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Capitalism liberated women from the toil and spinning that Jesus talked about

egyptwoman
A woman from Egypt sewing as part of her business. Her business was possible due to microloans from The International Christian Concern's Hope House program. |

Jesus warned his followers not to be consumed with daily cares in Matt 6:28-29, “And why are you anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

Lilies don’t spin, but women did. Spinning yarn consumed the lives of most women in Jesus’ day. From pre-history until the invention of the spinning wheel, girls were taught from the age of 6 to spin thread using a spindle, usually a wooden dowel jammed into a hole in a clay or rock disc called a whorl. Spindles resembled a crude top. The short end of the dowl sticking out of the whorl had a hook for grabbing and spinning the fibers while the thread was wound on the longer part. 

Until they died or were too old, girls and women spun yarn from the time they got out of bed until they went to bed. They spun while cooking and taking care of children. They spun thread while washing clothes and dishes and talking to friends. Jewish women probably didn’t spin on the Sabbath. Demand for cloth was great and spinning the yarn was the main bottle neck. Navies required large amounts of cloth for sails, according to Virginia Postrel in The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World:

“Viking Age sail 100 meters square took 154 kilometers (60 miles) of yarn. Working eight hours a day with a heavy spindle whorl to produce relatively coarse yarn, a spinner would toil 385 days to make enough for the sail. Plucking the sheep and preparing the wool for spinning required another 600 days. From start to finish, Viking sails took longer to make than the ships they powered.” 

Virginia Postrel, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

Girls produced the coarse yarn needed for sails and the clothing of the poor. After years of practice, women could spin very fine threads used for the soft clothing of wealthy politicians and earned more for it. 

“Contrary to the impression left by toga party costumes, the toga was closer to the size of a bedroom than a bedsheet, about 20 square meters (24 square yards). Assuming 20 threads to the centimeter (about 130 to the inch), historian Mary Harlow calculates that a toga required about 40 kilometers (25 miles) of wool yarn—enough to reach from Central Park to Greenwich, Connecticut. Spinning that much yarn would take some nine hundred hours, or more than four months of labor, working eight hours a day, six days a week. Ignoring textiles, Harlow cautions, blinds classical scholars to some of the most important economic, political, and organizational challenges that ancient societies faced."

Virginia Postrel, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

The Bible often emphasizes the wealth of people by describing their fine clothes because the time and labor needed to spin the yarn and weave it into cloth made clothing extremely expensive. As a result, most people owned just one suit of clothes until after capitalism made them cheaper. For example, the High Priest wore several layers of clothing made from fine spun linen, the most expensive cloth at the time. “Fine spun” meant a high thread count in today’s terms. It took women many years of practice to learn to spin such thin threads of linen. 

Also, bleaching cloth white or dying it blue, purple and scarlet were very expensive processes. That’s why peasants tended to wear clothes made of coarsely spun threads, often with knots in them due to the thread breaking during spinning, and the same color as the wool the sheep wore without having been bleached white. The harlot in Revelation 17 wears fine linen dyed purple and scarlet, like that of the high priest. Jesus wore a chiton, a tunic that fell just below the knees because only the wealthy could afford the stolai (Mark 12:38) that went to their ankles. 

The spinning wheel became widely used in Europe in the 16th century and increased productivity by as much as ten times what a woman could produce with a spindle. Still, women spent most of their time with a spinning wheel. During the summers in the Dutch Republic, girls would set up their spinning wheels in a square so they could visit and young men could drop by and flirt. 

Women continued to be lashed to spinning wheels until the invention of mechanical spinners during the Industrial Revolution that took spinning from home production to factories, which deprived many families of the income from spinning and weaving cloth at home. The Luddites tried to stop progress by destroying the machines in factories. They could see only the short-term costs to them, not the long-term benefits. Fortunately for women, they failed. 

The textile mills so hated by the Luddites and socialists, liberated women from being chained to spinning thread during most of the hours they were awake. Textile mills led increases in standards of living by making one of the necessities of life, clothing, much less expensive. They freed women to do other work while reducing the cost of clothing so much that most people could afford several suits of clothes and many middle class people began to dress like the nobility. Textile mills were the greatest women’s liberation movement in the history of mankind. 

In Jesus’ day, girls and women were virtual slaves to spinning thread and anxiety about it must have distracted them from the Gospel. That’s why Jesus mentioned spinning in his sermon. Thanks to capitalism, women no longer suffer from the anxiety of spinning enough thread to sell to help feed their families.

Roger D. McKinney lives in Broken Arrow, OK with his wife, Jeanie. He has three children and six grandchildren. He earned an M.A. in economics from the University of Oklahoma and B.A.s from the University of Tulsa and Baptist Bible College.  He has written two books, Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx, and articles for the Affluent Christian Investor, the Foundation for Economic Education, The Mises Institute, the American Institute for Economic Research and Townhall Finance. Previous articles can be found at facebook.com/thechristiancapitalist. He is a conservative Baptist and promoter of the Austrian school of economics.

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