Weaving and Spinning in the Art of Ancient Greece

Weaving was an important tradition for women in ancient Greece. In the Mycenean Culture weaving produced one of the major exports and women who could weave were in high demand. In the Iliad Homer mentions that Athena wears a dress that she wove herself. In the Odyssey when Odysseus arrived at the Palace of Alcinous Homer writes: “White-armed Arete (the queen) was the first to break the silence. For in the fine cloak and tunic she saw him wearing she recognized some clothes that she herself had made with her women’s help.” Then there is the story of Penelope who wished not to marry until she finished a shroud for her father-in-law. Each night she undid what she had woven during the day and thus postponed any thought of marriage. Weaving was an occupation of the ladies of the highest status.

The looms were upright with a frame attached to a wall and the weaver standing in front. As the work progressed the work was wound up in a roll at the top. Small clay weights were used to weigh down the ends of the warp. There were no spinning wheels, but use was made of the distaff and spindle and whorl. The raw material was held in a spinning basket. A rough clay semicylinder called an epinetron was used to prepare the wool. The results of this loom were high quality, as is demonstrated by the results illustrated in vase painting. You may also study the vase paintings for the patterns produced. The ancient Greeks used a vertical loom with the warp strings stretched with weights. The cloth was rolled up at the top. All weaving was done by hand. There is a picture of Penelope with her loom at: Penelope, Chiusi 1831.

Spinning and weaving goes back to the dawn of civilization to at least 8000 years ago. Weaving relates to basketry and began about 5000 BCE with flax. Spinning must have developed first with weaving later. The first materials were probably woven like a basket without a loom. The warp weighted looms used by the ancient Greeks were the oldest types so looms were probably developed during the Minoan period. At the beginning of that period cloth would have been scarce and very valuable. Pictures which show ancient Minoan women wearing flounced skirts are deceptive. Because of the difficulty of weaving without a loom these skirts were probably not made of cloth. They were probably made just of string. The material used in clothing should have been a minimum. The loom probably increased the quality and decreased the cost of the cloth made. After the loom was invented clothing covered more of the body, but since the loom produced cloth that was rectangular the clothing also had that shape. Since weaving was always the work of women it seems likely that a woman invented the loom.

Pictures of ancient baskets:

Weaving words from Indo-European

  • ‘aw-1’, ‘to weave
  • ‘brac-‘, ‘Trousers’, breeches
  • ‘dhabh-‘, ‘To fit together’, fabric, fabricator
  • ‘gen-‘, ‘To compress into a ball’, knot’gher-1′, ‘Gut, entrail’ chord, yarn
  • ‘kadh-‘, ‘To shelter, cover’ hat
  • ‘lino-‘, ‘Flax’
  • ‘reg-3’, ‘To dye’
  • ‘reup-‘, ‘To snatch’ robe
  • ‘ruk-1’, ‘Fabric, spun yarn’ coat
  • ‘plek’, ‘To plait’ flax
  • ‘ned-‘, ‘to bind, tie’, net
  • ‘pan-‘, ‘Fabric’
  • ‘pilo-‘, ‘Hair’
  • ‘reup-‘, ‘To snatch’ robe
  • ‘sker-1’, ‘to cut’, skirt, shirt (a shirt is madewith a piece cut off)
  • ‘skeu’, ‘to cover, hide’
  • ‘strenk-‘, ‘Tight, narrow’ string
  • ‘sne-‘, ‘To spin, sew’
  • ‘teks-‘, ‘To weave’ textile, technology
  • ‘webh-1, ‘to weave”webh-‘, web, Greek hypha
  • ‘wer-3’, ‘to turn, bend’, warp
  • ‘wer-5’, ‘To cover’ garment
  • ‘wes-4’ ‘to clothe’ wear, vest, himation
  • tatting — making lace by knotting (Scottish?)
  • weave – ύφανση
  • plait – κοτσίδα
  • knot – κόμβος
  • net – καθαρός
  • girdle – περίζωμα
  • embroidery – κεντητική

Weaving Practice

Weaving was very important for the women of ancient Greece because it
was the work of goddesses and queens. Weaving is also an important analogy for
the course of fate.

Pausanias (8.4.1) says “After the death
of Nyctimus, Arcas the son of Callisto came to the throne. He introduced the
cultivation of crops, which he learned from Triptolemus, and taught men to
make bread, to weave clothes, and other things besides, having learned the art
of spinning from Adristas.”

What follows are quotes about weaving from Homer:

“She (Hector’s wife) was at her loom in an inner part of the house, weaving
a double purple web, and embroidering it with many flowers.” (Iliad Book XXII)

“Now the son of Tydeus was in pursuit of the Cyprian goddess, spear
in hand, for he knew her to be feeble and not one of those goddesses
that can lord it among men in battle like Athena or Enyo the waster
of cities, and when at last after a long chase he caught her up, he
flew at her and thrust his spear into the flesh of her delicate
hand. The point tore through the ambrosial robe which the Graces had
woven for her, and pierced the skin between her wrist and the palm
of her hand, so that the immortal blood, or ichor, that flows in the veins
of the blessed gods, came pouring from the wound; for the gods
do not eat bread nor drink wine, hence they have no blood such as
ours, and are immortal.” (Iliad Book V)

“It may be that you will have to ply the loom in Argos at the bidding
of a mistress, or to fetch water from the springs Messeis or Hypereia, treated
brutally by some cruel task-master; then will one say who sees you weeping,
‘She was wife to Hector, the bravest warrior among the Trojans
during the war before Ilius.'” (Iliad VI)

“On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for
respecting the priest (Chryses) and taking the ransom that he offered; but not
so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away.
“Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor
yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall
profit you nothing. I will not free her (Chryse). She shall grow old in my
house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom
and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the
worse for you.” (Iliad, Book I)

“Go, then, within the house, and busy yourself with your daily duties,
your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for war is man’s
matter, and mine above all others of them that have been born in Ilius.”
(Iliad, Book VI)

“The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of
sorrow;…” ( Iliad, Book XXIV)

“And she hath
devised in her heart this wile besides; she set up in her
halls a mighty web, fine of woof and very wide, whereat she
would weave, and anon she spake among us:

‘Ye princely youths, my wooers, now that the goodly
Odysseus is dead, do ye abide patiently, how eager soever
to speed on this marriage of mine, till I finish the robe.
I would not that the threads perish to no avail, even this
shroud for the hero Laertes, against the day when the
ruinous doom shall bring him low, of death that lays men at
their length. So shall none of the Achaean women in the
land count it blame in me, as well might be, were he to lie
without a winding-sheet, a man that had gotten great
possessions.’

So spake she, and our high hearts consented thereto. So
then in the day time she would weave the mighty web, and in
the night unravel the same, when she had let place the
torches by her. Thus for the space of three years she hid
the thing by craft and beguiled the minds of the Achaeans;
but when the fourth year arrived and the seasons came
round, then at the last one of her women who knew all
declared it, and we found her unravelling the splendid web.
Thus she finished it perforce and sore against her will….”
(Odyssey, Book II)

“Right easily known is that man’s seed, for whom Cronion
weaves the skein of luck at bridal and at birth:” (Odyssey, Book IV)

Some pictures of equipment follow:

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Including Amazons, Goddesses, Nymphs, and Archaic Females from Mycenaen and Minoan Cultures