When you think of your favorite article of clothing, many things come to mind: how it looks, the way it feels, that tiny hole under the arm only you know is there. But do you ever stop and wonder about the person who made it? How long it took? Who taught them the trade? Where are they from? For many working in the textile industry today, those answers are all very different. However, there is one common thread that many weavers have.
Women throughout history have been weaving. Weaving not only beautifully crafted textiles but also fascinating tales that go along with them. Each piece has a story, and those stories are what has kept the craft alive for so many centuries. Sometimes, those stories were even encapsulated in the weaving itself.
For many women, crafts such as weaving, crocheting, and quilting became a means of communication and preserving history. The stitched fabrics they spent so many days and nights on would often become an eloquent record of their lives and those of their ancestors. In a village in the Peruvian Andes, women pass down the stories of their ancestors through images in nature such as plants, lakes, animals, and other symbols used to represent life, death, and everything in between. In Romania, peasant clothing has a unique and beautifully complex language all on its own. In their culture, the symbols used by Romanian women generate the energy they represent. For example, flowers represent fleeting beauty, water streams represent time passing, and diamonds represent fertility.
War also became the inspiration for many textiles and a way for women to express how they felt. Native Americans, for example, chose to use the art of weaving to document their journey to the west and the many changes war brought to their lives. Japanese women embroidered belts for their loved ones that symbolized protection as they went off to war, while baskets woven by ethnic groups in Panama and Colombia featured images referring to hazardous drug trafficking in the region.
Other women throughout history weaved because their livelihoods depended on it. When advances in textile machinery began developing, women began gaining employment in an industry they hadn’t before. These machines made the tasks that were traditionally reserved for men less physically demanding and therefore, began to change the gender roles in factories gradually. A woman’s place in textiles was no longer purely domestic; the women were now essential to industrialization. These roles, however, didn’t always include the safest of environments for the women. In the early 1800s, Francis Cabot Lowell began hiring women in his textile mills known as ‘The Lowell Girls.’ These women left their homes to work 12 hour days in the mill, all while living in boarding houses with strict rules and policies. The mills themselves were dangerous. Many injuries and illnesses occurred, including fires due to the abundance of cotton bales, oil, and other highly flammable materials. These weren’t the only challenges they faced. During World War II, the women working in the textile industry were some of the only ones who saw no pay increase even though their labor doubled, simply because it was a female dominated field pre-war. The sacrifices these women made weren’t made in vain, because they paved the way for the betterment of textile working conditions we have seen. Whether used as a means of communication or as a form of employment, fiber arts and textiles remain crucial to the story of women’s contribution to history.
Today, a new place in the textile world has emerged for women. The industry has begun to chip away at the glass ceiling, and we are now seeing more and more women rise to top management positions. This new revelation and has even inspired textile organizations to acknowledge these changes in the industry through seminars and conferences for women. The first-ever Women in Textiles Summit took place in Savannah, GA, in March of this year. The IFAI created this event to not only celebrate the changes taking place in the industry but to connect some of the brightest female minds in textiles, encouraging a community of growth. Summits like this are crucial in the cultivation of even more advances in the textile industry, mainly because textiles connect every single person in the world.
We use textiles every day, from the clothes we wear to the materials we touch and use to make life easier. We have a long list of women to thank for this because, without them, history as we know it could have changed forever. What if Betsy Ross had never sewn the American flag? What if Lien Pham, the NASA seamstress who created the thermal blankets essential for every space mission, had given up on her first design? Coco Chanel began adding pockets in her women’s garments in the 1920s in a time where they were a men-only luxury, but what if she had never learned to sew? These influential women are just a few of the many who have changed the course of history through their handiwork and craft.
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