Mother Thread – A Historical Look at Women and Textiles

Posted by: Claire Komacek

Originating from the sexual division of labor and appointed roles of domesticity, textiles have a long history of being regarded as ‘women’s work,’ from early basketry and loom weaving, lacemaking and needlepoint, to knitting and crochet. However, a metaphoric approach reveals that historically textiles and their creation were believed to be deeply connected to women’s bodies and the earth as representations of the life-creating power of women.

‘In pre-industrial cultures,’1 women came to assume the role of textile production through ‘pre-existing social attitudes about women and men in which the general tendency was to follow the domestic and ordinary verses the public and extraordinary division,’2 respectively. Women’s traditional social roles were imposed upon them because of their bodily functions of reproduction and childrearing.3 As women were considered ‘to be ‘burdened’ by pregnancy and childcare, they were assigned to soft materials with simple tools and processes.’4 Women’s social roles were also ‘considered to be at a lower order of the cultural process than men’s’5 and, by extension, women were seen as closer to the earth and the domestic sphere rather than men’s political and social realms.

Both women and the earth held the powers of ‘fertility, agricultural bounty,’6 and nurturance, as well as the responsibility for ‘producing life and growth.’7 ‘The very existence and cycle of human life were dependent on women and the earth,’8 from the beginning in creating new life, to the creation of life-sustaining textiles such as clothing, fishing nets, baskets for gathering and storing food, and tents or shelter coverings, many of which take on the round shape of the womb. Just as the earth sustains her inhabitants through the growth of plants and animals, a woman sustained the lives of her children and family through her ‘ability to weave, cut, sew, or create with whatever resources were available’9 of the earth. ‘Agriculture and the cultivation of plants was also symbolic of and therefore delegated to women,’10 who are credited with its invention.11 Textiles originated from the earth through the harvesting of plants, vegetables, roots, husks, seed hairs, and bast, leaf, and bark fibers.12 Women were responsible for the entire process of textile production beginning with the cultivation of plants, their ‘harvesting, cleaning, spinning, dying, starching,’13 and ending with the weaving of the yarns. Because the ability to produce textiles was akin to the ability to create and ultimately sustain life, a great weaver was considered to be ‘the embodiment of a good housewife’14 and ‘a wife’s desirability was measured by the quality of her weaving,’15 a concept that persisted up until the Victorian Era when women were evaluated on their ‘proficiency in needlework’16 and embroidery.

In many ‘pre-industrial cultures,’17 the textiles were closely linked with ‘birth, fertility, and reproduction,’18 and their creation was synonymous with power over life and death. This idea is not so unlike the well-known Greek Moirai, or the Three Fates, who were invoked at birth to spin a length of ‘mother thread’ representing the allocated lifespan for each mortal.20 ‘The Romans equated the Greek Moirai with their minor goddesses the Parcae, who presided at childbirth.’21 This association ‘may have begun with attendant women who did their spinning while waiting to act as midwives in the birthing room. The parallel between bringing forth new thread and new humans, ‘both coming into being by women where nothing had existed before,’22 strengthened the image.’23 Often the ‘weaving warps were likened to a mother, and the wefts to the child conceived within her womb. As the weaving proceeded, the child grew along with the fabric,’24 and in some cultures, ‘textiles, like babies, were said to be ‘birthed.’25 By association, the loom and its parts were called the ‘mother’ and her ‘children,’26 respectively. In addition, in some cultures women wove on a backstrap or hip tension loom in which one end was tied to a ‘mother tree’ by a cord known as the ‘umbilical cord.’27 It was believed that ‘when a woman weaves in this position, her work is not only generative, but it also reproduces the cycle of life.’28

Akin to mortal women, ‘representations of goddesses as weavers or spinners exists in many cultures.’29 The mother goddess is ‘fundamental to all cultures, serving as life-giver, protector, and the source of nurturance,’30 and many pass their knowledge of spinning and weaving onto mortal women.31 Such goddesses include ‘Isis and her sister Nephthys of Egypt, Spider Woman of the Navajo, Athena of Greece,’32 Ixchel or the ‘World-Weaver’33 of the Maya, Tanit of Carthage,34 and Mama Ocllo of the Incas, many of which double as goddesses of agriculture, fertility, or childbirth. ‘All mother goddesses spin and weave veins, fibers, and nerve strands into the miraculous substance of the live body,’35 just as women weave clothing that is worn as a ‘second skin.’ In fact, the prefix of the word textiles, ‘text,’ actually means ‘tissue,’36 as textiles are often considered to be ‘alive,’37 or to maintain a living quality through their properties of absorption, expansion, flexibility, and mobility.38

As creators of new life and life-sustaining textiles, women were believed to have greater innate powers than men for which they were both feared and respected.39 ‘Just as a cloth can be woven, so can it be unraveled; hence the creator has the power to destroy.’40 Women biologically ‘control life through death as signified by menses, miscarriage, stillbirth, and abortion.’41 The textiles women created routinely played important symbolic, identifying, or protective roles in death rituals and funerals.42 In addition, the dead, typically wrapped in special woven funerary cloths such as shrouds or winding sheets, were ‘returned to the earth, their origin, their ‘mother.’43 Power over death is, by extension, power over fate or destiny. In fact, ‘destiny comes from the Latin ‘destino’ meaning that which is woven or fixed with cords and threads.’44 Through this association, women textile-makers strengthened their connection to the Greek Moirai, who cut the ‘mother thread’ at the time of death of every human. As it is the fate of the products of the earth to die and decay, so do the products of women. Each human life must come to an end, just as each organic textile must eventually deteriorate and decay back into the earth.

1. Wayland Barber, Elizabeth, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 184.
2. Gordon, Beverly, Textiles: The Whole Story: Uses, Meanings, Significance (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 184.
3. Ortner, Sherry B., ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?,’ Woman, Culture, and Society, edited by Zimbalist Rosaldo, Michelle and Louise Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), 74.
4. Maksymowicz, Virginia, ‘Myth and the Sexual Division of Labor,’ Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Vol. 1, No. 4 Women’s Traditional Arts – The Politics of Aesthetics, Winter 1977-78, 116.
5. Ortner, Sherry B., ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?,’ 73.
6.  Futterman Collier, Ann, Using Textile Arts and Handcrafts in Therapy with Women: Weaving Lives Back Together (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012), 97.
7.  Maksymowicz, ‘Myth and the Sexual Division of Labor,’ 117.
8.  Maksymowicz, ‘Myth and the Sexual Division of Labor,’ 117.
9.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 210.
10.  Maksymowicz, ‘Myth and the Sexual Division of Labor,’ 117.
11.  Maksymowicz, ‘Myth and the Sexual Division of Labor,’ 117.
12.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 68-69.
13.  Wayland Barber, Women’s Work, 161.
14.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 39.
15.  Goldberg, Lenore, Julie Gross, Bella Lieberman, Elizabeth Sacre, and Jean Feinberg, ‘Political Fabrications: Women’s Textiles in 5 Cultures,’ Heresies,’ Vol. 1, No. 4, 30.
16.  ‘Samplers: Learning to Sew,’ Maine Memory Network, accessed July 20th, 2015, http://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/209/slideshow/247/display?format=list&prev_object_id=468&prev_object=page&slide_num=1.
17.  Wayland Barber, Women’s Work, 184.
18.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 40.
19.  Scheuing, Ruth, ‘The Unraveling of History: Penelope and Other Stories,’ Material Matters: The Art and Culture of Contemporary Textiles, edited by Bachman, Ingrid and Ruth Scheuing (Canada: YYZ Books, 1998,) 202.
20.  Cotterell, Arthur, and Rachel Storm, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (China: Anness Publishing, 1999), 44.
21.  Wayland Barber, Women’s Work, 236.
22.  Wayland Barber, Women’s Work, 160.
23.  Wayland Barber, Women’s Work, 236.
24.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 40.
25.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 40.
26.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 40.
27.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 40.
28.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 40.
29.  Scheuing, ‘The Unraveling of History,’ 202.
30.  Futterman Collier, Using Textile Arts, 125
31.  Hawkes, Kiku, ‘Skanda,’ Material Matters, 237.
32.  Sullivan Kruger, Kathryn, Weaving the Word: The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production (Danvers: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp., 2001), 24.
33.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 42.
34.  ‘On the Mythology of Weaving,’ A Loom With a View, Too, published September 12th, 2009, accessed July 20th, 2015, http://tres-hermanas-weaver.blogspot.jp/2009/09/on-mythology-of-weaving.html.
35.  Metzger, Deena, ‘In Her Image,’ Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Vol. 1 No. 2 Patterns of Communication and Space Among Women, May 1977, 10.
36.  Scheuing, ‘The Unraveling of History,’ 202.
37.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 33.
38.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 34.
39.  Teilhet, Jehanne H., ‘The Equivocal Role of Women Artists in Non-Literate Cultures,’ Heresies,’ Vol. 1, No. 4, 101.
40.  Sullivan Kruger, Weaving the Word, 23.
41.  Teilhet, ‘The Equivocal Role of Women Artists in Non-Literate Cultures,’ 101.
42.  Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 52.
43.  Maksymowicz, ‘Myth and the Sexual Division of Labor,’ 116.
44.  Hawkes, ‘Skanda,’ 236.

1. Morris Jr., Walter F., Living Maya (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1987), 28.
2. Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 21.
3. Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story, 39.

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