penelope Unweaving Her Work at Night (1886), Metropolitan Museum of Art © Wikimedia Commons

These powerful female characters depicted as weavers have been replaced in the modern media, with the strong female leads placed in the roles of the warriors and rulers. However, without women weaving in the background of history, civilisations and empires could not develop and survive; textile was one of the earliest goods traded over long distances. The sails of King Canute’s Viking fleet contained around a million square metres of sailcloth, a feat of weaving which would have taken longer than building the ships themselves. The Roman army could not have kept the empire expanding without the tons of cloth created by their women. Dr. Mary Harlow[1] calculates that spinning and weaving the wool for a single toga would have taken a Roman matron 1,000 to 1,200 hours. Until the arrival of power looms and the mill factories of the Industrial Revolution, women spent much of their day spinning and weaving in order to try to meet the high demand for textile. The machines of the Industrial Revolution liberated women from hours of labour at home into jobs where they could earn a living wage. However, the sudden abundance and ease of access to textile we enjoy in the 21st century severed the connection and dimmed memories of women’s contribution to history of humankind through textile[2].

Whilst in recent centuries, industry and the making of practical and essential items was seen as the job of men, with women’s roles being to decorate or to consume, and textile making was viewed as a novel craft activity. Reflecting the rise of opportunities for women across industry in the 21st century, here at the Silk Mill our female weavers work on heavy machinery and share the job role of “tackler” (fixing and engineering of the looms); they are demonstrating the importance of textile production as an essential, and laborious, job throughout history, and the capacity of women to take on historically male roles in the world of textile production.

[1] Ebert, C., Harlow, M., Andersson, E. and Bjerregaard, L., 2014. Traditional Textile Craft-an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Copenhagen, Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen.

[2] Postrel, V., 2021. Women and Men Are Like the Threads of a Woven Fabric. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 25 February 2022].

Bridges, E., 2018. From Arachne to craftivism: Weaving Women’s Stories. [online] University of London. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 March 2022].

three female weavers in front of whitchurch silk mill

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