Women’s work

A few months ago I read a fascinating book, Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (that’s right, it’s rigorous enough to need two subtitles!). She traces the history of textile production — perhaps the quintessential women’s work — from the Paleolithic through to the end of the Iron Age, drawing on archaeological evidence as well as written records and even artwork. It’s well worth a read if you have any interest in spinning, sewing, weaving, or their related arts and crafts… or in how to tease out historical accounts from activities like these that are often very marginal to official records, for that matter. It’s a dense read, but an excellent one.

Something that really jumped out at me, however, comes from the introductory chapter, where Wayland Barber asks what it is about these activities that makes them traditionally “women’s work”? She quotes from Judith Brown’s 1969 article, “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” in her explanation:

Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” that holds a simple key to these questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining the food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon “the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care.” If only because of the exigencies of breast feeding (which until recently was typically continued for two or three years per child), “nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men….” Thus, if the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be “compatible with simultaneous child watching.” From empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing: repetitive, easy to pick up at any point, reasonably child-safe, and easily done at home. (Contrast the idea of swinging a pick in a dark, cramped, and dusty mine shaft with a baby on one’s back or being interrupted by a child’s crisis while trying to pour molten metal into a set of molds.) The only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food. Food and clothing: These are what societies worldwide have come to see as the core of women’s work (although other tasks may be added to the load, depending on the circumstances of the particular society).

Readers of this book live in a different world. The Industrial Revolution has moved basic textile work out of the home and into large (inherently dangerous) factories; we buy our clothing ready-made. It is a rare person in our cities who has ever spun thread or woven cloth, although a quick look into a fabric store will show that many women still sew. As a result, most of us are unaware of how time-consuming the task of making the cloth for a family used to be.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, pp. 29-30

This jumped out at me because it makes an intuitive sense, and accurately reflects my own stage of life. Women bear and birth children; until very recently on the scale of human existence, only women could feed the youngest members of the species. Women have not traditionally been the cooks and gardeners and sewists and spinners because of an inherent aptitude for that work or an inability to perform other tasks, but because of the biological realities and demands of mothering.

Everything I do at home is mediated by those same concerns and responsibilities. I have three children under seven, one of whom is still nursing; all of my daily tasks have to be fit into the day around breastfeeding, diaper changes, naps, home schooling, squabble mediating, disciplining, reading and playing, and of course the constant, unending cycle of making food, serving food, and cleaning up after having food. I spend 14-18 hours a week putting children to bed. My cumulative breastfeeding time is now up to 4.5 years (and counting!). And so it makes sense that my hobbies are things that fit around these things: reading, writing, sewing, embroidery, crochet. They’re the kind of thing that I can pick up and put down as needed, that can be left on top of the piano for a week before being picked up again, that don’t take more thought or attention than I can easily spare.

And they’re slow. Handiwork takes time: even a small baby blanket can easily take a dozen hours or more to crochet, depending on the yarn weight and pattern. It takes many evenings of work to finish a piece. I don’t mind, really. The time it takes to make something sends its own message to the recipient: that I value them enough to spend my time in order that they would be warm, or that their clothes would be mended, or that their house would be beautiful. And while I’m very glad that I don’t have to make all of our family’s clothes by hand, or spin my own thread and yarn before I can use them, I love being able to feel myself a part of this great historical chain of women working with our hands to make, mend, and care. Women’s work is good work; here’s to twenty thousand more years.

Home horse repair

Back in grades seven and eight, the school I attended offered several non-academic classes to supplement its regular program of languages, math, etc. Besides gym and typing class (which was very strange for us to begin in grade seven, given that we had been typing assignments since about grade three), every year the senior students would get to take both shop and home economics. I don’t remember what we learned in shop class, besides how to use drafting paper to draw rectangular prisms, but in home ec we cooked a bit and we also learned to sew. We used the machines — old, trusty tan-coloured Singers — to make drawstring bags and aprons.

We also learned to sew by hand. At some point our class was sent home with a flyer full of stuffed animal sewing kits to choose from. I picked two horses: one brown, one black. We learned how to sew from a pattern, how to cut and join and stuff, and how to use a punch to properly secure the little plastic bits like noses and eyes. I haven’t seen the black horse in years and years, but the brown horse has survived many moves over the past two decades and now finds itself one of Perpetua’s “crib friends”. It is, alas, showing its age, with several seams burst open and the stuffing showing (though, thankfully, not yet coming out).

So I sat down the other day to see what I could do to fix it up. I didn’t have anything on hand that I thought would work especially well as a patch — and anyway, sewing patches is totally annoying — so I decided to try just sewing the holes closed. This wouldn’t be as easy as it sounds: the horse’s fabric is a bit brittle and crumbly now, and if my thread was too thin, it would just rip through the edges and make the holes larger.

Instead, I decided to use embroidery thread, with a full six strands. And since it was what I had handy, I used dark blue. The stitches definitely show — but I like to think of it as stuffie kintsugi.

Some edges came together very neatly:

In other cases, the gaps were too wide to be drawn together. But that’s where the embroidery thread came it handy. It was thick enough to cover the gap on its own. There’s still some space between the threads, but not enough to let any stuffing out:

Now, from the state of the seams, this probably only going to be the first round of repair. Which is fine. Horse-the-horse may not last another twenty years, but at least I know I can give him a fighting chance.

Quick-sew notions bag

I had occasion to whip up a little project this afternoon.

For the past while I’ve been keeping my crochet hooks and whatnot in a plastic Ziploc baggie — or rather, in several successive baggies, since they inevitably either get pierced through or decide to split up the seam (I blame the tapestry needles). It was past time for something sturdier and more permanent, and so I went diving on my much-neglected fabric stash.

It has been a long time since I’ve sewn anything, really. Part of that is not wanting to start anything new while still under the weight of several half-finished projects — but most of it is because my sewing machine is broken, and I can’t decide whether or not to get it fixed. It’s an older machine, second-hand, and if its mechanical issue gets sorted out I think there is still a lot of life in it. But what I get stuck is on the fact that having it seen to and repaired would cost about the same, or perhaps more, than simply acquiring a new machine. On the one hand, it seems extremely wasteful to buy something new when the old one could be repaired. On the other hand, it seems silly to repair the old when a new would cost the same and have all the advantages of newness. And so I perpetually dither, and neither replace nor repair my machine, and my fabric whiles away its time in storage.

But then there are days like today where I suddenly remember that, duh, I know how to hand-sew.

The whole thing took perhaps half an hour, start to finish, including choosing and ironing the fabric. I didn’t work off a pattern — it’s just a drawstring bag — but your basic process is to find a piece of fabric about twice the width of what you’d like your bag to measure and fold it in half, pinning the right sides together. Sew down the long edge, starting about an inch from the top, and one short edge. Fold down your un-sewn short edge to make a little tunnel for your string, and sew along its edge to seal it, being careful not to sew your bag closed! Use a safety pin or similar to push your string/cord/whatever (I used braided yarn) through that tunnel. TIe it off and then turn the entire thing right-side-out. You’re done.

It’s very satisfying to work something up so quickly, especially when one has larger projects on the go (and go, and go…). And this will do me much better for carting my things around than a plastic bag. So here’s to hand sewing!