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 .

Who is the Patron Saint of Knitters?

Someone on one of the forums I haunt asked this question. Being extremely interested both in knitting and in religious history, it was necessary to immediately start a search. Some say that the patron saint is Fiacre. It seems he was the patron of cap makers, and when knitted caps were “invented”, Fiacre got the nod by default. An early guild for knitters was organized in Paris in 1527 was named The Guild of St. Fiacre. So who was this person with the strange name?

It is said that Fiachra, or Fiacre, traveled to France from Ireland, in search of a quiet place in which to withdraw from society and devote his life to God. The bishop of Meaux granted him a plot of land on which he built a hermitage with a garden and a hospice for travellers, which over time grew into the village of Saint-Fiacre in Seine-et-Marne. Fiacre was reknowned for his healing powers, both spiritual and physical, but women were never allowed into the hermitage, possibly because one uppity female said he practiced witchcraft. Those who attempted to transgress usually suffered consequences, as in the case of a lady who was instantly struck mad. I wonder how Fiacre would feel today about being the patron saint of a craft performed by so many women!

In addition to knitting, Fiacre is also patron of cab drivers and gardeners. French cabs are called fiacres because the first coach-for-hire enterprise in 17th century Paris was near a house named for him. Fiacre’s relics are still housed and visited in the cathedral at Meaux. I first heard this saint’s name at a local herb garden, Caprilands, which up until a few years ago, was internationally known. I even have a tiny statue of Fiacre in my own herb garden.

One of many miracle stories in Fiacre’s CV is that of a man whose genitals were sorely afflicted (I bet!) and, by making a wax model of his painful organ, which by custom would have been burned at the altar, was cured. Now there’s a picture! Did I mention that Fiacre is also the patron saint of STD’s? No lie!

The Bayeux Tapestry, Animated

One of the most famous tapestries in the world is the amazing Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England (1066 and all that). Now PotionGraphics have posted an amazing animation of this needlework masterpiece at YouTube, complete with sound effects, music, and subtitles in English. There’s also an abbreviated version, but I recommend watching the full 4 minute video posted here. It’s so detailed, in some spots quite amusing, and you’ll want to keep returning to it to see what you missed.

Fiber Folklore – Sun, Moon, and Talia

It’s a shame that many kids today aren’t familiar with the famous, classic fairy tales. Now that I’ve lived a good many years, I often recognize connections and underlying meanings in the stories I learned as a little girl. Many of them involve spinning, flax, and wool, in one way or another. Here is an archetypal tale, Sun, Moon, and Talia, written by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632) during the Renaissance. it is believed to be the source material for the newer story, The Sleeping Beauty.

Sun, Moon, and Talia

On the birth of his daughter Talia, a king asked all the wise men and seers to tell her future. They concluded that she would be exposed to great danger from a splinter of flax. To prevent any such accident, the king ordered that no flax or hemp should ever come into his castle. But one day when Talia had grown up, she saw an old woman who was spinning pass by her window. Talia, who had never seen anything like it before? “was therefore delighted with the dancing of the spindle.” Made curious, she took the distaff in her hand and began to draw out the thread. A splinter of hemp “got under her fingernail and she immediately fell dead upon the ground.” The king left his lifeless daughter seated on a velvet chair in the palace, locked the door, and departed forever, to obliterate the memory of his sorrow.

Some time after, another king was hunting. His falcon flew into a window of the empty castle and did not return. The king, trying to find the falcon, wandered in the castle. There he found Talia as if asleep, but nothing would rouse her. Falling in love with her beauty, he cohabited with her; then he left and forgot the whole affair. Nine months later Talia gave birth to two children, all the time still asleep. [They are named Sun and Moon.] “Once when one of the babies wanted to suck, it could not find the breast, but got into its mouth instead the finger that had been pricked. This the baby sucked so hard that it drew out the splinter, and Talia was roused as if from deep sleep.”

One day the king remembered his adventure and went to see Talia. He was delighted to find her awake with the two beautiful children, and from then on they were always on his mind. The king’s wife found out his secret, and on the sly sent for the two children in the king’s name She ordered them cooked and served to her husband. The cook hid the children in his own home and prepared instead some goat kids, which the queen served to the king. A while later the queen sent for Talia and planned to have her thrown into the fire because she was the reason for the king’s infidelity. At the last minute the king arrived, had his wife thrown into the fire, married Talia, and was happy to find his children, whom the cook had saved.

So what does this tale mean? You’ll notice their are no fairies in it – this is a tale about life in this world. The only magical element is the splinter that put Talia asleep. Here are some of the messages to the reader or hearer of this story:

  • Even as the king’s daughter, you are not safe in this world.
  • You cannot count on your parents to protect you.
  • Men are driven by sexual instincts and will rape you given the chance.
  • Older women are dangerous because they can get jealous.
  • You need luck to survive and conquer.

Moon, Sun, and Talia is believed to provide the source material for the more widely known story, The Sleeping Beauty, recounted by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
From Bettleheim, Bruno; The Uses of Enchantment, Random House, New York, NY: 1977.

The spindle used by the old woman in the story is a drop spindle, the tool used for over 1000 years before the invention of the spinning wheel. Pictured here, the drop spindle is used by suspending it, twisting it sharply to give it some spin, then drawing out the wool fiber while the spindle twists it into yarn. When the new yarn grows longer and the spindle reaches the ground, the spinner must stop to wrap it around the shaft before starting the process anew.

Fiber Folklore: The Flaxen Haired Maiden

Heroines in fairy tales were often referred to as “flaxen haired”, because a freshly prepared strick (bundle) of flax resembles long, pale blond hair. And in those same tales, the fiber that the maiden spun was usually flax. Here is a typical story:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful flaxen haired young girl who was to wed a handsome prince. She was a lazy spinner, and whenever the flax became tangled, she’d throw it on the floor. This maiden had a beautiful, industrious servant girl, who saved the tangles, combed and spun them into fine thread, from which she made herself a a lovely linen gown. On the eve of the wedding, the prince found out about the situation. He realized that his betrothed was lazy and wasteful, unlikely to be a good wife. In her stead, the prince married the servant girl. And they lived happily ever after.


Fiber Folklore: Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes marry, have I,

Three bags full;

One for my master,

One for my dame,

But none for the little boy

Who cries in the lane.

This nursery rhyme probably dates to the Middle Ages, when England was the major player in the international wool trade. A tax had been placed upon wool, with 1/3 going to the”master” (local lord), 1/3 to the “dame” (the church), and the rest (or none?) to the “little boy” in the lane (local farmer). In recent years it has become a subject of controversy, with early childhood teachers converted black sheep to rainbow sheep to avoid any hint of racism.

The color of the sheep in the rhyme must also be of some significance. Black wool is difficult to dye and would therefore seem to have little use in making textiles. However many shepherds prized black fleece and kept one dark sheep in a flock of white ones. When the fiber was carded for spinning a little of the black was mixed in with the white to produce a light-grey wool. The cloth made from ‘grey’ wool was believed to be warmer and more weather proof than that made from only white fleece. Unlike the pure black wool it could be easily dyed.

On the other hand, a single black ram could contaminate the whiteness of a flock’s fleece. This is probably the source of the unflattering phrase, “black sheep of the family.” The first record in print is from Charles Macklin’s The man of the world, a comedy, 1786:

“O, ye villain! you – you – you are a black sheep; and I’ll mark you.”

I’m not sure that a breed of sheep with pure black wool actually exists.  In days of yore, a “black” sheep was any sheep that wasn’t white. Most  dark fleeces have at least a tinge of noticeable brown or gray in their fleece. If anyone knows of a pure black, I’d like to see a picture and know the breed. Maybe the Welsh Mountain sheep?

Textile Terms: “Mad as a Hatter”

In medieval times, people who made and dyed hats were called hatters. Most dyes require mordanting agents, made from heavy metals such as aluminum and tin. Hatters often came into contact with these solutions, which are known to cause serious mental problems. (We still hear about lead and arsenic poisoning today.) Gradually, other sanity challenged people came to be described as “Mad as a hatter.”

Plants for Dyeing: Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrot) grows abundantly all over the place here in southern New England. This has become one of my favorite dye sources for use during the month of August. Easy to find in large quantities, I depend upon this wild flower for its ability to yield, of all colors, chartreuse! Using alum for mordant, wool, and local water, year after year I have produced nearly identical shades of truly vivid yellow-greens. They tend to be reasonably colorfast, as well as reliable. The carroty aroma that arises during the dye process is also a plus. Try using about 1/2 a paper grocery bag full of flower heads per 1/2 pound of wool. A pinch or two of alum, or the use of an aluminum pot, should do the trick.

There is some interesting folklore attached to this prolific plant. Queen Anne, wife of James I of England, was an avid lace maker, and is the namesake of the flower. The tiny purple dot in the center represents a spot of blood caused by a needle prick to the queen’s finger, and this tiny sliver of color was thought to cure epilepsy. Black swallowtail butterflies flock to them like cats to catnip. Farmers consider it an invasive weed, and the milk from animals that graze upon it is supposed to taste a bit bitter and carroty. The plant is also called bee’s nest, bird’s nest, crow’s nest, and devil’s plague (seems a bit harsh!). The carrots that we eat today are believed to be derived from this wild variety, and to revert to it when not tended or cultivated. Queen Anne’s Lace roots have also been used as a coffee substitute, like chicory.

Fiber Folklore – Hateful Flax Spinning

Here’s a little known story about flax from The Brothers Grimms’ first edition of Kinder und Hausmärchen [Household Stories] (1812).

Hateful Flax Spinning

In former times there lived a king who liked nothing better in all the world than having flax spun. The queen and his daughters had to spend the entire day spinning, and he was very angry if he could not hear the spinning wheels humming. One day he had to go abroad, and before taking leave, he gave the queen a great chest filled with flax, and said, “This must all be spun by the time I return.”

The princesses were very concerned and started to cry, “If we are to spin all this, we’ll have to sit here the whole day, and won’t be able to get up at all.” The queen said, “Fear not, I will help you.”

Now in this country there were three terribly ugly old maids. The first one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin. The second one had a forefinger on her right hand that was so broad and thick that one could have made three normal fingers from it. The third one had a broad flat foot, as wide as half a kitchen table. The queen sent for the three, and on the day that the king was to return, she had them all sit in her parlor. She gave them her spinning wheels, and had them spin. She told each one how she was to answer the king’s questions.

When the king arrived, he was pleased to hear the humming of the wheels from afar, and prepared to praise his daughters. He entered the parlor, and when he saw the disgusting old maids sitting there, he was at first repulsed, but then he approached the first one and asked her where she had gotten the terribly large lower lip.

“From licking! From licking!”

Then he asked the second one where she had gotten the thick finger.

“From twisting the thread! From twisting the thread, and wrapping it around!” she said, at the same time letting the thread run around her finger a few times.

Finally he asked the third one where she had gotten the thick foot.

“From pedaling! From pedaling!”

When the king heard this he ordered the queen and the princesses to never again touch a spinning wheel, and thus they were delivered from their misery.