Women and Textile Production in Ancient Greece: Interview with Katherine Harrington

By Michele Dobbins

The Phi Beta Kappa Society has awarded Katherine Harrington the 2017 Mary Isabel Sibley Fellowship for her research project “Women’s Labor and the Market in Classical and Hellenistic Greece.” The Mary Isabel Sibley Fellowship promotes women’s studies abroad in the fields of Greek or French language and literature, as well as Greek history and archaeology. The fellowship provides a $20,000 stipend for the recipient’s research endeavors. Harrington is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa (Dartmouth College, 2006). 

Her project, Harrington explains, will fill a gap in scholarship by representing a more complete picture of the diverse cast of people who contributed to the ancient Greek economy. Rather than focusing solely on “elite” women and powerful men, she brings attention to the labor of working women of different classes—including slave and non-citizen women—who participated in the female-dominated textile industry. Harrington will use the Sibley Fellowship to study the looms and other artifacts of ancient weaving workshops in sites such as Bau Z in Athens.

Harrington is well equipped for this project, having earned her PhD from Brown University, attended the Joukowsky Institute, and gained museum experience with groups such as the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology—to name a few of her impressive accomplishments. Harrington’s scholarship will enable the science and humanities communities to better understand how women’s labor, both on a small and large scale, impacted the ancient economy; it will also increase scholars’ understanding of female agency in Classical and Hellenistic Greece. 


Of the various types of crafts produced in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, what is it about textiles that specifically merits further research? How do these objects reveal more about their use and impact on the economy?

HARRINGTON: Textiles are rarely considered in discussions of the ancient Greek economy for several reasons. First, in many regions of the Mediterranean, textiles do not preserve well in the archaeological record, which means that very few examples of actual Greek cloth exist. Thus, my project looks at the tools used to produce textiles—primarily loomweights and spindle whorls—and the spaces in which textiles were produced, as well as how textile production was depicted in art and text. Second, textiles are everyday objects that tend to be taken for granted. Everyone wore clothes and sat on cushions, and we have plenty of depictions of these objects in ancient art. Yet before the mechanization of textile production during the Industrial Revolution, making cloth was tremendously time-consuming. Spinning wool or linen into thread was an especially laborious task. One scholar of Greek weaving estimates that 77 hours of spinning per week would be necessary to provide the basic yearly textile needs for an average Greek household. Finally, study of textile production has also been somewhat marginalized because it was so strongly associated with women in ancient texts and images, and scholars have assumed that women’s labor had little impact on the larger economy. In fact, the association between women and wool working was so strong that when a baby was born in ancient Athens, the family announced the birth by pinning a tuft of wool to the door if the baby was a girl and an olive crown if it was a boy. My project argues that textiles were produced for both household consumption and for sale and that studying production for sale can help us understand more about women’s roles in the ancient economy. 

You mention in your proposal that this project fits well with the humanities’ increasing focus on highlighting underrepresented people. Why do you think women, particularly non-elite women, often go unacknowledged for their role in ancient economies?

HARRINGTON: Much scholarship on ancient women has drawn primarily from ancient textual evidence, but ancient texts do not often discuss the daily lives of women, and non-elite (especially non-citizen) women are especially scarce in documentary evidence. We do get some glimpses of the lives of non-elite women in texts, as vendors in the marketplace or as tavern keepers or in other public roles, but these descriptions are usually very short. As an archaeologist, I think that the material record of women’s activities can help fill part of this gap in our knowledge about the ancient economy. Ancient women were often involved in the practical labor of everyday life, like textile production and food preparation, and as I mentioned above, these types of activities are often taken for granted. Everyday life has often been dismissed as the backdrop to larger social and political developments, but these activities were vitally important to the survival of individual households and could also contribute to wider local and regional economies.

A key part of your research question is examining the “scale” of women’s textile production. If this scale is in fact substantial, what does that reveal about women’s economic/public roles?

HARRINGTON: Because we know that so many ancient Greek women were involved in textile production for household use, the baseline assumption in general scholarship has been that there was not a significant market for textiles—basically, why buy something when you can make it at home? Yet scholars interested in textiles have noted that ancient texts do mention women selling raw wool, thread, garments, and textile furnishings in the market, and archaeological evidence of weaving tools confirms that some households were producing textiles on a much bigger scale than their neighbors. Assumptions about women’s public roles in ancient Greece have sometimes been based on ancient texts that describe a gender-segregated system. However, these texts generally present an idealized version of life for the wealthy, and should not be used to reconstruct life for women of all social statuses. Since iconography, documentary texts, epigraphy, and the archaeology of weaving workshops all suggest a strong female involvement in the production of textiles, this industry provides some evidence that women’s labor could have significant economic importance. In some cases, men may have been the “face” of a weaving workshop, but traditions of weaving technology were shared among women—girls learned to spin and weave at a young age. 

I am interested in how the output of households that specialized in weaving was from those who produced only for household use and also in whether specialized households or workshops were producing different types of textiles than those women made for their households. Did specialized workshops produce finer, fancier cloth? Or were they making items very similar to textiles made at home for household consumption? My preliminary research suggests that both are true. Some weavers were producing for sale more of the same types of products their neighbors made for household use, while other specialized workshops focused on finer fabric.

Some scholars posit that a building called Bau Z in Athens primarily functioned as a brothel, but you question this interpretation and argue further research should instead focus on the building’s textile production. What led you to this conclusion and the desire to reexamine Bau Z in particular?

HARRINGTON: I became interested in Bau Z when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on domestic production, as I was thinking through ways to approach the issue of the social identity of ancient craftspeople. Much previous scholarship has focused on the role of adult men in craft production, but I am interested in how industry in certain settings, like houses, might involve a wider set of players—women, children, slaves, etc. In scholarship, Bau Z is often described as a brothel, tavern, and weaving workshop staffed by a group of slave prostitutes from Asia Minor, so it initially seemed to be a good case study to explore some of those issues of identity. As I began to look more closely at the building, I realized that many of the pieces of evidence previous scholars had used to support the brothel interpretation were rather shaky. There is some really excellent work on brothels in the field of historical archaeology, supported by archive research, but in the ancient world it is very difficult to support the interpretation of a brothel based on material evidence alone. The brothel question has dominated scholarship on the building, but the actual material evidence suggests that all kinds of activities were happening in the building. I want to set aside the question of the brothel and see what we can learn about these other activities from the physical evidence.

How do receiving the Sibley Fellowship and being part of Phi Beta Kappa enhance your experience as a scholar and archaeologist? How did it feel when you found out you had received the fellowship?

HARRINGTON: Receiving the Sibley Fellowship gives me the freedom to dig deeper into my research and spend time in Greece analyzing weaving tools in museum storerooms. Looking at these items in person and weighing and measuring them will allow me to ask different questions of the material than I would be able to from excavation publications. Because loomweights and spindle whorls are useful, everyday items, they aren’t always published in great detail, but recent experimental work with replica weaving tools has shown that the size and weight of both loomweights and spindle whorls is closely related to the weight of thread used with them. This means that with the measurements I will be taking in Greece, I will be able to tell—roughly, anyway—what types of fabrics weaving workshops were producing.

I was thrilled when I found out about the fellowship. I am living in Athens this year, which is seven hours ahead of the East Coast, so I got the email on my phone when I was chatting with some friends after dinner. I didn’t believe it at first and made one of my friends confirm that the email said what I thought it said. I am so grateful to have the funding to complete this project and to contribute new insights into the study of women’s daily lives in the past. 

Michele Dobbins is a senior at University of Arkansas majoring in English. University of Arkansas is home to the Alpha of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.