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.

Textile Folklore: Venus was a Spinner

Amy Clarke Moore, editor of Spin-Off magazine, has posted an interesting little article about the most famous Venus of them all, Venus de Milo. She read about the belief that, although Venus is now missing her arms, originally, she was engaged in spinning. It’s true that in ancient times most women spun to clothe themselves and their families, but in Greek and  Roman mythology, spinning is a metaphor. The Greek goddess Aphrodite, Venus to the Roman’s had the job of spinning the neuma, or clouds, into the life-force. Further information, along with a book reference, can be accessed here.

Fiber Folklore: Flaxen Hair

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: The Three Fates

“Predestination was doomed from the start….” (source unknown)

In ancient Greek mythology, the Moirai were three goddesses, daughters of Zeus, who determined the fate of every human being, the personification of destiny. Often they were depicted as aged women, lame to suggest the slow march of fate. Klotho was the spinner, the one who spun the thread of a new life. Atropos would then take the thread and weave it into the”fabric” of one’s life. Finally, Lachesis would take up the scissors that she would use to snip the thread to end one’s life. They gave each person their share of good and evil, and punished the transgressions of all. As goddesses, the Moirai knew the future and were therefore regarded as prophetesses.

Interesting that destiny is personified in textile terms!