Book Review: Women’s Work by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

reviewed by Sukrita Mahon

First published 27 years ago, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber is still considered essential reading for contemporary textile artists. Its importance cannot be understated, considering that thread- and cloth-making have been so vital to our civilisation from the very beginning. It’s disturbing to think that since they were the domain of women from the earliest times, they have been left out of much of our histories and archaeological studies. There are a few reasons for this: textiles are much more perishable than other crafts, and until recently we did not have technology to analyse the fibres that did survive. Moreover, they were often not considered worth studying in detail, since most archaeologists were male and not particularly interested in these crafts. Archaeologists who also weave and spin are surprisingly hard to come by even today. Add to this the fact that women usually did not tell their own stories by writing them down (but men did), a lot gets left out.

As a spinner who took it up mainly for fun and stress relief, I found it really interesting to contemplate just how old the craft is. The fact that many of the chapters contain glimpses of the spinners’ and weavers’ lives make it all the more entrancing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wondered what the lives of earlier fibre artists might have been like, and the book certainly delivers on building that understanding. I was also struck by how common and all-encompassing a task it was to create cloth: all women participated in it, without exception, nearly constantly! Those who made it their occupation ran workshops that went through huge quantities of wool. Even those who belonged to the ruling classes – princesses and queens – spun and wove, in fact to a high standard, since they were required to make important pieces. Such work couldn’t be delegated away.

Textiles were of pivotal importance to a region’s economy and growth, even before money was invented in its current form. When we think of “treasure” today, we picture gold or jewels, but cloth was among the most prized of possessions. In many places in Asia and elsewhere, this is still true today, as regional textiles still hold a place on the international market. Many regions are famous for their unique handlooms, often passed down within families. Unfortunately, we can no longer say that they are prized as highly as they once might have been, nor that most artisans are able to make a good living from making them. While the book is focused on a small region: Europe, Egypt, and the ancient Near East, we can still imagine how some of the lifestyle aspects may have carried on into present day in areas where these crafts are still practised.

One of the criticisms of the book from other reviewers is that it’s overly academic – I didn’t really find that to be the case. The writing is engaging and the material was very interesting to me. For instance, I had no idea that Venus de Milo is depicted in a spinning stance and that this would have been clear to us if only we hadn’t erased the image of a spinning figure from our collective consciousness. The book does not include very much detail about the spinning or weaving techniques, and the little description there is, I found somewhat confusing. Other craftspeople may not think so, especially those more knowledgeable about weaving than I am.

The detail and intricacy of some of the early textiles is astounding, apparently even to the archaeologists studying them. They wonder why people would go to all that effort to make such beautiful things when, from our point of view, they were merely existing at subsistence level. The author suggests we change our mindset a bit to understand why their textiles were so lavish. In a time with few entertainments outside of the work that needed to be done, any creative impulses would have been cherished and explored to the fullest. Even in this far-away glimpse of an ancient society, we can see similarities with textile villages tucked away in remote parts of the world. People find ways of creative expression through cloth, often regardless of financial circumstance.

I found myself wondering if we had come that far at all in valuing these crafts today. While women have become a lot more independent and are no longer tied to gendered vocations, textile artisans struggle to make a living in many parts of the world. A number of crafts are dying due to globalisation and a shrinking market for the textiles. Women may not have had the opportunity to record their histories in the past, but in the present day, we do have the opportunity to educate ourselves and the wider world about the impacts of colonisation and globalisation on textiles. As spinners or weavers ourselves, we are uniquely positioned, since we have the experience of loving the craft and knowing, sadly, how little it means to people outside of these spheres.

For history lovers and lovers of mythology, there is a lot of inspiration within these pages. Reading about how symbols, colours, and numbers were used to convey various messages struck a deep chord in me. We are still able to imbue our work with meaning and magic in very personal ways. Our ancestors might have woven protective spells into their clothes before embarking on dangerous journeys  – and we might do the same today, for very different reasons. The thread of conscious intention, a source of personal power, remains unbroken even today, despite so many attempts to break it. I came away from this book with a renewed sense of reverence for this “women’s work.”

Rating 4/5

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Book Review: Dyeing to Spin and Knit by Felicia Lo

reviewed by Sukrita Mahon

With every kind of tutorial and technique easily searchable online, dyeing has never been more accessible to spinners and knitters. Most crafters are likely to experiment with some type of dyeing or colour blending at some point in their practice. The creator of Sweet Georgia Yarns, Felicia Lo, has managed to produce an extremely comprehensive guide to dyeing that proves useful for the novice and experienced dyer alike.

In the early chapters, Lo touches on some fascinating cultural aspects and responses to colour. As a child, she was drawn to bright colours and wanted to wear them often, but her peers thought it strange. It resonates a lot with my own experience in western society, where it seems that dull, muted, or neutral colours are most favoured. It leads to all kinds of complicated feelings about colour, such as which are pleasing together or not or which look good with certain complexions. I find myself suspecting that we project a lot of feelings of inadequacies into our colour senses, especially in the west. It’s a shame, when they’re really meant to bring us joy, and maybe even freedom.

The author’s journey from craving to rejecting colour to rediscovering and exploring it in depth is very compelling. The idea that we need colour in our lives in some fundamental way stands out to me. We naturally have emotional reactions to colour, and particularly as crafters, we have the ability to explore them in such a way that can end up feeling therapeutic. Many of us can resonate with that feeling of awe when working with a special colourway. For those who are perhaps wary of starting to experiment on their own, there is an excellent chapter on colour theory that provides a basis for how colours interact and are perceived.

The sections on dyeing are very thorough, with instructions on setting up a dye studio as well. A lot of small-scale dyeing can be done in the kitchen, but when using acid dyes, it is advisable to have a separate area if possible. I found a lot of invaluable tips in this section, like choosing heavier bottomed pans over thin ones to ensure even heating. Lo touches on natural dyeing and the richness of colours that can be created with it, providing lots of tantalising photos. In the case of acid dyeing, she explains how to measure dyes to get the same colour, even without the use of a precise scale.

We go on to learn how to dye yarn for all types of different effects: solid colour, tonal, variegated, hand painted, self striping, gradient, resist dyeing, layering. There is enough inspiration in these pages to pique the interest of dyers who may already know these techniques. The part on mistakes and troubleshooting mistakes is much appreciated – I could have used these at several points in my own dyeing journey.

Spinning with colour opens up a whole new world of possibilities, and this was my favourite part of the book. There are so many ideas to explore that it left me buzzing. The beautiful complexity of the yarns created with optical mixing and combination drafting, for example, made me want to pull out some fibre right away. There is plenty of material for non-dyeing spinners to experiment with, such as the ways in which grist, pre-drafting, or staple length can affect colour.

One of the key take-aways from the spinning chapters was the multitude of ways in which fibre can be split and spun to create various effects, like short or long colour repeats, gradients, or muted colour stories. Spinning straight from dyed top can be interesting but doesn’t always result in the most exciting fabric. Batts add another layer of fun and experimentation, despite being time intensive to make. The blending possibilities are greatly increased, so even mixing two colours gently can result in a more complex yarn than other methods. The author teaches us how to make layers of different colours and spin them to different effects.

Lo obviously knows spinners well, because she nudges us to actually knit, crochet, or weave with the yarn instead of calling the process finished once it’s washed. I will, Felicia, just as soon as I’m finished spinning it all…

The book helpfully tries to explain how to best use multicoloured yarn in knitting, and how stitch patterns are affected by the way it’s dyed. It ends with a chapter of knitting patterns designed by the author. Some of these are handspun, and the rest could easily be adapted to work with handspun. They are mostly cowls and shawls, a blanket and a pair of socks.

In my view, almost every dyer or spinner could find some value in this book, even if they’ve been playing with colour for a while. The ideas, inspiration, and photographs alone make it a worthwhile addition to the spinning bookshelf – the author’s passion is quite infectious.

Rating: 4/5

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.


Wow. If the last post was any indication, y’all like us and that feels great! I’m proud of this magazine, of the people that work on it, write and design for it, and support it in any way. I feel passionately about what we’re doing and the way we do. And that could be enough. It really could. But the fact that y’all like it too, that it means so much to so many spinners, well, that just fills my heart.

I made a page of the reviews so feel free to take a look. We’re hoping it’ll help influence those that haven’t made the jump yet, to give PLY a try.

As for the random drawing winners, here they are!

Number 1, for the fiber from Wild Hare Fiber, the winner is Becca H. Roy!

Number 2, for the mystery prize from my studio, the winner is Jennifer Hewett-Apperson.

But really, I feel like I’m the winner and whenever I get overwhelmed and stressed, I’m going to push play on the recording I made of Levi reading all those reviews aloud in his sexiest voice.

Give-away: What do you think of PLY Magazine?

Hi everyone!

PLY Magazine has been around for almost 4 years now and it’s going pretty well, I think. We’ve spent some time learning how to make a magazine and then we spent some more time learning how to make it great, but we haven’t focused much on marketing and now it’s time!

The short of it is, our low-ad/good-quality paper/fair wages model relies on subscribers to pay the bills so we need more subscribers. Since people are doing more and more research before they commit to buy or subscribe to something, we need to show them this magazine is worth it! That’s where you come in.

We’re building a review page on the website. If you have a few minutes and would write what you think of PLY, either as a spinner, a teacher, a contributor, or any combination, that’d be so great!  

Feel free to post your reviews and endorsements here (with a name we can attribute it to) and I”ll extract them and build the page soon. 

Next Friday (11-11), I’ll randomly draw 2 people that gave reviews and send them 1 of 2 wonderful prizes. The first is the fiber from Melissa at Wild Hare Fiber Studio that we used in the gorgeous Traveling Hood designed by Jolene Mosley for the latest issue of PLY.  You’ll get 4 ounces of the colorway and 4 ounces of the solid so if you want, you can recreate this exact pattern, all you’ll need is a mysterious cloak and a wandering road.

The second random winner will get something secret, something from the PLY Magazine studio. I can’t say what it’ll be but if you’re a spinner, you’ll want it!

Thanks for all your support and we promise we’ll keep getting better and better

Wanna try spinning cotton? (We’re giving it away!)


Our Beautiful Cotton issue has been in subscribers’ hands and store shelves for a few months now, and we’d love to know what you think! Are you a seasoned spinner of the fiber of our lives, or a novice? Did this issue teach you something you didn’t know before, or encourage you to try something new? Did you find it mind-numblingly gorgeous? Have you worked through any of the projects, or spun a new yarn inspired by the information in the articles?

Ruane2 We love hearing what the spinners of the world think about each issue! It also helps us entice new readers to pick up a copy of PLY. So we’d really love it if you would click here and leave a review for the Cotton issue of PLY! (Just scroll down to the product description and click on the “Reviews” tab to enter your thoughts.) As a thank you, we’re going to give away some fabulous cotton fiber! This cotton was actually sent to us by one of our readers, who is sharing her personal cotton harvest with a lucky winner (THANK YOU!). Isn’t it fabulous? It’s super clean, and so much – there is about 1 lb of it!


We’ll pick a winner at random from the cotton issue reviews on this page on June 15, and contact you to send out your cotton! Remember, don’t leave your review of the issue here, leave it on the issue page, here! Thanks so much, as always, for your support.


Concrete shots and free fiber!

It was slow coming to you international folks, I know, but I think just about everyone (minus a few South American subscribers) has their Winter issue of PLY. What did you think? I have to tell you the truth, this one took the most for me to love but it wasn’t the content or articles or samples, it was our photoshoot venue!

We learn as we go, as usual, and what we learned this time was that grand, wide-sweeping locations aren’t for us. They just don’t work as well as the itty bitty gritty shots full of textures and detail. We shot at the gorgeous Longview Mansion in Lee’s Summit, MO. And just like the website implies by it’s own lovely photography — your bride will look stunning as she glides down the grand staircase beneath the crystal chandelier; your fish and/or chicken plated dinners will look delectable as your guest consume them along side copious amounts of champagne from the champagne fountain that’s placed under the twinkling stars; and never will you and your spouse feel so majestic and magical as when you walk down the column-lined promenade punctuated with extravagantly shaped shrubbery. The location was all of that and more.

However, when you’re attempting to capture the tiny felted corner of a Wendsleydale swatch, you tend to shoot a little closer. Heck, you tend to shoot a lot closer. With our specific photo needs, it’s hard to capture the grand staircase, the champagne fountain tower, the topiary shrub that’s skillfully pruned to look like an actual tree, and the imposing stone columns. In fact, when we what you see is mostly the wood on the staircase, a stump of the shrub, and the concrete at the base of the columns.

Bernadette and I worried and woe-ed. We did. We actually woe-ed. It’s a thing.
Woe: a feeling of great sorrow or distress.
to woe: to slightly sway back and forth while consumed with a feeling of great sorrow or distress.
Woe-ed: to do all the stuff I just said but, you know, yesterday, last week, in the past.

We woe-ed. We woe-ed all the while we waited for the issue to go through layout, then to go to print, then to make it through the USPS-mystery-system. And then we got it, cracked it open, and we thought and then texted each other “oh, that’s a pretty good issue.” I mean, it’s no “ruins of a castle” but in the end, it looked cohesive and it told the story it was supposed to tell.

So what do you think of the issue? And I don’t mean the photography in particular (Bernadette always does such a good job with what I give her, right? and she did rock those concrete shots!) but the issue in general. I love hearing and reading what spinners think of each issue! Plus, it helps people on the fence decide if they should give us a chance. So, if you’d be so kind, head over here and leave a review for the Singles issue of PLY!

On feb 15th I’ll pick one reviewer at random (I totally promise it’ll be random) and send him or her some of the fiber we used in the issue. That’s right, you’ll get 4 ounces of the same fiber used to spin and knit the Ondulant sraft by Carol Feller. The fiber is dyed by the wonderful June Pryce Fiber Arts and it’s the same light to dark gradient you see above. You’ll also get 2 Crosspatch Creations fiber blended batts. This is the same fiber Sue Tye and Jill Sanders used in their amazing Saori Tunic. You want this fiber, right? It also just so happens that it all goes together beautifully! Go, leave a review on the issue page (not here) tell us what you think! It makes us smile, keeps us striving to get better, and helps us keep on keeping on!

Review the Texture issue and win some batts!

small colorful battsIt’s that time again, the time when I ask you to review the current issue. I want to know what you think. I have some gorgeous textured batts to send one lucky reviewer/subscriber. They’re the kind of batts that make fantastic corespun yarn, the kind that Steph Gorin wrote about in this very issue. If you’ve never tried this technique, it’s be the perfect opportunity to give it a whirl. Of course, if you’ve already tried it, you don’t have any need for more fiber do you? Oh, right, spinners always need more gorgeous fiber!

So here’s what you do. Just leave a review for the texture issue of PLY Magazine here, under the review tab. Also make sure to leave your name! On December 3rd, we’ll use a random number generator to pick a number, find the comment that matches that number and announce the winner! We’ll use your name to look up your address and ship your gorgeous batts the very next day! You’ll be corespinning in no time!

Your Tools

I may start to sound like a broken record but I can’t help it!

In January I wrote a blog post titled Buying Things and it was all about how to go about buying the right tools. This is something I think about a lot because I teach a ton of classes that include processing wool from raw fleece and I see how some people have tools that don’t fit them or they don’t work for what they wanted them to do.

One of the examples I use in class about buying good tools is Crayons. You know those crayons you can buy at the dollar store that when you try to color with them there is very little pigment and a ton of wax and if you just spend a tiny bit more money you can get the name brand ones that color beautifully. The result is worth the extra investment even if you are only buying them for your kids to scribble with.

Well, I broke my own rule.

I decided I wanted to learn how to do water color washes for backgrounds in my journal (you can read about my Journal Journey here). So I went to the craft store and I bought a couple of water color palletes and I started looking at brushes. I first had 3 brushes in my hand that I knew would work but the total cost for the three brushes would have been $20. But! There on the end cap there was a display and there was a set of 8 brushed for $8! Three of the brushes in the package were the same shape as the three in my hand so I went for it.



See all those dark fuzzy bits? Those are the brush fibers that were falling out of the brush as I put the paint on the paper. And that brush is still not done shedding.

Now. I have spent $8 on tools that suck and I will need to go back and spend the $20 on the better brushes.

See what I mean? Buying the better brushes in the first place would have saved me almost 30% of what I will spend in the end because I didn’t follow my own advice.

I’m sure I’ll be back here in six months to talk about tools again. In the mean time, buy the best tools you can afford and save money in the long run!