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on November 21, 2003
This book covers a huge amount of information without ever being dry or boring. The tone is conversational throughout and incredibly interesting. The author shows us the oldest surviving fragment of cloth (a wool plaid from 800 B.C.) and then weaves a replica herself to see how long it would have taken to make. There are examples of Greek pottery showing women weaving at warp-weighted looms, which allows the author to tell us about the migration of peoples by describing finds of loom weights in Egypt. Other pottery fragments show women walking and hand spinning at the same time, and then a drawing of the Venus de Milo, with arms drawn on, shows that her arms are in the same position and she was very likely spinning thread. It's a marvelous book that's as easy to understand as a conversation over a fence with your neighbor. In fact, there's a picture of two modern Hungarian girls doing just that while wearing their typical bell-like national costume, and beside this picture is a scene from a mid-first millennium B.C. vase found in Hungary showing a very similar costume. The author moves us back and forth through history and across the continents with ease and interest. It's a fabulous book.
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on June 26, 2002
I bought this book after attending some lectures Wayland Barber gave at Grinnell College. Amazingly well-researched, well-argued, and thought provoking, this book isn't in the least bit dry or heady. Thoroughly academic, but still a pleasent read! Tracing the global connections of development and using several disciplines to gather evidence makes for an amazing work. Who would have known linguistics to be so important to textile history? Or how much textile history can tell us not only about social history, but political history as well. Read this book.
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on April 19, 2000
I had the privelege of attending a lecture by the author recently, and ran out immediately after to get the book. It is clearly written and obviously well researched, and Barber has a refreshing, unique perspective in archaeology: she views her subject from more than one angle. Looking at "women's work" as an archaeologist, linguist and weaver, Barber is able to see the bigger picture, and points out gaping holes in most prehistoric civilization studies: little, if any, mention of textile production, and its sweeping impact on early society. Barber has reproduced many of these textiles herself, and in my mind, this practical experience makes her more than just another academician spouting theory. The book is a good read, and thankfully the author does not use this material to plug any revisioinist-history agenda. I look forward to her next book, possibly a study connecting language, archaeology, etc., with regard to textiles found in N.W. South America that have a stiking similarity to some Asian textiles. This was brought up as a final point in the lecture: we all await the next chapter!
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on July 22, 1998
This is a scholarly yet easily read book about the history of textiles, from basic string to complex weaves, and also about the fascinating history of the social development of humanity, from hunter-gatherers on.
The author's research is thorough and includes archeological evidence, analysis and identification of artifacts, maps and descriptions of trade routes, consideration of stories and myths, photographs, letters, and even human physiology. Her theories, including why women are absent from most historical records and what the Venus de Milo was doing with her now-missing arms, are eye-opening and firmly grounded in her extensive research.
Further, this book covers a lot of ground as well as time. Geographically, areas from the Eastern reaches to Europe and down into Egypt are presented, and comparisons between ancient and modern costumes and traditions are made.
During the course of the book the author makes the cogent point that archeologists and historians m! ight do well to attempt recreation of artifacts found (using time-appropriate methods); her own experiences in making such a recreation is telling and amusing. Likewise, her observations on customs and costumes (those which have survived, those which have not, and possible reasons why) suggest that sociology has much to add to our understanding of history, of the hows and whys humans have lived and developed.
I found this book to be suprising, thought-provoking, entertaining, and a good reference source. I have presented copies to two of my friends (they kept borrowing my copy!), and will it serve as a gift to three more (who keep trying to borrow mine, but I've learned my lesson).
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on August 25, 2005
Anyone interested in so-called gender studies, textiles, prehistory, or just in regular people ought to read this book. The authoress, in incredibly simple language (she can't REALLY be an academic, can she?), tells the story of women and the textile work that has (pre-) historically been theirs. Bringing the insight that only a practicing weaver or spinner could have to the dusty world of archeology, she sweeps the reader into the homes of real people. Lots of metaphors, but honestly, it's that kind of book: rich. I only wish I could read it again for the first time.
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on May 10, 2004
As a fiber artist, I am very interested in the history of fiber. Elizabeth Barber's "Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years" is fantastic, both as a history of the use of fibers and as a history of working women. I learned a great deal about women's role in society from her research, and it makes me proud to be a modern woman working with fiber, just as my ancestors did. Highly recommended!
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on June 21, 2006
I bought this book on the recomendation of my spinning instructor. I was expecting the documentation of early spinning and weaving techniques, and the discussion of preserved textiles. I wasnt expecting to be inspired to go out and buy a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey to read about the textile and history references that she brings up! I had no idea that Greek mythologies mention items of clothing that have been found in the area and dated to pre-Greco times....and were stil identifiable items of clothing in the last century.

Basically this book is a textile and history junkies best fix.

If you are a re-creationist,(such as the SCA) or particpating in Lving History demonstrations, you will definately want this book for its discussions of documented cloth finds,

If you like this book, you may also enjoy reading "Salt, a World History" as they mention several of the same places, and historical finds.
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on December 19, 2007
I ran across this book almost by accident. I was feeling rather glum one day, and I asked my wife to recommend a book for me - something that was out of the ordinary and would cheer me up. She recommended "Women's Work". I was a little skeptical that it would appeal to a techie guy like myself, but soon I was absorbed in Elizabeth Wayland Barber's storytelling.

"Women's Work" tells the story of textiles in human history. In nearly every society, spinning, weaving, and sewing have been done almost exclusively by women, so the history of textiles is also a history of women's work - or one important part of it. That's still reflected in our language, for example, when we refer to the "distaff side" - a distaff being a stick used to hold fiber for spinning.

Wayland Barber tells her story with with wit and clarity. And more than that, she tells the story of the story - that is, she traces not only what we know about textiles in ancient times, but describes how we know it. So, this is not only a fine history, but it's a fine, readable treatise on historiography as well.

I can warmly recommend this book to anyone interested in textiles, or women's history, or how history is written, or who has the blues and just wants to read a darn good book.
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on February 18, 1999
I am an obstetrician/gynecologist, who was a hand weaver before going to medical school. I have always enjoyed reading about archeology. I didn't know I was looking for this book until I found it. The fiber arts have always been women's work. How women's production of fiber and fabrics was interwoven with the functioning of different ancient societies is explored in this very readable book. I was especially taken by the idea of the Fates as the midwives waiting for a delivery and spinning thread; and the newborn's fate is the spun thread.
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on October 8, 2014
This book was referenced in Maggie Casey's Spinning One class. I became intrigued by the question: How did textiles/cooking/home become "women's work."

I snuggled up to this book and was unprepared for the scope of the book, as well as the temporal and geographic romp I would be carried into. The romp starts 30,000+ years ago.

I am easily bored, and this book was so gripping I made it half way through on the first sitting. Barber manages to weave together the disciplines of Archeology, Anthropology, History and Literature into a cohesive core that does answer the question. The scope of this book is amazing.

I highly recommend this book!
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