“The words “text” and “textile” share a common ancestor: the Latin “texere,” to weave. Similarly, “fabrica”–something skilfully produced–birthed both “fabric” and “fabricate.” That language and cloth are so interwoven should not surprise us: they are, in some ways, intimately connected.” – Kassia St.Clair, The Golden Thread
The same way that textiles tell stories without words, there are many words that tell stories about textiles. By looking into the etymology of some words, the histories of textiles are brought to light, and more specifically the history of women and textiles. Words such as “gossip” and “spinster” carry with them historically charged meanings, as well as the stories of women, around the world. These women all had a voice that were many times silenced, and the meanings attributed to such words only prolong this silencing. By understanding where such words come from, we then become conscious of the ways in which the language we use today can slow down our evolving into an equal society.
The female voice has been feared and suppressed by men throughout history. Since women habitually stayed at home while men went out to work, they were always aware of intimate details regarding people’s lives inside a home – including the men’s intimate lives. Many of these women also worked as laundresses, which meant they were out on the streets for hours washing a household’s linens or “washing the dirty laundry” (1). While washing, they were also talking, and discussing intimate details out in a public area. As psychoanalyst Diana Corso explained during a talk, women’s voices became “dangerous” because when they spoke, an intimacy was revealed to the outside world. A woman knew about the “dirty laundry”, meaning the domestic intimacy and fragility that exists behind a man’s public façade, and that was considered of great danger to society – after all, men could not possibly be vulnerable and work or lead.
From this male fear, the contemporary meaning of the word “gossip” emerged. Gossip can be described as “a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others” (2), however its first definition was “sponsor or godparent”, from the Old English word “godsibb”. It was later used to describe a friend or neighbor, especially "a familiar to woman friends invited to attend a birth,” (3) which then during the sixteenth century turned into the definition we currently use. The word gossip was one used to create a separation among women, who united presented great strength, which to men symbolized a threat. During and before that period, “women cooperated with each other in every aspect of their life. They sewed, washed their clothes, and gave birth surrounded by other women” (4). Textiles brought women together and gave them space to discuss important matters that could have otherwise never been spoken about.
In certain places, there came times when women were prohibited by law to meet and talk, and were forced and tortured during witch trials to turn against each other. At this point, the word “gossip” went from a word meaning friend to a word of belittlement. This did not only happen in Europe and the United States, but in other places such as Brazil too. The Portuguese word “fuxico” has two meanings: one is the craft of making fabric yo-yos, and the other is gossip. The meaning of the word similarly like the English word gossip, came from groups of women who would meet up in public in the Northeast of Brazil to sew and chat.
Another example of a contemporary word that stems from the history of women and textiles is “spinster”. Today defined as “disparaging and offensive. a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marrying,” (5) the word “spinster” was first defined as “a woman who spun thread and yarn” (6). During the late Middle Ages women who were married had a higher status and had access to better raw materials through their husbands. Therefore, women who were unmarried were stuck with lower-status jobs such as spinning, which is where the derogatory meaning comes from. Their marital status was easily known as they had different coloured strings tying their flax to their spinning wheels as they spun – one could tell if a woman was married, available for marriage, or a “spinster”.
These words are only a few from the English language that are used to describe women negatively or to portray women’s voices as idle. As Michelle Perrot wrote in her book The Bedroom: “any woman who shows her-self dishonors herself,” and “a woman in public is always out of place” (7). Women found a way to unite and talk through textiles, yet their voices were villainised, and are therefore to this day displaced in society. Today women continue to fight to have their voices heard and many do so through textiles and collaborative work. These textiles are everywhere – can you think of the textiles in your life that contain the voices of women?
Footnotes and Links
Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination with ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates continuous research currently archived as text and images.