Needlework in Folk Magic

I’ve come to dislike those women’s novels that revolve around the characters’ involvement in a knitting circle or quilting group or the like. They tend to be a bit too emotional for my taste, long on sentiment and romance and short on good writing. Recently, however, I completed several historical novels in which knitting or another of the fiber arts played key roles in moving the plots along. I generally post my book reviews on my other blog, You’re History, but I’ve decided to publish the special fiber arts novels here.

The first title is Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier, which I reviewed here.

In this story, women living in late 18th century London are adding to their incomes by Burning Bright by Tracy Chevaliermaking buttons out of metal rings, which they wrap with thread in intricate designs and colors. This was a genuine cottage industry for about 100 years, and the buttons were known as Dorset buttons because the practice originated in that shire. In Burning Bright, the buttons serve as the vehicle through which two women and their families become intertwined with each other. I recently wrote a short article about Dorset buttons and posted it here.

 Another fascinating novel in which knitting, crochet, and sewing are central to the story is Solstice Wood, by Patricia A. McKillip. This  is the sequel to Winter Rose, a love story about a human woman who fell in love with a “fay” man. Solstice Wood is set in the same American town, and the same house, but in modern times. Sylvia Lynn comes from a family that has lived in Lynn Hall for generations. Several years back, she left home rather abruptly, moving across the country, but now she must return for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. Sylvia is stunned to learn that Lynn Hall is now hers, according to her grandfather’s will. She plans to stay only a few days, and on her last evening, attends the Fiber Guild, a women’s club that has met at Lynn Hall for a century. It becomes more and more clear that something peculiar is going on, for the guild members seem unusually intent upon their designs and stitches.

I won’t set down any spoilers about what happens to Syl and her family. This is a terrific story, part reality, part fantasy, with more than a touch of magic. It incorporates many classic folkloric motifs and themes, but the one that most interested me is the needlework connection. In mythology and folklore, spinning, sewing, and threads play an important role. In story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur, for example, a thread is laid so the hero can find his way back out. The 3 Fates, spinning, weaving, and finally cutting the thread, represent the cycle of life. Fairy tale heroines prick their fingers on needles or spindles, or are forced into a life of endless spinning.

In Solstice Wood, the Fiber Guild’s creations are designed to protect one world from another, using age old methods known to wise women everywhere. Today all us fiber artists recognize and appreciate the stress relieving properties of needlework. By reading such books as Solstice Wood, and by studying the magical properties of women’s work and women’s powers in folklore, I’ve come to appreciate the fiber arts in another way.

Another favorite is A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce. Categorized as a novel for young adults, this first novel goes beyond age limits. A retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, it brings rich characters, modern themes, and a touch of magic and romance to the process of spinning wool and dyeing cloth. Not to be missed. You can find my review here.

 

 

 

In  August, I read The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen, and am just getting around Cover artto listing it here. This is set in Sleepy Hollow, NY, a town that sets the stage for all things eerie. The novel’s about a family that has run a knitting shop for generations, where not only great yarns and patterns are sold, but also offers a service knitting magical spells into garments as a bonus. Now the shop is threatened by redevelopment, and the family gathers to determine what to do, if anything, to save the business. Reviewed here .

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7 thoughts on “Needlework in Folk Magic

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post – I clicked over from your post on Ravelry in the Folk and Fairy Tale Group. I totally agree with you on the annoying nature of “women’s” novels that focus on a craft – SO How to Make An American Quilt. Spare me….Anyway, I think you raise interesting points, and I’m going to look for Burning Bright now – it sounds fabulous.

  2. katknit says:

    Thanks, Erin, I think I’ve finally found someone who knows what I’m getting at. I guess it’s a bit esoteric. Contacting you at Rav.

  3. Two more for my “must read” pile! Like Erin, I’ve clicked over from Ravelry’s folk and fairy tales group. I do agree about knitting circle novels: Ugh! I did read a wonderful novel about a quilting circle a few years ago, called “The Persian Pickle Club”. No magic but lots of fascinating stories.

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