Women’s work…

Today, of course, is International Women’s Day and instead of indulging in a seasonal rant like last year, I decided to reflect on how lucky I am – how lucky we are, we women who choose to work with textiles. Instead of having to do so, that is.

Think on’t – for many centuries, we’d have had little or no choice. For many millennia, even. If we wanted fabric, we’d have had to produce it, going right back to working with basic cords. We’d have had to spin every single thread, from the ones used to knit a shawl for a baby to those being woven into sails for a ship. Everything. Oh, men would have been involved too, at some stages, inevitably, but we do know that the bulk of the textile work often fell upon women – ‘keep the maids at their spinning’.

s[pinning woman

So here, because I’m still coughing for Wales and have a head almost entirely full of menthol and eucalyptus, are some images of women working with textiles which have served to make me think on’t, as it were.

These images are by the early twentieth century American photographer Lewis Hine:

Let’s not forget that children were so useful, and girls were so much more reliable.

The smaller girls have to stand on boxes to allow them to work.

Child workers, 1910

This child – from 1910 – is a little taller, but no matter. And no matter how attractive the photograph, it’s still not right. And it’s not in the past, of course. Just in the past – mostly – in the ‘developed’ world. Hrrumpf.

The production of fine knitted items on Shetland was not industrialised as such, but was just as oppressive – I went into this in some depth after I was in Shetland a couple of years ago, in a post called ‘knitting for tea‘ – salutary.

knitter with kishie of peats

(Photograph courtesy Shetland Museum and Archives)

Hard work. You’ve got to keep at the knitting when you’re doing other things, or you don’t – essentially – eat.

And finally, just because I had an argument about voting  (do it; people have died for the right to vote, I don’t care if nothing changes, just ****** vote, or maybe spoil your ballot paper because they do take note of those), and political action with a couple of women yesterday, note these two redoubtable women from the textile industry:


They were on a picket line during the huge US garment workers’ strike in 1910 (love the hat, by the way; no to donkey jackets; yes to big hats). Yo!


14 thoughts on “Women’s work…

    1. kate Post author

      Quite – and congratulations on your cough too. We must never ever meet, or it would be like crossing the beams on Ghostbusters. Giant cough explosion. (Might frighten D. Cameron into a debate, who can tell?)

        1. kate Post author

          Indeed – and now he’s getting another boy (OK, Lord Grade) to explain that he’s not chicken, no way, and it’s all the fault of the nasty big media and he’s going to call in teacher.

          (Remember Sir Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Worth googling if not. They keep springing to mind.)

  1. Elaine

    Kate, I so enjoy your posts. Women’s history is of great interest to me (especially on the textile area) and you must enjoy uncovering all the great topics!!
    My goodness–haven’t you been sick since Christmas? This is going on too long. Hope it’s gone soon!!

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks, Elaine!

      Not brilliant since CHristmas, certainly – but this horrible cold got me on 12 Feb (I know where I was when I first felt the signs, and I couldn’t get at my echinacea). This whole area has been blitzed by it; the surgery is a minefield, people see the doc and he’s worse than they are, and the cold-remedy shelves in the chemist empty as soon as they fill. I’m actually better than some people!

  2. croftgarden

    The “lady” suffragists tend to get the limelight and the groundswell of support and activists that came from the women who worked in the factories and some of the early trade unionists tend to be forgotten. Clogs and shawls not nice hats for these girls.
    These were strong women and not be be trifled with. My granny was my first role model and like her grandmother, mother and sister worked in the silk mills and lace and hosiery factories.
    Your cough is hanging around for far too long, I hope you’re not being too stoic, do go and harrass the local medical establishment and get them to fix it. If they can’t offer medication get them to prescribe a month in the sunshine and send the bill to Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

    1. kate Post author

      You are quite right – and think of the London match girls, too. Not a big hat for them either. They were the grounding on which the suffragettes built. Stroppy women, all.

      I’m proud to say that I come from similarly stroppy stock too (oh but surely I am descended from laydees who fainted attractively and said ‘fie, sir’ a lot… er, nah). My step-grandma was a huge influence – of an extreme socialist bent herself. She heard V. Woolf lecture when she was a gal, and was committed to female education. Became one of the small group of pre-war feminists who raised money for a new women’s college at Cambridge – completely coincidentally, the one I went to much later on. (I knew nothing of this, but saw her maiden name on a plaque. Sadly by then she was too far sunk into Alzheimers to realise.) She fitted right in to our stroppy political family. Plus she taught me how to play cards for money and bought me a chemistry set my father said she must have got from the IRA. I blew the end off our (admittedly already collapsing) garden shed.

  3. thetinfoilhatsociety

    It almost sounds like you have B. pertussis. Whooping cough, or the 100 day cough as it used to be known. Oy. Sorry. The good news is you will eventually get better. Just don’t drop a stitch in a coughing fit! 🙂

    1. kate Post author

      I did wonder about that, but I haven’t whooped clearly, not even at the start. Whatever it is, it’s certainly horribly contagious. You feel fine, except for the coughing and the fluffy head. Mind you, the latter could always be down to too much cough stuff!

      I’m being very good at predicting the coughs and putting the knitting down in time!

  4. Annie Cholewa

    Pregnant daughter has just been offered a whooping cough vaccine top-up as there is so much of it about, so you never know.

    That hat looks like it might have made passing through doorways a tad difficult!

    1. kate Post author

      Ahh, interesting, and someone told me yesterday that there’d been an article in the Daily Mail about it being very bad this year (possibly blaming it on immigrants and/or Ed Milliband, mind). I wouldn’t like to have this cough and be pregnant, I must admit, it’s a nasty one.

      Suspect hat was for photographs?

  5. Spade & Dagger

    That picture of the lady knitting and carrying made me smile and want to cry. It’s no wonder women are ‘good at multi-tasking’ – it’s because throughout history, all those that weren’t good at it died of starvation and deprivation as did their offspring, a clear case of survival of the fittest. Looking at the girls – who deserved to be in school, but instead balanced on boxes for hours, worked in front of those moving machines with loose hair and flapping skirts – and thinking it’s still just like that in some parts of the world.
    There was a BBC radio 4 program, around the time Russell Brand was spouting his stuff, about how useful it was to spoil a ballot paper – I thought they concluded that spoiled ones were basically ignored and that it was more effective to vote tactically because those votes are analysed and advertised.

    1. kate Post author

      Quite – they had no choice, and some still do not (I can feel a soapbox coming on). Dreadful.

      You may well be right. I did once help at a count – admittedly years ago, in London – and the spoiled ballot papers were put on one side. Various people came and looked at them; some were just crossed through but others carried an, er, unequivocal message (I remember one that said ‘F OFF POLITICIAN SCUM’ and another that just read ‘my arse’- The Royle Family was popular at the time). They were then taken away and counted (I asked), though what use was made of this info I do not know, and I’d be interested to know about more recent experiences.


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