Embroidery showing family tree with weavers indicated

There’s an almost unbroken line of mothers passing on their weaving occupations to their children in my family, beginning with my great-great-great-great-grandmother and ending with me.

In this case, the “beginning” is marked by the first national dataset in Scotland that recorded information about individuals’ occupations (the 1841 census) – it’s highly likely that the family were involved in the trade for generations prior to that, but the evidence to support this doesn’t exist.

Ancestry research

Digging about among national datasets is a skill in and of itself – sometimes the beautiful copperplate script of a census page or birth/marriage/death certificate has been mis-transcribed and a surname is changed (York to Yorke, Davie to Davis, Thow to Thom). The census is an ever-changing document – the details recorded change over time: number of rooms with windows in 1901 census or before; number of live children from total children in the 1911 census. Both parents occupations are on my marriage certificate, but that’s a change that took place sometime between 1972 and 2014. This makes following women’s occupations over time a little trickier than for the men. Women’s occupations are recorded on census returns, on their marriage certificates, and on their death certificates; men’s occupations were also recorded on their children’s marriage certificates, giving extra points of occupational data collection for men whenever a child of theirs married. Nevertheless, the data available on women’s occupations revealed a consistent story.

The women in my family have been handloom weavers, powerloom weavers, yarn winders and the office girl in a weaving factory. They were weaving brown linen until the late 1800s (long after it had been stopped in other parts of Scotland and the UK) before shifting to jute in the early 1900s.

Social history

The New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-1845, written by local clergy, documents the involvement of each parish in different trades. This includes quantitative information on the numbers occupied in each profession, quantities of materials manufactured and where they were sold, hours of employment, rates of production, rates of pay. It also includes social (moral?) commentary. In Carmylie, the minister felt that weaving offered women “no good training for their management of household affairs” but noted that the manufacturing process now offered gainful employment “to various old women in filling pirns” (around which yarns are wound before being inserted into weaving shuttles).

With the development of flax spinning mills, women’s work shifted from handspinning flax fibres to weaving alongside men, at home and in factories. Prior to this, there was a gendered division of labour with women spinning from home and men weaving. The reasons for this are often given that spinning was more suitable for women to stop and start around their domestic chores, including childcare, while weaving required additional physical strength so was more suited to men. Weaving is more physical than spinning, but not so much that women are unable to perform the task as can be seen in the shift to weaving after the loss of spinning opportunities described in the New Statistical Accounts and also seen in my own family tree.

Matrilineal inheritance

The geneticist in me couldn’t help but be intrigued by the apparent matrilineal inheritance of weaving-related occupations. Matrilineal inheritance is traced through the mother’s ancestral line: in my family, there’s an almost unbroken line of women working in weaving-related occupations. There’s me with my weaving studio, mum who worked in the office of a weaving factory, granny who was a factory powerloom weaver (along with her sister), great-granny’s sister who was a jute weaver, great-great-granny who was a handweaver, great-great-great-granny-weaving brown linen on a handloom, and great-great-great-great-granny winding linen yarn. And sisters and brothers along the way who were also occupied in the trade.

Great granny (centre) with granny (left) and her sister.

The eagle-eyed among you will spot where the break in the “almost unbroken” line is – my great-granny. There’s no evidence among the national records that she was ever involved with weaving and nothing among family memory to suggest it either. Instead, great-granny emigrated to Edmonton, Canada where she worked in a science laboratory! So perhaps being a scientist is also in my DNA…

A middle-aged women with brown hair in a white dress uniform is standing in a laboratory holding a pile of clear circular plates up high while inspecting them. More plates are piled up high on the bench behind here. Various pieces of scientific equipment are in the background.

Mitochondrial genetics

Matrilineal inheritance is also a feature of some of our DNA. Most of our DNA – the chromosomes found within the nucleus of cells – is inherited from both parents, one copy from mum and one from dad. But there’s more DNA that sits inside mitochondria.

Mitochondria are often referred to as “the powerhouses of the cell” – they’re the structures that generate energy. The more energy a cell needs, the more mitochondria it has – muscle cells have more mitochondria than red blood cells, for example.

Edited from an original image by Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute

Mitochondria have their own circular DNA, and there are many copies of this DNA within each single mitochondrion. Multiple copies of this DNA per mitochondrion and multiple mitochondria per cell mean there are 100s-1000s copies of this DNA inside every cell.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed on by mothers to their children through the egg. Sperm don’t normally have mitochondrial DNA inside them and, if they do, there’s a mechanism that should remove it from the fertilised egg. So if everything works as it should only a mother passes on her mitochondrial genome – the same version to all of her children – and only daughters pass that same version on again.

Mitochondrial DNA – like the DNA in chromosomes – is made up of series of A,C,G,T letter codes that are read and translated to create the machinery that cells need to function. Unlike the DNA in chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA alters very little over time. New versions aren’t created very often – once every few thousand years or so – and each new version is a slight modification of an existing version, a new branch on the mitochondrial genome family tree.

All of this makes mitochondrial DNA a great way to look back at the maternal line of populations over long periods of time, all the way back through ~100,000-200,000 years to the last common female ancestor – mitochondrial Eve.

Overview of the evolution of mitochondrial genome versions (reproduced from Karmin, 2005). Each new version, or branch on the mitochondrial family tree, is given its own letter code.

Daughter of Jasmine

In 2001, Bryan Sykes wrote an easy-to-read book on the evolution of mitochondrial genomes based on the emerging scientific research in the field at the time, called The Seven Daughters of Eve (actually the seven European daughters of Eve). In it, he described the seven main European branches of the mitochondrial genome family tree that had evolved from mitochondrial Eve. In it, he gave the first woman in each branch a name based on the letter code for that branch – Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, Jasmine.

By sending away a sample of some of my cheek lining cells (a buccal swab), I was able to find out the version of the mitochondrial genome that I have. Finding this out means that I also learned which version of the mitochondrial genome I share with all of my family members that are connected through the female ancestors – my brother, my mum, her brother, my granny and her siblings, their mum, and so on. l could visit the grave of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, a women who I never met, and know that that same version of mitochondrial DNA I have directly connects us.

Not only could I find out the version, but I could understand – in very broad terms – how it had evolved over time, where it had likely originated, and where my matrilineal ancestors may have lived and moved from/to over millennia.

This test revealed that I have a version of the “J” branch mitochondrial genome (or “haplogroup J”, to give it its official name) – a daughter of Jasmine. Haplogroup J originated around 50,000-60,000 years ago in the area referred to as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. In his book, Sykes imagined a life for Jasmine as part of the group who first developed agricultural techniques in settled communities – an invented narrative that fills gaps between archaeology and genetics.

Haplogroup J evolution (adapted from Fernandes et al, 2015). The pink oval highlights my maternal family’s haplogroup, which evolved around 15,000(ish) years ago.

Haplogroup J continued to evolve and develop more branches. As the global population has expanded, so has the number of haplogroups.

My maternal family’s haplogroup originated some 15,000(ish) years (or 600 generations) ago. It’s “ish” because the estimates of time vary considerably depending on how they’re made, but “thousands of years” or “hundreds of generations” ago is in the right ballpark.

And as humans have migrated to occupy more and more of the globe, these haplogroups have been non-uniformly distributed. They can be used to trace the migration patterns from the Fertile Crescent in the Stone Age across continental Europe and into present-day Scotland. In 2009, Kristine Beaty submitted a PhD thesis that looked to investigate Scottish identity through mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome markers. In this, she notes that haplogroup J likely arrived into Scotland around 4,000BCE, corresponding with the introduction of agriculture – adding some substance to Sykes’ story of Jasmine…

A random aside on mathematics of multigenerational families. Seven generations back, I had 32 maternal great-great-great-great grandparents, and 16 actual, individual maternal great-great-great-great grandmothers, only one of whom (mum’s mum’s mum’s mum’s mum’s mum) passed on the mitochondrial haplogroup I carry today. Twenty generations back, I had 131,072 theoretical maternal seventeen-great grandmothers. In reality there were likely many less, because the same woman almost certainly appeared in more than one branch of the family tree. Six hundred generations ago? I had more theoretical maternal 597-great grandmothers than women alive on the earth at the time, so there’s definitely a lot of overlap between branches of the family tree. Despite that, we still know that one of those women – a daughter of Jasmine – carried in her cells, and powered her body with, the same mitochondrial DNA as me.

Weaving women’s stories

Seven women, seven generations, one family – my family, but it could be your family.

Take a tour through the family at the “Ancestral Interconnections” digital exhibition COMING SOON below…

This work has been funded by Aberdeen City Council Creative Funding and Creative Scotland.