We’ve all seen the memes. “My other hobby is buying yarn.” “My yarn stash exceeds my expected lifespan.” “Yarn is like chocolate; you can never have too much.”
We treat yarn as if there’s an abundant worldwide stash ready for us to buy, in any amount. Craft stores literally stock enough yarn to reach the ceiling. You can obtain yarn for any project you have in mind with a couple of clicks on your phone.
This wasn’t always the case. In researching for my next book in The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, I’ve been shocked to learn how much time women have spent over the centuries making yarn and thread. Before industrialization, if you were a human being and a woman, you would spend a good part of your waking hours making yarn or thread. If you were a Neanderthal woman, you would have used fibers from the inner bark of conifer trees to make string for fishing lines and nets, to hang food to dry, to set traps for small animals, and to sew together animal hides for clothes and shelter. If you lived in Europe up until the industrial revolution, you would carry around a spindle and a fist full of wool, and you would make yarn while you watched the kids, walked, talked, and generally while you kept an eye on whatever else went on in your life. You would know how to work a spinning wheel as well as you knew how to cook. It’s what your family needed to survive.
Why don’t we study this in history class? Why don’t we see remnants of these time-consuming tasks featured in museums? Think about it – yarns, threads, and cloths eventually deteriorate and rot. These cushy, soft products don’t survive as long as items made of metal, stone, or even wood. So our foremothers’ efforts put into anything woven, knitted, or sewn have largely faded (or rotted) away from the saved artifacts of human culture.
The next time you pick up a skein of yarn to knit your next project, consider yourself blessed. Thanks to human ingenuity, all you had to do to get that yarn was click buttons on your phone or make a craft store run, which you probably enjoyed. Appreciate that you, as a 21st century woman, have the leisure to simply sit and knit for the sheer pleasure of it.
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, by Virginia Postrel
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, interrelated stories about knitters and those for whom they knit and love. The sequel to this book, The Knitting Guild of All Saints, has just been released! Available in paperback and on Kindle, included in Kindle Unlimited.
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