Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.


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W. W. Norton/Burckhardt Studio
Cover: Women's Work - The First 20,000 Years View Larger >

Clio’s guest blog on “the string revolution”

Women got busy producing things that they thought they needed even before money or trade or the global economy existed. One of the first items they produced was string and eventually woven textiles.

Clio’s guest blog today features Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Her book, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1994), brims over with insights about the revolutionary invention of string. She even proposes that if nineteenth-century scientists had thought to name prehistorical periods with an eye on women’s work and the vital (though extremely perishable) goods they produced, instead of focusing their naming on men’s more durable inventions (Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, etc.), that we might long ago have acknowledged this extraordinary invention as what she has named “The String Revolution.”

Why did we have to wait until the late twentieth century to recognize the vast importance of this very early contribution to human development?

Here is what Elizabeth Wayland Barber has to say about “the String Revolution”:

“Some four thousand years ago, at the beginning of the last phase of the Old Stone Age (called the Upper Palaeolithic), human beings began to act very differently from the way they ever had before. For some two million years they had fashioned simple stone tools, and for half a million they had controlled fire and hunted cooperatively in groups. But four thousand years ago, as the great ice sheets that had covered the northern continents retreated by fits and starts, humans started to invent and make new things at a tremendous rate. . . .

“These newly creative hunter-gatherers produced novel tools – such as awls, pins, and various chisellike burins – but they also began to sculpt animals, people, and other information (possibly calendrical) on pieces of ivory and bone and to make quantities of beads for adornment. . . Just as important, and more to our purpose here, these ancesters invented string and sewing and thus provided the first chapter in the story of women’s long association with the fiber crafts. . . While others were painting caves or knapping fancy flints, some genius hit upon the principle of twisting handfuls of little weak fibers together into long, strong thread. . . . It opened the door to an enormous array of new ways to save labor and improve the odds of survival, much as the harnessing of steam did for the Industrial Revolution. Soft, flexible thread of this sort is a necessary prerequisite to making woven cloth.. . .

“So powerful, in fact, is simple string in taming the world to human will and ingenuity that I suspect it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth, that enabled us to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Palaeolithic. We could call it the String Revolution. . . .

“Hence the first craft other than chipping stone blades and carving wooden implements (another perished product) and the first important craft not dangerous to the children must have been the fashioning of objects of and with string and fibers. We have no direct record of who did what chores in that distant time, but we will not be far off in surmising that the women were already involved in this innocuous task while they tended their toddlers around camp. . . .

“String seems such a simple, almost inevitable invention, yet its appearance was a momentous step down the road of technology. Invented early, it was known worldwide. Weaving, on the contrary, is much more complicated and may have been thought up only once, much too late to spread with humankind. Many cultures were still ignorant of it as this century [20th] began.”

Source: Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), pp. 42-43, 45, 54, 70.






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