Spinning, Grinding, and Social Change

I’ve long thought that I should read more about the history of clothing. It parallels the history of food in so many ways.

The raw materials for cloth (flax, cotton, wool, silk) have to be harvested, just as grains, meat, etc do.

These products then have to be processed (cleaned, combed, spun, woven, etc) in a series of laborious stages, just as grains have to be cleaned, threshed, ground, etc and meat has to be skinned and butchered.

Then the cloth has to be assembled into garments, just as grains and meat have to be turned into bread or stews.

Greek woman spinning

Woman spinning with a drop spindle, depicted on a Greek vase of ca. 490 B.C. From Barber, p.38

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (Norton, 1994) has got me started on exploring these parallels and their consequences for social development.

Barber argues that in order to care for their children women took on tasks that did not require deep concentration, that were dull and repetitive, that were easily interrupted and resumed, that posed as little danger to children as possible, and that could be performed close to home.*

Spinning, weaving, and sewing, Barber suggests, were ideal tasks for mothers. Preparing the daily food was the runner up.

Talking about rural Greece half a century ago when festive outfits were still made from scratch, she says

it takes several hours to spin with a hand spindle the amount of yarn one can weave up in an hour, so women spun as they watched the children, girls spun as they watched the sheep, both spun as they trudged or rode muleback from one village to another on errands. . . In fact, if we reckon up the cleaning, spinning, dyeing, weaving, and embroidering of the wool, the villagers appeared to spend at least as many labor hours on making cloth as on producing the food to be eaten.


Women spinning in seventeenth century woodcut

Seventeenth century woodcut of women in the Balkans spinning while traveling. From Barbar, p. 32. Note the woman and donkey in the center middle distance.

As a task, spinning has it over grinding any day.

Spinning . . . is a very restful activity. . . a good thing, because it takes an enormous amount of time to make thread by hand.

Restful is not a word you would ever use of grinding grain by hand. It’s physically demanding since the weight of the body is doing the work.  And it too takes an enormous amount of time (about five hours a day for a family).

Egyptian woman grinding.

Grinding. Maspero, Dawn of Civilization (1894), 320. (The stretch is, I believe, exaggerated but unlike many depictions of grinding this gives an idea of the work involved).

When grinding, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to children because it’s such heavy labor. Workers with DIF, the Mexican agency for family welfare, have told me that the best way of improving children’s lives is to put an electric-driven mill for corn in the village so that mothers don’t have to face the awful choice of preparing food for the children and attending to their other needs.  I’ve not seen this written up in academic or government documents, but stark as it is, the choice rings true.

(Food preparation involving fires, heavy pestles and grindstones, chemicals such as lye from ashes was probably more dangerous for children, for all the fairy tale heroines who pricked their fingers on spindles).

So in light of this first foray into the parallels and differences between preparing clothes and preparing food, a few thoughts and questions.

1  Both spinning and grinding have traditionally been primarily the work of women.

2.  The earliest ways of preparing clothing and preparing grains (the basic food of most of the world’s population) took huge amounts of time.

The introduction of simple rotary machines (spinning wheels, rotary grindstones) reduced the time dramatically.  As a very rough estimate, I suggest in Cuisine and Empire that

in the Roman Empire, one grinder working for five hours could supply twenty people, four times as many as a grinder using a saddle quern in Ur, Nineveh, or Thebes, suggesting the percentage of the working population that had to grind fell from 20 percent to 5 percent.

3. Until spinning and grinding are mechanized, therefore, social development is highly constrained.

I have read (and if anyone knows where) that the flowering of Mexican arts and crafts in the past century went hand in hand with the increasing efficiency of tortilla making (presses, mills, tortillerias).

And certainly Mexico’s increasing standard of living in the last generation (yes, I know, not evenly distributed but very, very striking all the same) would not be possible if women were spending all their time grinding, spinning and weaving.

4. Wouldn’t it be interesting to try to map changes in the technologies of clothing and food preparation on to child welfare, women’s employment, women’s independence, and economic development?

Can anyone point me to the development literature on this? There must be such?

And is there any historical literature for clothing?  I know there’s precious little, strange as it seems, for food preparation.  If you know of any historical cases where the time required is calculated, I’d love to know them.

5.  It may well be that as with so many other aspects of household technology, reducing the time spent on basic tasks does not reduce the work load.  As Ruth Schwartz Cowan pointed out long ago in More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983) the time saved may be gobbled up by higher standards.

I’m a bit more sympathetic to this than Ruth is because I believe it opens up new possibilities.  More time teaching children, for example. Thoughts?

6. Does anyone know any blogs/books that would help illuminate the clothing/food parallels?



*Here she cites Judith Brown.

Apart from a fascinating account of the early history of clothing, Barber also has interesting observations on why innovation was so slow, and on how seemingly unrecorded and forgotten history can be recovered.

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9 thoughts on “Spinning, Grinding, and Social Change

  1. Laura Conrad

    I think you should include laundry in the time-consuming work involved in wearing clothes. Even after the industrial revolution took over the spinning and weaving, laundry was still done in the home.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      You are so right, Laura. And heavy, heavy labor. My mother had soap, a boiler, a mangle, and a flat iron when I was a child. It was more laborious than the washing up.

      1. Laura Conrad

        I realized after I had posted that comment that there is actually a study on the time involved in doing laundry.

        Sometime in the 1970’s or 80’s there was an article in Scientific American about a study on the amount of time that went into doing laundry by American housewives. It claimed that they spent about the same amount of time in 1900 as in 1980(?). Of course, the washing machine happened between those dates, so if they were spending the same amount of time, it was because they had more clothes, and washed them more often.

        I’ve always taken that to mean that the amount of time they were spending in 1900 was what they wanted to spend on clothes, and when it got easier, they started doing more of it. I’m sure that kind of reaction could transfer to food preparation, too.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Hi Laura, Thanks for following up on this. And yes, now we wash clothes every time we wear them, both sheets every week, have towels for every member of the family instead of shared towels.

          The equivalent for food is that for most of history in most societies, the meals were a thick soup or pottage of dried beans, root vegetables, greens if available, and a bit of meat. Then in the nineteenth century, there was a meal for each day of the week and distinct meals for different times of day. Now we expect to eat sample of different cuisines and not repeat meals every week.

          Whether the upping of expectations is good or bad depends on your perspective.

  2. Ineke Berentschot

    ha Rachel, interesting to compare both processes. I can not help you finding books. But what I kept thinking about was: when parents (mothers) have more time to spent with their children, does that say anyting about whether that is good or not? For instance my father and mother were all day somewhere around on the farm, doing their tasks. That was wonderfull for us, children. We knew they were somewhere and we played around (or annoyed ourselves, also okay). In my experience children go their way if I – as a mother or grandmother – also go my way. So: interesting stuff but also an interesting question: what do parents do with the time they win?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      My upbringing, Ineke, was very similar to yours. I too loved that combination of freedom and security, helped by having a big farm to run about on.

      And so, yes, what do you do with the time you have gained. In Mexico, it goes into earning money so your children can continue in school (technically free but lots of associated expenses besides the children not being able to earn themselves).

  3. Vikram

    Gandhi is one person who links spinning and grinding. His use of spinning and making of khadi cloth, and the way the spinning wheel became a symbol of Indian nationalism is the most famous story, but he was also interested in grinding, both of grains and oilseeds, all under his theories of the importance of village economies. I referenced this recently in a column on sesame oil:

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks so much. I knew a little of the ghani story because K.T.Achaya was kind enough to send me his book on oil seeds, which opened a whole new world to me. But I’d not thought to connect Gandhi on spinning and on oilseeds. Fascinating.


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