Women and Metaphors of Weaving
Although commonplace textile metaphors such as TIME IS THREAD and COMMUNITY IS CLOTH have roots in women’s historical role in textile production, the mythologies that buoy these metaphors have been largely ignored in recent scholarship. In particular, the relationships between these metaphors’ histories, current usage, and implications deserve more attention. This project argues that textile metaphors reflect and reify historical roles and representations of women as weavers, and that continued use of textile metaphors can be both problematic and illuminating. Increased awareness about the relationship between textile metaphors and the social roles of women can empower women by helping individuals be mindful of how myth and language can reinforce social roles.
The Gendered Division of Labor
Textile production has historically been the domain of women in Western cultures. Ionna Papadopoulou-Belmehdi notes in her study of weaving in ancient Greek culture that “as a literary object or ritualized activity, the loom appears as a ‘gendered’ space, a place symbolic of feminine activity” (1994, p. 39). The division of labor has been gendered through this history of human society, beyond the obvious role of women in bearing children. As Matt Ridley writes in The Origin of Virtue, a text that examines human morality through an evolutionary psychology perspective, a division of labor allows for specialization and incentivizes prosocial behavior, which increases the efficiency and productivity of a group (1996, pp. 41-94). Ridley argues that this division is not biological but economic (1996, p. 94). However, he also notes that men, as hunters, “prove consistently better at map reading,” whereas women, as gatherers, “are more verbal, observant, meticulous and industrious, skills that suit gathering” (1996, p. 95). While his argument is strong that a division of labor is nearly ubiquitous across cultures and through time, his generalizations about men and women are problematic. One outcome of this division of labor that Ridley mentions is that “meat represents luck”: men who return from a hunt without meat were unlucky, while women who returned empty-handed from gathering were “probably idle” (1996, p. 102). As early human societies moved away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and toward agriculture, divisions of labor and concern over managing women’s productivity remained. This paper explores the role of weaving on women’s identities and empowerment within society.
After hunter-gatherer societies, women’s labor focused primarily on textile production. According to Jack Zipes:
From the early formation of grazing societies up to the nineteenth century, women participated in almost all the work that concerned spinning. They took care of the animals and helped plant the flax; they cleaned and prepared the wool and roasted, broke, and hatcheled the flax. They did practically all the spinning. That is, spinning became the privilege of women, and it was considered their domain also because it allowed for their domestication. (1993, p. 51).
While textile production could prove a creative outlet for women, its role in the “domestication” of women represents a form of disempowerment in that the norms exist to this day (1993, p. 51).
Textile Symbolism in Greek Mythology
The pantheon in Greek myth shows not only the centrality of weaving to women’s lives, but also how the practice informed women’s identities. Textile symbolism in the myths of Athena and the Moirai, in particular, show how the Greeks promoted the social value of chastity through images of textile production, demonstrating the virgin-whore dichotomy.
In ancient Greece, the goddess Athena represented the society’s division of labor. Athena was not only the Greek goddess of war, but also of weaving. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi writes of the culture: “‘Men to war, women to weaving’: there is a divine figure who unites these spheres of activities emblematic of the two sexes; Athena, Parthenos (Virgin), Weaver, and Warrior, whose distaff, like her lance, expresses the idea of an inviolable virginity” (1994, p. 41). Athena’s lance represents her fierce self-defense in protecting both her virginity and the cities, suggesting by contrast that sexuality would bring risks and potentially danger to a community.
“She is eternally a virgin, the goddess of wisdom, of skill, of contemplation, of spinning and weaving, of horticulture and agriculture. She is protectress of cities” (Gayley, 1911, p. 23). Athena’s virgin nature and association with weaving exists in contrast with Aphrodite, as Papadopoulou-Belmehdi notes about the “imaginary feminine” in Greek culture, which she describes as “a polarized place, with an ever precarious equilibrium” that coupled looms and virginity to symbolize one aspect of the feminine, with wives, mothers, and feminine sexuality more generally at the opposite pole (1994, pp. 39, 47). Papadopoulou-Belmehdi recounts several myths that show how weaving represents social values: Aphrodite punishing Tiresias, who spurned her, by turning him into a spinner, thus dispossessing him of future sexual encounters; Penelope who enacted a virgin state by weaving to indicate her unavailability to suitors; and Arachne, a young weaver who, after an incestuous relationship with her brother, was punished by Athena with hideousness and thus a life of eternal weaving due to her undesirability as a bride (1994, pp. 43, 47, 52). Each of these myths conflates chastity with the productivity of weaving to distance young women from their reproductivity. The association between weaving and virginity exemplifies the same concern over women’s idleness that Ridley describes (1996, p. 102). As Papadopoulou-Belmehdi writes, “In ancient Greece as elsewhere, the life of the woman devoted to work hides the disquieting underside of idleness linked to pleasure” (1994, p. 47). Idleness on its own can be problematic, yet this sentiment demonstrates a mistrust of women, and suggests a perceived need to police young women to control their sexuality.
As Aaron J. Atsma describes in the Theoi Project, the Moirai, also known as the “Fates,” were three sisters in Greek Mythology: granddaughters of Kronos, God of Time, and daughters of Zeus, God of the Sky, and Themis, Goddess of Divine Law and Custom (“Moirai,” 2015; “Zeus,” 2015; “Kronos,” 2015; “Themis,” 2015). Working with her daughters, Themis turns the spindle resting on her knees, “which governs the movement, in concentric spheres or ‘whorls,’ of the heavenly bodies . . . As they spin, they sing, with the Sirens, the music of the spheres; Lachesis the past, Clotho the present, Atropos the future” (Greene, 1968, p. 315).
While Themis manages the orbits of heavenly bodies, the Moirai “spin the thread of human destiny” (Gayley, 1911, p. 38). Clotho “spun the thread of life,” Lachesis “measured it” and Atroposis “cut it short,” appearing at every birth to apportion the fate of each individual (Atsma, 2015, p. 1).
Atsma notes that the Fates “were described as ugly, old women and sometimes lame. They were severe, inflexible and stern” (“Moirai,” 2015, p. 6). The Moirai’s representation as old and unsightly women bears a similarity to Arachne (without the transgressive backstory): both the Moirai and Arachne are ugly, thus not seen as sexual beings, and thus well-placed in their roles as eternal weavers in the Greek imagination.
Though the the Moirai were strict with the destinies they allotted, not every human decision was fated. In William Chase Greene’s Moira, Greene discusses the interplay of free will and destiny in an individual’s existence (1968, p. 316). After the Moirai finish their work in creating an individual’s destiny, it “passes beneath the throne of Necessity. Choices, once made, therefore cannot be unmade or undone. So Fate enters in at the beginning and at the end of the process, while freedom of the will is master of the central portion” (1968, p. 316). In this worldview, individuals would need to accept their lot as well as take responsibility for their choices.
As the Moirai represent a life through thread, people’s choices represent the process of weaving a life into fabric. Penelope Dransart describes how Greek and Latin writings “focused on weaving a social fabric throughout the lifetime of the individual concerned. They maintain that in the destiny of an individual person, the passage of the weft represents different life events, using yarns spun by the Fates (who determined the length of the warp and weft). The fabric of one’s life is completed when the final weft has been entered and the fabric removed from the loom through the cutting of the warp” (2007, p. 167).
Chastity and Productivity
Given the social and mythological emphasis on young women’s productivity in weaving, one can infer the importance of textile production in Greek culture. As individuals’ lives were represented by fabric, and as young women weaved actual fabrics, the role of young women in shaping society by weaving cloth becomes reinforced through the elision of feminine productivity and chastity as foundational to the well-being of the community.
While the social divisions between war and weaving, and between Athena and Aphrodite, demonstrate a sharp polarization, the symbolism of fabric representing the interplay of fate and choice is an example of how textiles can represent liminality more broadly. Dransart notes in her discussion of weaving metaphors that weaving suggests a duality: drawing on Levi-Strauss, she writes, “people in different parts of the world have the capacity to think in terms of contrasting pairs; it is the relationships (‘mapping’ in Zook and Di Vesta’s terms) and not just the objects themselves that are important” (2007, pp. 164-165).
Kairos is another concept of Greek antiquity worth exploring in terms of its relevance to weaving metaphors. Phillip Sipiora explains that although kairos has had various meanings (the first relating to archery):
The second meaning of kairos traces to the art of weaving. There it is the ‘critical time’ when the weaver must draw the yarn through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven. Putting the two meanings together, one might understand kairos to refer to a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved. (2002, p. 17-18).
The history of the term kairos further confirms the importance of individual action represented by metaphors of textile production. I interpret the relationship of kairos and textiles to suggest the importance of free will, and thus the importance to the patriarchy of using women’s language of weaving to confirm their need for right action. While individuals, represented by thread, “weave” the fabric of their lives, the “right time” or opportunity (kairos) represents the responsibility of individuals to make choices that will create a well-woven fabric of life.
The metaphor of fabric representing relationships exists beyond Greek mythology and culture. Margaret Grafton also describes a connection between weaving and ideas of polarization in her discussion of how textile metaphors rooted in Greek mythology remained in use even after the Industrial Revolution saw changing modes of production:
Metaphor takes on the doubleness of the woven grid, the horizontal ‘carry across’ of the bar and the vertical ‘digging in’ of the posts: a substitution of one word for another in a kind of vertical temporality . . . In the related images of skin and clothing, loom and language, we have the idea of the limit/boundary, the relational differential interface between inner and outer at which meaning is made. (2000, p. 100).
In another example of social change shifting meanings in a gray area, rather than a polarized relationship, Zipes writes about how the Grimms brothers drew on concerns over female productivity that had roots in Greek myth, as they changed the story of Rumpelstiltskin to align with the social values the Industrial Revolution engaged: shifting control of textile production from women to men (1993). Earlier versions of the folktale showed a maiden who was disgraced because, uselessly, she could only spin straw into gold, and who worked with another woman to send away the imp on a cooking ladle, another symbol of the feminine (1993, p. 48). Zipes notes that the change in this tale represents longstanding concerns about female productivity, namely, that in Greek culture “the spindle was mythicized and mystified because it was that which was not supposed to be true. In other words, female productivity was not to be recognized. Therefore, it appeared only in an unreal form” (Zipes, 1993, p. 51). While women’s work at the loom was real, representations in the Pantheon overrode giving actual credit and power to women, whose work represented a critical component in Greek supply chains.
Fritz Graf too makes Zipes’ point that stories in an oral tradition change over time in response to sociohistorical factors: “The reason for the continuous mutation of myth--the motor of the tradition, so to speak (that which ensures that it will continue to be handed down from one generation to the next)--is its cultural relevance. A myth makes a valid statement about the origins of the world, or society and its institutions, about the gods and their relationship with mortals, in short, about everything on which human existence depends” (1993, p. 3).
In yet another description of how the Industrial Revolution took weaving, which allowed women ownership of their work in the home, and disempowered them further by moving production to textile mills, owned and managed by men, Lauren E. Wilson and Lavina M. Franck study of documents from Nineteenth Century North Carolina shows a shift in labor, such that men became “more active than were women in producing handwoven textiles intended for sale,” seen at the same time as a “decline in the use of home spinning wheels” (1990, p. 58). Although women’s productivity had long been policed through social norms, the shifting modes of production disempowered them in Western Industrial societies, often relegating textile arts to home entertainment, and to the less esteemed level of crafts.
Weaving Across Cultures
Myths such as those of Athena and the Moirai, and fables such as Rumpelstiltskin show how social values and historical factors shape and are shaped by expectations for women, potentially disempowering them by confining them particular roles. However, weaving has also benefited women across cultures. A number of scholars who have examined weaving practices in various societies have noted its role in empowering individuals by giving them an outlet for creativity and thereby a sense of agency and spiritual well being.
Lynn Stephen, in her study, “Women’s Weaving Cooperatives in Oaxaca” argues that communities of women weavers not only benefit economically, but also through the opportunity to build “political and cultural spaces for expanding women’s autonomy and influence in a range of arenas,” helping them to work against “poverty and marginalization” (2005, p. 275).
Bette Bonder, in her comparison of weaving practices in Guatemala and Ohio, writes that despite the many cultural differences, in both spaces, women predominantly do the work of weaving and value creativity, spirituality, and the social role of weaving in connecting these women to prior generations (2001, p. 318).
William Westerman’s study of weaving focuses not on textile production, but rather, on basket-weaving; however, his broad comments about the role of creative endeavors are valuable in understanding how weaving practices can benefit a community, focusing, as Bonder does, on the social value of the practice. He writes that weaving may not provide a living wage for families; however the “motivating factor . . . may be more social or psychological” allowing individuals fulfilment other arenas of life may not provide (2006, p. 115).
Robin O’Brien’s research on the demographics of weavers across cultures today shows that weaving is still done predominantly by women, until the work becomes commercialized and profitable, at which point, men tend to take control of textiles’ production and sale (1999, pp. 32-33).
Myriem Naji, in her study of weaving in Morocco, explores more deeply how weaving practices construct gender identity and empower women by expanding their skillsets and personal agency. For these Sirwan weavers, she writes, the practice helps them “gain moral value and social recognition” even while these women do not benefit financially from the sale of the carpets they weave (2009, p. 48). Naji draws on Judith Butler’s concept of performativity to argue that the Sirwan weavers’ agency comes from the fact that “gender and technology are not given but are co-produced dialectically and are continuously in-the-making” (2009, p. 48).
Naji’s emphasis on actions in the present moment suggests again the concept of kairos, though it is culturally distinct. Still, the emphasis on the working in-the-present in creating textiles suggests a common theme of remaining engaged reciprocally with the fabric in a way that hearkens also to the Greek concepts of fate and free will. As Naji writes, “the materiality of weaving is both acted upon by and acts on human beings” (2009, p. 50). This relationship refuses polarization and reflects the Greek concept that while Fate acts on individuals, people also have a role in shaping their fate and filling in the fabric of their lives.
These scholars’ arguments that weaving can provide women with agency and opportunities for creative and spiritual expression shows that while weaving has a role in disempowering women by confining them to constrained social roles, the practice can also be empowering in terms of psychological fulfillment.
Psychologies of Myth and Symbolism
Greek myth implicitly argues that weaving practices benefit women, though the emphasis is on skill, the socially accepted moral benefits of chastity, and the opportunities for marriage afforded thereby. Joseph Campbell argues that all myth follows the same structure as it relates to individual maturation; the function of myth function is to help individuals move forward in their psychological development, transforming assisted by the culture’s rituals and mythologies. He writes, “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that hold it back” (1968, p. 11). In the Greek myths of Athena, the concern over virginity most certainly exists in response to concerns over sexual fantasies that could foreclose young women’s opportunities for the rite of marriage.
Campbell writes too that, in all myths, as heroes depart on the journey representing spiritual development, they must navigate dichotomies and their liminal spaces:
The pairs of opposites (being and not being, life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and all the other polarities that bind the faculties to hope and fear, and link the organs of action to deeds of defense and acquisition) are the clashing rocks (Symplegades) that crush the traveler, but between which the heroes always pass” and which leads them to rebirth. (1968, pp. 89-90).
Inasmuch as weaving represents one pole of life from which a young woman will pass into adulthood, the dialectical metaphors of cloth symbolize the complexity of the path, and the trouble with relying on strict polarizations, when the material at hand shows how interwoven opposite paths may be.
Given Ridley’s (1996) argument about the division of labor in prehistoric communities, I also look to Carl Jung’s work that uses an evolutionary psychology perspective to explain how the human mind uses common symbols across cultures, which are not grounded in traditions so much as they are an organic part of being human (1968, p. 57). He goes on to state that the symbols in the human psyche relate to individuals’ most basic needs: “myths of a religious nature can be interpreted as a sort of mental therapy for the sufferings and anxieties of mankind in general--hunger war, disease, old age, death” (1968, p. 68). In considering how textile production metaphors may naturally arise from human anxieties, a logical conclusion would be that the symbol relates to preventing illness or death by exposure. Just as Athena offered protection to cities, as a warrior, so too did her role as goddess of weaving provide protection to individuals.
The construction of symbols can also be explained through an evolutionary psychology approach to explaining how learning functions. As Steven Pinker writes in The Language Instinct, “‘Culture’ refers to the process whereby particular kinds of learning contagiously spread from person to person in a community and minds become coordinated into shared patterns” (1994, p. 427). From this perspective, a culture that conflates weaving and virginity as a core symbol of cultural protection will continue to propagate the idea through time, as has been evidenced by the ongoing work of women in weaving today, and their frequent disempowerment through men controlling their work for profit.
Language is one of several methods that cultures such as ancient Greece use to perpetuate symbols in myth that maintain and reinforce social norms. Campbell (1968), Jung (1968), Pinker (1994), and Ridley (1996) use an evolutionary psychology perspective to explain human behavior. While Campbell and Jung argue that certain symbols are biologically ingrained such that the human psyche is predisposed to figuring certain archetypes into its myths, Pinker’s perspective gives more room to individuals to reshape cultural interpretations of archetypes as myths change over time through various sociohistorical contexts.
A similar argument can be drawn from cognitive linguistics, in the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who, in Metaphors We Live By, show that the mind’s conceptual systems are metaphorical; that the metaphors are systematic; and that all metaphors veil other truths by speaking in terms of prior experience (2003, pp. 3, 7, 10). Further, they make the case that new metaphors can create new meanings that can change how individuals interact in the world (2003, pp. 139-146). Today, textile production no longer represents virginity or chastity in Western cultures; rather, it typically suggests either large-scale machine-operated textile production, or personal hobbies in the realm of “arts and crafts.” Neither of these arenas reflect the historical division of labor that included women’s work as foundational to society, yet textile production metaphors remain in use today.
The LIFE IS THREAD metaphor enacted by the Moirai continues in usage such as discussion of “family lines” and the use of thread metaphors in discussing “storylines.” Simon Kemp, in his discussion of the STORY IS A LINE metaphor, points out that these are rooted in the metaphors TIME IS SPACE and STORIES ARE JOURNEYS (2012, pp. 393, 400). The conceptual system that unites these relies on a spatialization of time and the ability to create narrative, thus conflating a journey of one’s life with a narrative thread.
Although such metaphors are common, even used in online spaces in phrases like “web,” “net,” and conversation “threads,” this everyday parlance typically remains removed from the modes of production in the Information Age. As Mikhail Bakhtin noted, meaning shifts with context, always arising interdependently with utterances in scenarios that are never exactly alike (1929, p. 1226). He writes, "meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers . . . Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener" (1929, p. 1226, emphasis in original).
Meanings of textile metaphors have shifted as social values and practices have changed. The alienation of individuals from the political economy driving textile production can keep women disempowered, women whose labor creates textiles for mass consumption, and whose working conditions may be dire. On the other hand, women who practice textile production may also feel empowered by the work, by the social support and community it affords, and by the peaceful nature of the work that allows for spiritual reflection and psychological fulfillment. The possibilities for empowerment shift with cultural contexts, though in all contexts, women in textile production deserve more respect for their skill and artistry.
Textile metaphors in Greek mythology framed young women in a virgin-whore dichotomy, using symbolism of LIFE IS THREAD to advocate for their chastity as they wove cloth. The mythologies of Athena and the Moirai reinforced these social values and also gave young women a frame of reference as they transitioned into adulthood, leaving the loom behind as they became wives and mothers. Despite the division of labor historically confining women to a particular social role, weaving practices also have potential to empower women through providing social support and the opportunity for creative expression.
In order to keep in mind the women whose labor today remains distanced from the social norms in Greek antiquity, I propose elevating textile production to the level of high art rather than diminishing it as a mere craft, a hobby typically done by women and thus devalued. Textile art should be featured more often in museums, should be taught with greater emphasis in art history courses, and should be adopted in more practice-based art programs. Museums and classrooms already do recognize and teach the aesthetic value and methods of textile production; however, given the crucial role of textiles across all cultures and time periods in building social frameworks (and allowing for human survival, for that matter), textiles should be more highly valued, not taken for granted. Although a patriarchal culture has disenfranchised woman artists for countless generations, today we can learn to speak the names of women whose embroidery, sewing, or woven cloth shows masterful skill.
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