Some of these ancient women weavers – mythical and actual – could be seen as the foremothers of today’s makers and ‘craftivists’, who use textiles as a means of making their voices heard through storytelling and protest. Ancient poetry introduces us to several of these subversive stitchers: in Homer’s epic Odyssey, for example, we meet Penelope, who devises her secret ruse of weaving and unpicking a shroud, so as to delay marriage to a suitor and remain faithful to her absent husband; meanwhile the goddess Athena was associated in ancient Greek thought with the wily intelligence needed for weaving everything from cloth to military stratagems and crafty plans; and Ovid’s Latin poem Metamorphoses tells of Arachne, transformed into a spider by Minerva (the Roman name for Athena) as punishment for outdoing her in a weaving contest by creating an intricate tapestry exposing the crimes of the gods.
The archaeological record, too, has much to tell us about the mechanics of textile production and its role in women’s lives. For example, terracotta loom weights from the ancient world survive in abundance, and artefacts like painted pottery and sculpture show women engaged in the various stages of cloth-making. This has even enabled researchers to recreate some of the technology associated with weaving in the ancient world. In fact, the centrepiece of our events will be a replica ancient loom, and those who come along will be invited by our colleague Prof. Mary Harlow (University of Leicester) to try their hand at using it to help us make cloth!