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 .

Dorset Buttons – Little Bits of History

(Post updated 6/6/13)

Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier, is the book I’m currently listening to as I knit. Chevalier’s historical novels involve ordinary characters who’s lives entwine with that of a famous creative individual, in this case, poet and artist William Blake. At the center of this book is the Kellaway family, and one of the points of interest that snagged by curiosity is the “Dorset buttons” that Mrs. Kellaway and her daughter Maisie make with rings and colorful thread. A search on the WWW has turned up lots of information about this once flourishing cottage industry.


Dorset householders had made buttons for generations, using tiny disks of sheep horn as the button foundation. During the early 1700’s, the introduction of metal rings, which were cheaper and quicker to use, transformed the custom into a small industry. In 1731, Blandford draper Robert Fisher opened a button “depot” at his shop, providing the cottagers with a central place to market their buttons, and other businessmen who needed buttons for their products could buy them in bulk. The buttons were sold at between eight-pence and three shillings a dozen, while the women workers averaged about two shillings a day for making six or seven dozen buttons. This seems grossly unfair today, but the only income generating alternative for these women was the more rigorous work of farm hands.

There were other advantages to becoming a button maker. The women could work at home while tending to the needs of their families, and weather was not a factor as they could work indoors. Wear and tear on clothing and shoes, and less physical fatigue, were other factors.

The cottage industry thrived until the introduction of a commercial button making machine in 1851.

Fortunately, there are still a few Dorset button makers among us, and some of them have posted good tutorials. Here’s one of them with some good photos.

My Personal Unicorn Tapestry

Inspired by visits to New York’s Cloisters museum, when I came across a copy of Candace Bahouth’s Medieval Needlepoint pattern book, I had to buy it. Now out of print, this fantastic resource can be purchased used at online booksellers’ websites. Pictured here is my first finished project, a magical, stately unicorn, who is now gracing a velveteen pillow in my home. It was a joy to stitch and makes me smile each time I see it.

The Cloisters has a series of world famous unicorn tapestries in a specially designed, oval room at the museum. Well worth visiting, it’s an enchanting place if you enjoy medieval art and life.

Knitting Books: One More Skein, by Leigh Radford

One More Skein: 30 Quick Projects to Knit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One More Skein is divided into four sections, containing patterns for adult hats, gloves and scarves, some unusual garments for babies, a collection of bags, and household items. Each project requires a couple of skeins of yarn, with the exception of the blanket pattern, which would be great for using up leftover yarns in different colors. My personal favorite is the linen placemat pattern. The appendix includes instructions for specific knitting techniques and a list of suppliers.

While author Leigh Radford has introduced some original design elements, as a lifelong knitter, I find this collection a bit too basic. On the other hand, it would probably be of great interest to beginners or those looking for some quick, easy, and attractive gifts.

Beautifully photographed by John Mulligan.

Knitting News: Knit Your Own Royal Wedding!

Your invitation to Westminster hasn’t arrived yet? Not to worry. Even if you’re not a guest, you can join Will and Kate in  spirit, by staging your own private wedding in your own home. This newly released book by Fiona Goble contains patterns for bride, groom, family, guards, even a romantic balcony scene, complete with the royal Corgis.

Knitting Books: Knitting America, by Susan M. Strawn

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art

Knitting Heritage

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In her introduction to Knitting America, author Susan Strawn quotes one of her predecessors, Richard Rutt, in bemoaning the fact that very little information is available concerning the earliest history of knitting in America. Strawn’s book does little to expand the historical record, but it is a fun overview of nearly four centuries of this not-so ancient craft (compared to weaving, for instance). The section on the first American knitters spans a mere 21 pages, and much of that space is taken up by photos. The picture Thomas Jefferson’s monogrammed slippers shows one of the few extant pieces actually made in the colonies, while most of the others came from Europe. An anecdote from the writing Susan Rowlandson, who was abducted by Indians, tells how she carried and worked upon her knitting during her captivity.

Once the narrative moves into the Victorian period, both factual information and historic examples abound. and by the turn of the twentieth century, readers are treated to a wealth of interesting material. Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is in its wealth of documented photos of ads, magazines, patterns, and the social aspects of knitting. Also included are 20 historical patterns adapted to modern terminology and materials.

Not a book to be read straight through from cover to cover, but to be browsed and enjoyed for its celebration of knitting.

View all my reviews

Free Ebook on Teaching Knitting in Schools

Scotland’s Arran Knitting Company is offering a free guide to teachers to show how traditional knitting skills can be introduced to the next generation. Textile artist Lynn Gray Ross said, “I am providing a worldwide on-line resource for teachers of all ages and stages, based on my own experience and my work with primary and secondary teachers over 30 years, including development of the award winning learning programme “Connecting Threads”.

Knitting is portable and inexpensive.  Teachers around the world are discovering that, among students of various ages,   it promotes calmness and attention as well as  mathematical-logical , visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and  interpersonal skills.

To order the guide in pdf form: simply log on to and send a request for the Guide to Knitting in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence.

Knitting Books: The Knitting Experience: Purl Stitch

by Sally Melville

5.0 out of 5 stars Another winner

The Purl Stitch is a beautifully illustrated, easy to follow guide to producing intricate-looking garments using simple techniques and readily available yarns. Having used the first volume in the series, The Knit Stitch, I was happy to find that this second book is just as valuable. One of its best features is the presentation of photos of the same garment done in different yarns and sizes. Patterns are accurate and adaptable, and I find that they stimulate my creativity and interest in customizing them. Though I’ve been knitting for more than twenty years, the simplicity is far from boring. The Purl Stitch is one of my most useful references, one that I return to time and again.

Knitting Books: The Knitting Experience – the Knit Stitch

by Sally Melville

5.0 out of 5 stars

As a lifelong knitter with an extensive knitting/needlework library, I have to rank The Knit Stitch among my absolute favorites. The patterns, in my opinion, are varied, mostly updated classics. The best feature in this book is the range of different techniques presented and the clear coaching provided for each. I’ve learned several new skills and methods for casting on and off, seaming, making nice even edges, and altering patterns, and I refer to this volume often when I need to solve a problem in my projects. Highly recommended for both novice and experienced knitters.

Books about Knitting: Module Magic

by Ginger Luters

4.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring

Not exactly magic, but this book is a great tutorial for learning the technique of modular knitting. It breaks down the process by shape, with instructions for making and combining squares, strips, triangles, miters, etc., into beautiful, colorful fabrics and garments. The patterns are varied (shawls, sweaters, hats afghans), and each type of module is illustrated in more than one possible combination of shapes and colors. If this book doesn’t stimulate knitting creativity, I don’t know what will! A great addition to the serious knitter’s library, for inspiration, instruction, patterns, and more.