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The History of Weaving and Women

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Image credit: Weaving wall art by Trudy Perry

Why Ecoist is Weaving Obsessed

Weaving is one of the oldest crafts in history, dating back to at least 12,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. Before weaving became solely a textile craft, early humans weaved branches, twigs and other plant fibers to create threads for building homes, baskets and other necessary objects of utility. 

Today, weaving remains the main production process for textiles, however the craftsmanship of weaving carried cultural importance for a variety of uses around the world. Women have always had a unique relationship with weaving that goes deeper than just making clothes for their households. 

Inspired coding algorithms for the first computer

In fact, women’s weaving skills were powerful and foundational to several distinct societies and have contributed profoundly to technological advancements of today. Women’s natural abilities to be patient, detailed, and thorough enable technical talents that are exemplified in the meticulous work of weaving. The mathematical skills necessary for weaving are understood to have inspired coding algorithms for the first computer. Although technical and utilitarian, weaving has provided women the craftsmanship to create impeccable works of art and creative expression which are so intrinsic to the divine feminine. 

Handweaving has been and will always be the ultimate form of slow living

Textiles we use daily wouldn’t exist without the women who weave around the world and those who perfected the process. Textiles have and always been the most functional art form, however their beauty is inarguable. Perhaps the most beautiful part about textiles, specifically handwoven, is how tactical and precise it is to create. Before mass manufacturing systems were created, women wove everything by hand, creating undeniable value. Historically, textiles, even just one article of clothing, was expensive and signified status because of the appreciated craftsmanship involved to produce them. Created with care and craft, textiles were of the highest quality, lasting lifetimes and were always generational heirlooms that preserved cultures and their histories we know today. Women’ handweaving has been and will always be the ultimate form of slow living that we are obsessed with at Ecoist, and is exactly why we do what we do, empower the artisan. 

Women have been weaving all sorts of textiles since the beginning of humanity

From animal skins, to creating plant fibers, textiles have demonstrated daring diversity worldwide. Much of which textiles were created was dependent on their locality, a pillar of sustainability we need to return to. For example, the Americans favored woven cotton, hemp cloth and alpaca wool especially for colder seasons, whereas in much hotter regions materials such as linen, silk and cotton were woven to provide lighter clothing.

Eastern Hemisphere

Dating as far back at 5,000 BC, weavings made from the fiber, flax, existed in Egypt. Flax was the most popular fiber utilized at the time and then transitioned to wool thousands of years later. It has been assumed by historians that Egyptian women were often enslaved in weaving workshops, spinning fibers and hand weaving non-stop for their owners to exploit their labor and sell their meticulously made cloth. Women weavers made cloth that was utilized to create boat sails, tents, carpets, bedsheets, bags, towels and even cheese-making cloths that all serviced Egyptian society. 

Egyptian flax linen remnants
Egyptian flax linen remnants

  

Egyptian art depicting women weaving
Egyptian art depicting women weaving 

 

Miao Girls in China

In China, the indigenous Miao population prioritizes weaving craftsmanship for women at an early age. When a Miao girl is only 6 years old, she is taught how to embroider with the intention to become a skilled craftswomen over the course of 10 years. Her most valuable piece of craftsmanship she will ever produce is her embroidered wedding dress. After perfecting her craft for several years, a young Miao girl will spend years hand weaving her wedding dress to perfection, showcasing who she is, her talents and most importantly her beauty.

Young Miao girls learning weaving from an elder
Young Miao girls learning weaving from an elder
Miao wedding dress
Miao wedding dress

 

Native North America

Native American women were weavers for their families, culture and themselves. For example, in North American Appalachia, native women expressed their artistry through weaving textiles which served their own families and those of others. Usually sourcing raw materials such as wool, flax or cotton that they grew, hand spun into threads, and plant-dyed themselves, Appalachia women created woven works of art for celebrating their loved ones. 

Cherokee women weaving baskets
Cherokee women weaving baskets

Appalachia women were also textile entrepreneurs- selling their woven goods they made at home, freelancing their weaving service outside their communities to weave household linens for other families and offering weaving workshops to share their craftsmanship to others such as in schools or even national conferences. 

The Native women of North America have utilized weaving especially in basketmaking. Traditional Native American basketry was governed by specific cultural laws that guided basketry design and uses. However, as the United States developed, Native Americans were prompted into an economic society that enforced commerce. Eventually, traditional basketry became recognized in dominant U.S. society as beautiful yet functional works of art and became somewhat trendy to own. In the 19th century, collecting baskets became popularized and so did Native women for their craftsmanship. One acclaimed Native woman in the basketry craft was Dat So La Lee. The phenomenon around Native basketry empowered Native women to engage in entrepreneurial activities and provide for their families financially through their artistic craftsmanship which otherwise would have stayed within the household. 

Dat So La Lee and her baskets
Dat So La Lee and her baskets

 

Through basketry weaving, Native women helped propel Native American society into the greater monetary society of the United States while providing some financial freedom from their cultural traditions. The basketry renaissance continues today as young generations of Native Americans seek to keep their cultural craftsmanship alive. 

Maya

Indigenous Maya women remain some of the most vibrant and talented weavers of the world. The beauty of Maya weaving is inspired by its spiritual relationship to the divine feminine. Maya spirituality features several weaving goddesses such as Ix Azal Uoh, “the weaver of life,” Ix Otzil, “weaver of the threads of destiny and the weaver inside us all,” and Ix Chel, “the intersectional goddess of healing, midwifery, sexuality, herbalism, weaving and nature.” The cosmic weaver, Ix Chel weaves the natural world with a backstrap loom, ruling the moon, love and textiles. Ix Chel shared her weaving craft over 1,500 years ago and Maya women continue to weave textiles using the techniques as Ix Chel.

Ix Chel goddess
Ix Chel goddess

Maya weaving is signaturely colorful, using cultivated cotton and natural dyes from all things the earth- plants, vegetables, fruits, animals, minerals, and anything else provided by the land. The gorgeous colors employed in Maya weaving have historically signified in ancient Maya society, wealth, status and nobility of Maya women. Maya women’s weaving craftsmanship uplifted her standing in society, in fact, her woven art displayed her wealth. A Maya woman with impeccable weaving skills was the ideal woman to marry, which is an interesting form of appreciation for tactical talent. 

Maya embroidery weaving
Maya embroidery weaving 

The primary design for Maya weaving is the huipil, a traditional garment often expressed in the forms of a dress or a blouse. How a Maya woman designs her woven huipil creation expresses who she is, her history, and her relationship to the universe. The huipil is the ultimate form of cultural and artistic expression, dedicating several months of weaving. 

Maya woman weaving while wearing a huipil blouse
Maya woman weaving while wearing a huipil blouse

 

The beautiful art of weaving is being upheld by Maya women today through communities of craftsmanship. In recent decades, Mayan culture has been devastatingly hurt by the violent Guatemalan Civil War which lasted for almost 4 decades. Thousands of indigenous Mayan people were targeted and murdered during this war for unjust reasons and Mayan culture was damaged, hundreds of weaving styles were lost along with these lost lives. In the fight to revive Mayan culture, women-led weaving cooperatives were formed and helped Maya women today to continue weaving their beautiful worlds and support their and their families’ livelihoods. 

Maya weaving cooperative
Maya weaving cooperative

 

Vikings 

There’s something mysterious and fascinating about Viking history because it’s less notable than other cultures commonly studied which is why the history of Viking women is so intriguing. The usual connotation of Vikings generally is one of brute swordship, inclusive of men and women. However, viking women played a critical role in viking voyages as a result of their weaving craftsmanship. Without women’s weaving, Vikings would not have readily had ships’ sails, warm and protective clothing or cloth commodities available to them. Viking women’s weaving of essential textiles was the foundation of the Viking era. 

Historical interpretation of viking sailing
Historical interpretation of viking sailing ship

The textiles that Viking women wove were mostly wool because of its properties of heating, durability and accessibility. The process of transforming dirty, knotted sheep’s wool into fabric is extremely tedious. Viking women invented a specific wool coat that gained popularity even internationally. These wool coats became vital to Iceland’s economy that specific regulations were created for size and texture, specifically how shaggy it was. These standards were put in place to regulate quality and fair trading to protect the craftsmanship of Viking women weavers. 

Wool became a commodity of high importance in Viking society- it was the championed export of Medieval Iceland which then became a currency to tax and import other commodities with. Wool became such an important currency that it is said to have replaced silver currency that Vikings often collected during their conquests. Due to the nature of fabric currency, laws were enacted to ensure standardized lengths for wool currency. Through their weaving skills, Viking women were at the forefront of the Viking Era’s economy. 

Viking weaving technique with rock weights
Viking weaving technique with rock weights
Viking inspired wool coat
Viking inspired wool coat 

Much like other cultures, a woman’s weaving skills informed her eligibility as a potential bride during marriage arrangements. Viking women were considered wealthy dependent upon how much cloth they could weave within a year. Viking women’s craftsmanship in weaving was always considered in social rankings. 

Women weavers also played a valuable role in documenting history through their textiles.One example is the “Bayeux Tapestry”- an extremely long and tall piece of embroidery that portrays scenes of the Norman Rule conquest executed by William the Conqueror. Although not widely known, women weavers were behind many of these historical textiles that captured significant events in history.

The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry 

Women’s Weaving Will Always Win

The art of weaving has always been associated as a feminine activity, usually being overlooked, taken for granted and disregarded throughout much of history for its economic contributions. Throughout history, women’s weavings have paved the way for trading culture, mapping out the exchange of culture through their carefully crafted utilitarian pieces of art. But, weaving and the women who weave represent the ultimate form of divine femininity. The act of weaving alone, creating woven worlds from plant remnants or animal fur is symbolic of a woman's natural power to create life through birth. 

Since the 1960s, women artists have been innovating weaving into a modern fine art. Weaving will always be a high art form and today a new renaissance of slow, handmade artisans are elevating weaving. 

At Ecoist, we are passionate about the fabulous works of weaving artisans, and we’re always excited to welcome new artisans to our community of circular designers.

One of the weaving artists we are excited to collaborate with is, Trudy Perry!  Trudy Perry is a contemporary fiber artist whose art mostly lives on walls.  Now you can purchase her unique artwork through our "MADE-TO-ORDER" COLLECTION.

References:

Brown, E. N. (2019, November 13). Weaving, coding, and The secret history of 'women's work'. Fast Company. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90425067/weaving-coding-and-the-secret-history-of-womens-work#:~:text=The%20practice%20of%20female%20weaving%20workshops%20nods%20to,who%20wanted%20to%20study%20art%20were%20invariably%20placed

Carr, K., 1, J. T. J., & 1, K. C. J. (2019, April 25). History of weaving - early hand weaving. Quatr.us Study Guides. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://quatr.us/clothing/history-weaving-early-hand-weaving.htm#:~:text=Egyptian%20women%20spinning%20and%20weaving%20%28Model%20from%20the,Women%20in%20West%20Asia%20Women%20in%20ancient%20Egypt

DeskX, Shovava, Day, T. is A., Comma, & Colorsheets, V. (2020, September 8). Art history: Ancient practice of textile art and how it continues to reinvent itself. My Modern Met. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://mymodernmet.com/contemporary-textile-art-history/

History of weaving. History of Weaving - Weaving in Ancient World. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2022, from http://www.historyofclothing.com/making-clothing/history-of-weaving/

How Guatemala's women weavers keep mayan tradition alive. The Discoverer. (2020, August 21). Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.thediscoverer.com/blog/how-guatemalas-women-weavers-keep-mayan-tradition-alive/X0AvGQZ60wAHRr0X 

From the archives: Weaving history through art. From the Archives: Weaving History Through Art. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2018/archives-weaving-history-through-art 

Larson-Wang, J. (2017, April 3). Tales told by embroidery: The Woven Heritage of China's Miao Indigenous. Culture Trip. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://theculturetrip.com/asia/china/articles/the-intricate-art-of-miao-embroidery/ 

Lennie. (2014, August 15). Weaving the world of ancient Mayan women. Ancient Origins. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-americas/weaving-world-ancient-mayan-women-001976 

Some history: From flax plant to linen fabric | linenbeauty. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2022, from https://www.linenbeauty.com/blog/some-history-from-flax-plant-to-linen-fabric 

Textile art from Southern Appalachia: The quiet work of women: Mcclung museum of natural history & culture. McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture | University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (2019, May 9). Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://mcclungmuseum.utk.edu/exhibitions/textile-art-from-southern-appalachia-the-quiet-work-of-women/

Weaving history. weavedesign. (2019, October 1). Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.weavedesign.eu/weaving-history/

Viking Women: Weaving History and Progress. LENNY. (2018, July 26). Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.lennyletter.com/story/viking-women