When it comes to studying women’s history, a lot of talk goes back and forth between these notions of the private versus the public sphere. Women are said to either encompass or are designated to the private sphere. But what is this private sphere? It includes child rearing and such domestic activities as cleaning and cooking. However, in prehistoric times, what did the private, or domestic sphere mean in work to a woman? It includes a full schedule of cooking, cleaning, and children. But it also included something else. It included the art of working with fibers in order to produce a material that would clothe, house, and help to feed their families. This art was and is comprised of gathering and preparing fiber, spinning the fiber, and eventually weaving that fiber into a useable object. It was this type of work that made up a woman’s day. Today we find ourselves in an age where making your own clothes is either a quirky hobby or a weird fascination, however, by reconstructing some of the clothing that has been found by archeologists, a new appreciation for the work of early women came be found.
In my search of early, prehistoric textiles, I decided to recreate a string skirt, whose remains have been found not only in graves, but from statues dating back to early Bronze Age times. One example that has been found comes from Egtved, Denmark and dates back to about the 14th century B.C. Other examples include a variety of statues that portray women as large and obese sporting these small, immodest skirts. These statues have been found in many areas extending from Western Europe on the coast to the eastern part of Russia.
One of the first things that archeologist first noticed about these skirts, was how immodest, or unpractical they were. The skirts differed from region to region, but the concept remained the same. The skirt was comprised of a narrow band that was worn around the hips, usually wrapped twice and tied in a knot. Hanging off the band, were many pieces of spun string that traveled down to about 15 inches and would sometimes end tied in a band around the bottom, or knotted with some kind of bead or shell. The purpose of the beads or band around the bottom, archeologist think, was to add a certain kind of swing to the skirt, almost like a flounce does to modern skirts today. One of the things that have shocked and baffled archeologists, is the fact that the skirt does not appear to have any kind of covering or warmth purposes. The skirt appears to be too flimsy or thin to serve either one of those purposes. So what was the purpose of the string skirt? In her book, Women’s Work, Elizabeth Barber hypothesizes that the skirt acted like a sign that would highlight a woman’s reproductive bits and maybe indicate that she was of either marriage or child bearing. Barber backs up this argument by looking at a myth of Hera preparing herself for a night of delight with Zeus. Hera arrays herself in garment fit for a goddess complete with a girdle of a hundred tassels. Barber hypothesizes that this could be an early Greek idea of the string skirt. Barber also talks about that even today in Europe, may woman wear decorative aprons with fertility symbols that are not unlike the early Bronze Age string skirt in structure. Perhaps she is right about the purpose of the string skirt, and perhaps not. In my opinion, she makes a valid argument since she employs folklore, myth, and tradition that are centered on women and their dealings with fashion.
So how did I recreate this textile? For my knowledge pursuit, I wanted to concentrate mainly on the process of how this skirt was made. My first process to understand was the most fundamental of the skirt, mainly to recreate how women would have made the string to weave the skirt together in the first place. So, since I was looking at process only, I received a bag of donated cotton balls, and with the aid of a borrowed spindle, I set to work to spin these pieces of cotton into thread. I soon found out an important piece of knowledge as I sat in my living room, separating the fibers and spinning them onto the spindle. That knowledge was simplified in these thoughts, “this is a) a lot of work by myself and could be sped up by the aid of someone else and 2) this is highly boring working on this alone.” I quickly came to understand and appreciate why women usually worked in groups. Preparing the material and the actual spinning could be a quicker process in a group with many hands to separate the fibers. Also, I missed additional voices that would have helped to fill in the silence with stories and jokes. Time would have passed faster, and perhaps I would have been more productive with someone to help keep track of my progress.
After I felt confident with spinning, I moved on to the actual construction of the skirt. I bought two balls of yarn. I purchased them in brown and red, because I felt that after learning about early dyes, that brown (from dirt) and red (from madder roots) would have been the easiest and first colors that the skirts would be dyed. I choose brown to be my warp threads, and set to devising a simple loom that would help me to weave the band and incorporate the strings. The first problem came in trying to figure out exactly how the strings were constructed. I toyed with the idea that the band would be woven first, and the strings then sewn into the band one my one, or in a continuous pieces going up and down. However, since the band seemed to be continuous with no signs of needlework, I decided that this was probably not the normal case of its structure. After conducting some online research, I discovered that when the skirt is woven, one side of the weft is left long. Later, after the skirt is finished, the long weft can be cut in half and left to dangle or encased in the beads, shells, or band. So, with this knowledge, I constructed a makeshift warp weighted loom using paint sticks. I tied my warp between two paint sticks, which I then taped to my bedroom door. Using a third paint stick wound with the red yarn, I used it as a heddle to help me weave the string in and out in a simple 1x1 pattern. I wove the skirt in two separate areas at either ends of the loom, using a fine tooth comb that I brush my hair with as a beater to tighten my weave. The middle I left mainly opened, expect for a small stretch that decorated with my homespun cotton (which did not weave well because of its inconsistent in thickness). Once the weaving was done, I cut it off the loom and secured all the end threads with knots. I decided that I liked the way the skirt looped on the bottom, so I did not cut the loops, or enclosed them in beads or shells.
My skirt was finished and when tied on it was composed of a knot on one hip, a decorative white space on the other hip, and a cascade of red string highlighting both my front and back lady places. As I stood in the mirror, I thought of how this skirt may have been a sign that I was marriageable or ready to have children, and I swung my hips to try out the sway of the strings. I was not sure if I felt any more seductive then I did in the pajama pants I was wearing underneath, or any more ready to procreate with a man for that matter. However, as with anything that sways, I felt a little more girly, and enjoyed swishing side to side and watching the strings move with my swaying in a little rhythm that I decided was womanly. Men don’t sway like that, and as far as the little statues that archeologist have been digging up, they did not wear little skirts that showed off their reproductive bits. It was then that I felt the sauciness of what Elizabeth Barber was hypothesizing with this skirt. And as I stood in the mirror, I was amazed at how much time and work went into the making of one piece of clothing. And I was amazed at women who figured out the process on their own. And mostly I was amazed at the fact, that even thousands of years after the creation of this skirt that most people have no idea even existed, I could still copy the pattern and feel a little sexy.