Book Review: Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early TimesWomen's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For what seems like it would be a dusty, dry, academic tome, Women's Work was really quite an enjoyable read. Reconstructing women's life and position in society from Paleolithic times to the Iron Age using advanced archeological methods as well as methods borrowed from other areas of research (linguistics, for example), Barber delves into the world of textiles--in particular, spinning and weaving--for what it reveals about the culture and society of the day. As a quiltmaker, I was interested in the development of cloth-making techniques but even more fascinated by the social and cultural connections being made. As I was reading, I was reflecting on possible connections with the textile world today--how cloth is used in fashion and in craft as a form of expression.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Barber's writing style is engaging; her own experience as a weaver, having been taught to weave by her own mother, gives a more direct insight into exploring methods of weaving through centuries. Whether or not you choose to accept all of her conclusions, you can't walk away from this book without a far deeper understanding of the connections between textiles and society in general, and a deeper understanding of a woman's daily life in a variety of contexts over the centuries.

My one critique, although it's an understandable one, is that she focuses solely on the Western world. Clearly there is an ancient tradition of textiles in the Eastern world as well. To cover both in one book would most likely lead to either more cursory and therefore dissatisfying examinations of each, or a book so long that anyone would hesitate to crack open the front cover! I would love to see a sequel by Barber following the Eastern tradition; or by another author (as long as that author was as easy and enjoyable to read as Barber!).

If you're interested in textiles, in weaving, in women's issues, or in the exploration of culture, I do highly recommend this book.

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