7.2 Stitch in Time: A History of Clothing the Family

Stitch in Time

The average woman of the past spent an enormous amount of time carding, combing, spinning, weaving, sewing, and mending nearly everything her family wore. It’s a happy day when women get to outsource any part of that.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife. The feature image is Mary Cassatt’s Young Mother Sewing.

Full Transcript

Last week we talked about laundry and what a huge hassle that used to be. But before you can do laundry, you need to have clothes to launder. Maybe you, an exhausted housewife, are hoping that that is on someone else’s to-do list. But you are wrong. Because there is no household task that is as uniformly and strongly gendered as those surrounding textiles and clothes. A very, very large percentage of humanity in the past has agreed that this is your job, dear housewife.

Deities associated with spinning and weaving are almost always women: the Greek Athena and the three Fates, Spider Grandmother of the Navajo, Léi Zǔ of China, Uttu of Mesopotamia, Tait and Neith of Egypt, and Asherah of Canaan, to name just a few.

The gendered association is so strong that the Sigmund Freud was able to say (presumably with a straight face) that “it seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization. . . There is, however, one technique which they have invented—that of plaiting and weaving.” Women developed these skills, he continued, in response to a subconscious feeling of shame and “genital deficiency” (quoted in St Clair, 14).

If I were the kind of podcaster who did sound effects, you would hear a lot of booing and hissing here, but I’m not, so I hope you are supplying the booing and hissing yourself. There are so many things wrong with that statement it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s just say that we don’t have the foggiest clue which gender the first weaver identified as. Just like we don’t have the foggiest clue about the inventor of the wheel or fire or writing or any of the other great inventions of prehistoric times. They may have all been women. Or all not. Or maybe just a healthy mix. And genital deficiency seems a less-than-compelling reason compared with maybe, I-don’t-know, feeling chilly? So much for Freud.

There are four major natural fibers, and they are flax, cotton, wool, and silk. There are also a whole lot of minor ones like jute, hemp, and even spider silk at one modern fashion show, but I’m skipping all of those because four is more than enough to be getting on with. Each of the great civilizations, plus most of the not-so-great ones, had at least one of the major fibers to work with. In prehistoric times, we don’t know who actually did the work, but in Ur about 2000 BCE, there were huge flocks of black and white sheep and (it is recorded) nearby were 127 slave girls and children working the wool. It was already a gendered task (Wilson, 24).

So let’s talk about what that task actually entailed. For flax, cotton, and wool, the initial steps are similar (at least in the extremely high-level description I’m going to give), and I’ll talk about silk in a bit.

The first task, of course, is to grow the flax or cotton or raise the sheep and then gather the goods, whether by shearing the sleep, pulling up the flax, or picking the cotton. That part may or may not be women’s work. They certainly did it some of the time. The resulting stuff must be cleaned and any foreign material removed. Then it’s dried and sorted into different grades of fineness. And let’s not minimize just how monumental a task that was. The timing of it all varies, of course, but in Scandinavia, the wool was collected in the spring, but stored until the following winter, because who has time for all that in the summer? Whereas the winter days are plenty long enough for hours of mindless tedium.

Then begins the combing or carding, depending on the fiber, because you need all those fibers detangled, soft, and lining up. Then you are reading to begin spinning. The origins of all this are invisible because it predates written records. Archaeology is of little help because in most climates you are lucky if fabric lasts 200 years, a mere blink in time. Technically, no equipment is required, so no luck finding that either.

The Egyptian Tomb of Meketre from about 2000 BCE had models of people doing all the trades to produce the goods Mr. Meketre would need in the afterlife. The flax spinners (all women) are seated on the floor rolling the thread between palms and thigh. Not the kind of thing that leaves a trace for archaeologists.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

But spinning can also be done with a drop spindle, which is basically a stick. You wrap a little of your fiber around it and set it spinning to twist your yarn, feeding it more wool or flax or cotton all the time.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (Greek woman spinning, c. 490 BCE)

Quite honestly, this made no sense to me until I watched a video, so I’ll post one on the website. A stick alone really doesn’t spin very well, so most cultures (from Japan to Peru) figured out how to add a spindle whorl, which is a weight, made of clay, stone, metal or whatever. It puts gravity on your side, spins better, and makes more even thread, but you still have to stand there, feeding in the fiber, and setting it spinning. The spindle whorls can be found and dated by archaeologists, but who knows how much longer people were doing things by stick or by thigh before that?

If you are sufficiently trained and practiced, you may be able to spin 30-50 meters of yarn per hour (St Clair, 110). If that seems like a lot it’s because you haven’t calculated how much yarn goes into a sweater. Or even a scarf. I am not a knitter, but a brief internet search informs me that to make a scarf I might need anywhere from 125 to 825 meters of yarn, depending on the weight of the yarn and the size of the scarf. That’s a minimum of a few hours spinning. Probably more.

Spinning wheels were invented in India, somewhere around 750 CE. The Chinese added the foot treadle. Europe didn’t really catch on for another 800ish years after that. The wheel makes better, more uniform thread than a drop spindle, but a wheel is a whole lot more expensive to make and maintain than your pointy stick. And they weren’t necessarily faster at making thread. They just made better thread (Wilson, 8).

If you were a Chinese housewife, things were a little different because you didn’t start with a sheep or a plant. According to one commonly told tale, the young empress Xīlíngshì was sitting in her garden about 2600 BCE when a cocoon fell into her cup of hot tea. The heat dissolved the outer shell, and inside the empress found a ball of shimmering thread.

Whether that’s true or not, the reality of silk production wasn’t all sitting in gardens drinking tea.

The silkworms have been domesticated so that their life cycles are fast and they barely move. They are kept in ventilated, stacked trays, while their human minions serve them large quantities of mulberry leaves every three to four hours, round the clock.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (13th century Japanese women placing silkworms on trays)

You will need 220 pounds of leaves for every pound of silk you hope to produce. They are loud eaters, so if you’ve got these in your house you don’t need a white noise machine, and if you’ve got them on a large scale, you’ve got the sound of a constant torrential rainstorm.

The leaves must be clean, dry, and not too hot. Mess that up and you’ll kill your worms. Diseased worms must be removed quickly, or you’ll kill your colony. When the cocoons are fat, you remove the outer floss (it’s good for padding) and then you steam, bake, or soak the rest in salt solution to kill the larvae and dissolve the outer bits you don’t want. Then you pull the remaining filament out and reel it up. Technically, you’ve already got thread, so that’s a leg up on the spinning housewives in other parts of the world. But the thread is very, very thin, so usually you need to twist them with other threads to make it thicker, and that is sort of similar to spinning.

And all of this was women’s work, because of course it was. One Chinese text from 4th century BCE says “Early in the morning the women rise, late in the night they go to bed, spinning and weaving… That is their share in the work.” (St Clair, 65).

But whatever your fiber, after all this work, do you now have warm clothes? No, you have a ball of yarn. Maybe you’re feeling fancy and you dye it. Maybe you ain’t got time and energy for that, and you’re going straight to weaving. I don’t blame you.

The origins of weaving are also obscure because once again, you technically you don’t need much equipment. The simplest loom is just a stick to hold your threads at one end. You hold the other ends in your hand.

The weavers in Meketre’s tomb are using a ground loom for their thread, which means the threads are tied to sticks on both ends, parallel to the ground. Those threads are called the warp and are held stationary. The women are seated or kneeling nearby. They feed the weft thread through from the side, over and below the warp threads. Once a row is complete, the weft threads are jammed tight with a stick and the next row begins.

Vertical looms were invented about 1500 BCE (St Clair, 43). The most common type was the warp-weighted loom, which I described in the Historical Mary series as follows: Find a convenient pole or horizontal tree branch. Tie a lot (and I do mean a lot) of threads onto it at even intervals. Place a second, lower down horizontal pole just a little closer to you, so that the threads are pulled slightly forward and then hang down loose over that second pole. You need them to hang straight, so you weight them down by tying a rock on the bottom of every last one of those threads. That is your warp. You create your weft by pushing other threads horizontally over and under the warp threads. Jam those weft threads tight up to the top and repeat. And repeat. And repeat again.

Stories about weaving as women’s work are plentiful, and perhaps the most famous is that of the Greek Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. To stave off her unwanted suitors, she said she had to finish weaving first. She wove by day and then secretly at night unwove it, so that her progress was very, very slow.

The Odyssey has a disappointing lack of details as a weaving instruction manual, but most likely, Penelope would have been using wool yarn on a warp-weighted loom.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (Reconstruction of a neolithic, warp-weighted loom)

Note that this kind of work was seen as normal for a very high-status woman and also that the men were so clueless about the process that she was able to fool them for years on end. The story may be fiction, but it says something about cultural norms anyway.

Interestingly, weaving is not as gendered as spinning. In most cultures, it was women’s work. China had a proverb for it: men farm, women weave. But in India it was men who wove (St Clair, 14, 62).

The Weaving Factory by Katsushika Hokusai (Wikimedia Commons

And having done all this work, do you have warm clothes? No, you have a bolt of cloth. At the very least it will need some hemming before you can use it as a wraparound skirt. And that’s your job too, busy housewife. Sewing is even older than spinning and weaving because it was done with furs and plant leaves to make everything from a tepee to a basket to a fashion statement, and every single stitch of it was done by hand.

By Victorian times, a woman’s sewing tasks were divided into two categories: plain sewing and fancy work. Fancy work is all the potentially fun stuff like embroidery, lace, and ruffly collars. Plain sewing was the mountain of straight hems and stitching of shirts and underpants that actually had to get done in order for all that carding, spinning, and weaving to be of any use at all.

Even if you dispensed with fanciness and kept to the bare minimum, a simple piece of clothing required hours of work from a practiced plain sewer. This part of the work was so gendered that many a Victorian woman was able to make statements like “I took my work with me” or “I picked up my work.” Work meant sewing, by definition.

The main point here is that clothing your family was an enormous time investment. It is estimated that in prehistoric times, dealing with textiles took more time than pottery and food production combined (St Clair, 2). An estimate about China in the 20th century calculated that a woman who had to provide all cloth for a family of three spent six months out of her year making it, leaving her six months to do absolutely everything else (Eyferth, Less for More, 69). And lots of women had larger families.

So you may be asking how your poor, overburdened housewife got it done when she’s only got 24 hours in a day. And there are several answers to that. One is that, to some extent, they just didn’t get it done. Unless you were rich, you didn’t own many clothes. Children might go naked. You mended and darned rips because that was a whole lot easier than starting from scratch.

Another answer is that a woman’s hands were rarely idle. Spinning, sewing, and to some extent weaving could be done while watching children or socializing. Women the world over gathered together to talk, tell tales, and gossip. Sometimes they did this daily, but the textile work going on simultaneously justified it: We’re not just having a good time together. We’re working.

Even if it was just the family socializing in the evening, Mother’s hands were busy. It was common for all to join in the evening, when it was too dark to continue most work. By the light of one candle, Father might read to the family for entertainment while Mother kept right on sewing (Never Done, 134).

A young girl’s hands were rarely idle either. Spinning could be learned early too. Girls in Guanzhong, China began spinning at the age of seven and basically never left the house again until they married (Eyferth, Women’s Work, 383). This was ostensibly for their protection and modesty. But you can’t help thinking that the value of their labor might have been a motivation as well. Weaving is harder, so they didn’t do that until age 10-14.

In most cultures a girl was given a needle as soon as she was old enough to hold it. You’ve probably seen old samplers stitched by American and European girls as a symbol of their accomplishment as a needleworker. The original purpose of the sampler was not to be either beautiful or to show off, but to serve as a reference. Most women didn’t have patterns or instruction books. Many couldn’t have read them even if they did. So a sampler of all the different stitches would serve as a reminder later, when you couldn’t remember everything (Hole, 164).

Periodically, you see a picture on the Internet of a vintage sampler saying something like “Edith-Anne made this and hated every stitch of it.” I am sorry to say that all of those are fakes. There is one description of a similar sampler by Miss Patty Polk of Maryland about 1830, which may be real, but there is no picture of it (Dominus).

The other solution to the labor problem was just to hire it out. I think it’s safe to say that very few women in history could outsource the entire process until the 20th century. But lots of women managed to outsource some of it. So in England in the 17th century, housewives would spin their own flax, but only a couple homes in a village owned a loom and there were also itinerant weavers. So most women got someone else to do the weaving (Hole, 333).

Even wealthy households in England were doing some of the spinning for the less important textiles like undergarments. But if you could afford it, you might get away with skipping the spinning and the weaving on some items. When Europeans first bought African slaves, what they were paying with was finished cotton fabric. Which they got from India. Terrible for the slaves, obviously, but it meant that some African women were wearing clothes which they neither spun nor wove. And silks were imported the world over, at least until the knowledge of how to raise silkworms was smuggled out of China.

You also might hire a seamstress to do the sewing, which does not mean that you do nothing about this step in the process. A seamstress might design and cut your dress for you, but your fitting was done with only basting, which means big wide stitches that are enough to put the thing on carefully, but easy to pick out if adjustments are needed. To actually wear the dress, you’d need to sew over the basting with standard small stitches, and the seamstress might very well consider that your job, depending on how much you paid.

Catherine Beecher, our domestic goddess of 19th century America, suggested getting one dress fitted, pulling out all the basting, laying all the fabric on paper and tracing it before you sewed it all back together. That way you’d have a pattern for your next dress and could dispense with the seamstress and her fees (Strasser, 131).

Regardless of how much of this you could afford not to do yourself, nearly every girl of all class levels was urged to master plain sewing, as a “resource against want.” Should you find yourself unmarried or married to someone who could not or would not support you, your ability to sew might save you (Strasser, 132). If you had luck on your side, you could set up your own establishment and work for yourself. Or if you had more fortunate friends or relatives, they might board you as a charity case in exchange for your sewing.

Agatha Christie wrote that her grandmother (and many others) always had a sewing-woman around. “They all had a certain resemblance to each other,” she wrote, “in that they were usually very refined, in unfortunate circumstances, treated with careful courtesy by the mistress of the house, and the family, and with no courtesy at all by the servants, were sent in meals on trays, and—as far as I can remember—were unable to produce any article of clothing that fitted. Everything was either too tight everywhere or else hung on one in loose folds. The answer to any complaint was usually: ‘Ah yes, but Miss James has had such an unfortunate life.'” (Christie, 40). I hope Agatha’s memories were more childlike than accurate because the situation sounds far more unbearable for Miss James than anyone else. Sadly, I’m afraid her perception of the situation was probably spot on. But the mistress of the house was benefitting: she didn’t have as much sewing to do and there’s no guarantee her work would have fitted any better.

So there were ways to dodge some of this enormously time consuming part of housework, but none of it was cheap. You could only dodge the time commitment if you could afford the financial commitment.

Because of its expense, there have been points in history where people made a big deal about not dodging it. The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 in the Bible does the whole thing, starting with buying the field. She seeks wool and flax, she spins, she makes linen, enough to clothe her own household, and still have some to sell. Of course, the whole passage starts out with “who can find a virtuous woman?” and maybe that’s the point: maybe you’re having trouble finding her because that’s rather a lot to ask of a woman. Like an impossible amount, maybe?

A first century Roman writer named Columella made it clear that wives who bought their cloth were idle, disdainful, and vain. Whether any women listened to him, I don’t know, but in the American colonies women deliberately promoted homespun fabric because they were supposed to be buying their textiles from England. In India, Mahatma Gandhi took the same tactic and encouraged other Indians to do the same and for the same reason: don’t be dependent on the oppressor. Fortunately, he was willing to do the spinning and weaving himself and did not consider it a purely feminine task. And in rural Communist China, women also made cotton homespun (silk was in decline by that point). They were supposed to be buying the state’s factory-made cloth on a ration system. But the ration system was not sufficient, so they generally ended up clothing their family in homespun so that they could sell their ration coupons on the black market.

For thousands of years textiles were made this way, and no one could have foreseen the changes on the horizon. The change happened in England. In 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle. It carried your wefts threads through your warp threads much faster than you could push them through by hand and suddenly weaving was much cheaper. It now required four spinners to keep up with one weaver.

Until 1764, when James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny. It had multiple spindles controlled by a hand-cranked wheel, and suddenly one spinner could spin eight spindles at once. With improvements that became 120 spindles at once.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1769 Richard Arkwright attached a water powered wheel and in 1779 Samuel Compton put it all together into a spinning mule, so you did even need to crank that wheel by hand.

English thread and English fabric was now downright cheap (a thing that could never be said about a textile before in the whole history of the world). It is hard to overestimate the impact this had on world development and the rise of the British empire. I could spend a long time talking about that, but this series is about housework, not economics or politics or slavery or imperialism, so I’ll skip it, except to say that England fully recognized and exploited their advantage here. It was illegal to take the knowledge of this machinery out of England, but of course that did not work for long. It was smuggled out, just as silkworms had long since been smuggled out of China.

The first American spinning mill opened in 1790. Still, the world didn’t change overnight. in 1810, two-thirds of all American fabric was made in the same home it was used in (Strasser, 126). But by the Civil War only the poorest and most isolated communities were still wearing homespun (Strasser, 130).

American women may have been buying their cloth, but they were still sewing by hand. Men got ready-made clothing first, but theirs was easier because it wasn’t expected to be so fitted.

The 19th century saw many designs for sewing machines, most of which were never produced. The winning design was patented in 1846 by Elias Howe. He subsequently made his fortune, not by selling the machines, but by suing everyone else for copyright infringement. The initial models didn’t help because they were too expensive. Only manufacturers could afford them.

Paying-by-installment was invented as a marketing concept for the purpose of selling sewing machines to your average housewife. Also the concept of trading in the old model for a shiny new one. American women purchased them in droves. This meant millions of women could get out of the laundry business and into the seamstress business. That was not necessarily as good as it seemed. Sweat shop conditions were and unfortunately still are common. But for many women that profession was doomed too. And by the turn of the century ready-to wear clothing was available to even to rural American women by mail-order. By the 1920s, two-thirds of working-class American women spent under six hours a week on sewing and mending. Spinning and weaving wasn’t even measured because that was pretty much at zero (Strasser, 143). This was a staggering shift in what was expected of women.

It wasn’t like that everywhere, of course. Gandhi’s homespun movement hadn’t even started yet. Communist China’s black market homespun hadn’t started yet. But over time, we’ve arrived at a world where most women who spin, weave, and sew for their own families are doing it as a hobby, not as housework.

This is a huge time saver to women, but as usual, there are downsides. Women became more isolated in their homes. When, after all, was the last time you went to the Ladies’ Sewing Circle? Also, clothing became so cheap that we buy them in huge quantities and throw them away, rather than mend, darn, and make. The impact on the environment is intense.

Also, the pressure to keep prices low and sources concealed means that there still are people (mostly women and children) working in sweatshop conditions to provide the clothes that clutter a first world closet. It’s an ugly problem and hard to solve because when you go to a store, you have no idea what went into creating that cute skirt. That problem is very modern, at least in its current scale. Housewives of the past knew the origin of their clothes, sometimes right down to the sheep or the cotton plant it came from.

None of this makes me want to plant my own flax field, but it is some food for thought maybe, the next time you open your closet door to find something to wear.

Selected Sources

Ackerman, Susan. “Asherah, the West Semitic Goddess of Spinning and Weaving?” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 67, no. 1 (2008): 1–30. https://doi.org/10.1086/586668.

Beecher, Catherine E. Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1873, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/55734/55734-h/55734-h.htm. Accessed 10 Apr. 2022.

Chapin, Anne, ed., et., Woven Threads: Patterned Textiles of the Aegean Bronze Age. United Kingdom: Oxbow Books, 2015.

Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Dominus, Mark. “The Universe of Discourse : “…and She Hated Every Stitch.”” Blog.plover.com, 11 Apr. 2016, blog.plover.com/misc/samplers.html. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

Eyferth, Jacob. “Less for More: Rural Women’s Overwork and Underconsumption in Mao’s China.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 41 (2015): 65–84. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26273630.

Eyferth, Jacob. “Women’s Work and the Politics of Homespun in Socialist China, 1949–1980.” International Review of Social History 57, no. 3 (2012): 365–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26394539.

Hole, Christina. The English Housewife in the Seventeenth Century. London, Chatto & Windus, 1953.

St Clair, Kassia. Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History. S.L., Liveright Publishing Corp, 2021.                                                                                              

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.

Wilson, Kax. A History of Textiles. London, Routledge, 2021.

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