[NB] Distaff of the Heavens

I’m just riffing off of the recent reading and household discussion of Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. It’s a great book and part of its strength is its strength lies in its tight focus on the archaeological record. That costs her some breadth (though it is still a broad book)—for example, there is little said about Africa, Asia, or the Americas. This is generally fine given her argument that the regions she is studying serve as the cradle of string and subsequently weaving technology. Given her deep time frame, diffusion into Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is easy enough.

The Americas are the outlier. String and weaving are major elements in Mesoamerica and you see more than a few powerful goddesses adorned with a spindle. As I understand her account, the migration that will go on to populate the Americas long predates Barber’s account of the invention of weaving. As it stands, her account would suggest that weaving developed sui generis in two regions of the world. That’s not unbelievable, but it does make me wonder if there might be something else at play, if there might be a bit of ritual technology which we aren’t seeing which might provide a fertile soil for the development of weaving technology in multiple regions.

Part of this emerges out of my own ritual life at the moment, where I am having this surprisingly complex dialogue with an eight-pointed circle and Sophia (think of the compass rose, with each of its eight points inscribed on the circumference of a circle). Numerous symbols can be extracted from it if you begin to connect the points to each other by straight lines and the net of total lines. This is obviously the sort of thing that, raised to much more complex levels, yields the 231 gates of Kabbalism.

Building that up, I am doing that both physically (drawing) and mentally (visualizing strings of light). Drawing reasonably straight lines isn’t all that easy for me, but I realized as I was reading Barber’s account of post looms that it would be fairly easy to produce straight lines with string drawn taut between two points, through suspension that relies on some combination of weight or gravity. String start to go interesting places when you think about posting out a space for sacred reasons and joining those posts with string. Mathematical and astrological opportunities abound and I wonder if string may sit at the root of some fairly basic scientific innovations.

(And we all know about the interplay of string and music. Cords and chords. Further down the line.)

That sort of thing could easily predate the use of string in clothing (Barber’s delightful prehistoric string dresses with their bands already suggesting the interplay of forces that will stretch the string in a loom) and would travel with our wanderers out of what is present-day Ethiopia. The crisscrossing of strings between points in space would form the matrix for the discovery of weaving to bring together cloth wherever they go, latent but just a short step away.

I could even see the earliest efforts to define and name constellations taking shape between women gathered around posts arranged in mimicry of the stars in the sky. As string is stretched between them, they acquire an outline.

Sorry, I’m woolgathering. I should get back to work.


14 thoughts on “[NB] Distaff of the Heavens

  1. I really, really like this book when I read it 1012 years ago now. I am not sure that it fits into the new framework for prehistory that Gordon outlined in Star.Ships, but I don’t think that it has to. It’s hard to know whether the timeframe was 200,000 years ago, or 1 million years ago, but we know that something happened which caused us to begin leaving cough; and that it was probably the women that did it. I add for my own part, that spinning thread out of wall or I’ll Pocha roving is in Normas sleet valuable as a magical activity, as well as providing a practical material for knitting or crochet. So is leaving. If you would like me to build you a tablet loom for leaving your own trim for robes or sashes or anything like that, there are not difficult to build. I’d be happy to do that for you.

      1. Replying to your most recent comment, Stacey, I don’t have current projects for it… but there’s no reason why it should sit empty, waiting for my next project, if you intend to learn something about weaving… Will you blog your results? 😉

  2. Weaving cloth not leaving cough. And “spinning thread out of wool or alpaca roving is enormously valuable as a magical activity… so is weaving.” Gods I hate autocorrect that I can’t figure out how to turn off.

    1. Io

      That does make more sense, thanks! I’d have to revisit some of Gordon’s timeline, but at least with Barber’s evidence, we are looking at a much, much tighter timeframe than 200,000 or a million years, inside the last 10,000 (which gets us back to what is probably the tipping point toward modern agriculture, which makes sense when you think of string being an agicultural product). I wonder if it makes sense to start thinking hard about the relationship between fertility and fabric here, too, because trying to raise animals with an eye toward possible surplus is likley going to help foster thoughts about human fertility, too….

      1. Yes and yes. Though string is partly agricultural (flax and other grass cordage for baskets) and partly husbandry (shearing sheep and goats). Kevin Dunn in caveman chemistry, points out that dog hair, for example, is pretty easily turned into string…. but moving from string to cloth is a huge undertaking. You need a lot of thread to make cloth. Like.A.lot. Thousands of yards. So string and thongs to work leather into clothes… then a discovery that wool and other animal fibers are renewable resources, and an eye to surplus. And then the actual surplus, and a need to cultivate grasses for animal feed… and then a discovery that some grasses are capable of producing thread. And then agriculture?

        I’m really speculating at this point. It’s decades since I read Barber’s book. But align Gobekli Tepe with Barber and with earlier origins for cloth… I wonder what emerges.

  3. Remembers me a suggestion I found somewhere at Electric Sheep Comix (the glorious webcomic forerunner) that braiding hair with fingers was the basis upon which basket weaving was invented. From baskets to cloth weaving doesn’t seems that much of a jump. But I’ve not read your source so take this as a wild guess…

  4. Alexandra

    I like where your thoughts are going here. I haven’t read the book but am vaguely familiar with Barber’s research in general. What you outline here immediately made me think of the Egyptian goddess Seshat, with her measuring cord. I have the idea from somewhere–and I don’t know if it’s something I read or UPG or what–that Seshat wasn’t only the patroness of measuring and calculating (e.g., for things like architectural plans), but also was the record-keeper of the gods before Thoth took that role. If so, it suggests the connection between textile work and history, and thus writing. And of course we know records can be kept with something as simple as knotted string, as in the case of quipu. Then in Norse culture you have the connection between textile arts and seidr, both of which were very much “women’s work.” (If you’re interested in the latter, check out Eldar Heide’s chapter “Spinning Seidr” in the book _Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions_ (2006, Anders Andern, editor).)

    1. Io

      Right, right! I had forgotten about this book. It was probably already in the back of my mind when I was thinking about the distaff as an intermediary between heaven and earth, as the movement of a woman weaving the messages of the heavens into durable form.

      1. Alexandra

        Syncronicitously, after reading and commenting on this, I got talking to a friend about fashion supply chains, sweatshop labor, and the way the poor are forced by the market to be complicit in the oppression of other poor people. My grandmother saved money by sewing her children’s clothes; have you ever tried to find affordable textiles or yarn made from natural fibers? They are extravagantly expensive. Sewing your own clothes has now become a relatively rich person’s hobby, because if you’re poor you almost certainly don’t have the time, and you won’t be able to afford anything but the vilest polyester (which creates issues of environmental pollution since it is, effectively, plastic). Similarly if you wanted to, say, knit a sweater using anything but cheap acrylic yarn, it’s going to cost you over $100. From carpentry to cooking to clothes, the DIY methods that used to be cost saving for the poor are now out of reach, and we are stuck with flimsy stuff made by slaves or near-slaves overseas.

        I dream of a fiber/textile local community exchange network where raw materials, production (spinning, weaving, sewing), finished goods, and other goods and services could be exchanged in such a way as to circumvent the market almost entirely. But I don’t know whether such a thing could really be cost effective for farmers, especially factoring in transportation since many poor people live in cities. Animal husbandry has become so concentrated in certain regions that textile production using those fibers would also likely end up very concentrated, e.g., in the rural west in the case of the US. And I have no idea whether such a thing would be feasible with plant fibers like flax and cotton.

        I didn’t mean to divert this in a socioeconomic/class direction, but just as there are clearly broad-scale implications for the position of women (as textile/fiber workers/makers) in society, there are economic implications as well. I’m acutely aware that I am writing this, in this place, at this time, only because my ancestors were forced to emigrate from Ireland when household-scale linen producers/weavers were driven out of business by new industrial methods, around the end of the 18th century.

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