This delightful folktale from the Shetland Islands was posted a few years back on twistcollective.com. Retold by Daryl Brower and illustrated by Eloise Narrigan, it tells how the tradition of knitting Shetland lace began. This enchanting tale can be read and enjoyed here.
This woman is shown beating her husband with her distaff!
Repost of an article in at modernfarmer.com, written by Anna O’Brien, the veterinarian daughter of a good friend of mine.
Hair of the Dog: Wear Your Best Friend
Move over, sheep. Adios, alpacas. You don’t need a pasture or hay to make soft, lovely yarn. Just a lowly pooper-scooper. Clothing and other items made from dog hair, sometimes referred to as chiengora (chien is French for “dog”), isn’t a new niche fad—in fact, it’s been around for centuries. The Salish, indigenous North Americans who lived in the Pacific Northwest, were known for making blankets from dog hair. Nowadays, considered a luxury fiber by those who spin it, dog hair has yet to make waves on the commercial market. Instead, commission-based spinners craft individual keepsakes as long as you supply the hair. Most spinners working with dog hair were lured into the craft by their interest in spinning and the convenience of having their own (hairy) dogs. Such was the case with Doreen Kelly, of West Seneca, N.Y. A spinner for 12 years, Kelly has two Collies and “an endless amount of dog hair,” she says. Doreen Kelly spinning dog hair with her two Collies / Courtesy Doreen Kelly The so-called “double coated” breeds of dog are the best for making yarn. Breeds like the Collie, Old English Sheepdog, Burmese Mountain Dog, Samoyed and Golden Retriever have a dense, soft, insulating undercoat beneath their water-propelling outer coat made of stiff and much thicker guard hairs. The undercoat is mostly what is naturally shed, ends up on your couch, and can be turned into items such as mittens, scarves, pillows and blankets. Is there a dog breed above all others that makes the best hair for spinning? It doesn’t seem so, although everyone has her favorite. Patty Kruthers, a spinner from Bethlehem, Pa., once had a Briard named Britty who was her inspiration to knit dog hair. “Briard hair is primo to spin,” Kruthers says. But with commission work, other breeds are showcased, too. “Samoyeds make particularly nice yarn,” she says. “It’s a nice length and it’s not pure white; there’s a lot of variation in the color that you don’t really notice until you spin it. It’s a beautiful yarn.” Of course, even variations in coat quality within a breed can make a difference. “Between my two Collies, my female has a very soft coat but the male has much coarser hair,” Kelly says. “Like people—some have very fine hair, others very coarse.” Structure influences function and with fiber it’s no different. Sheep wool is known for its stretch and shrinkage, which is due to the natural crimp of each individual fiber as well as the presence of microscopic barbs. “The reason wool shrinks is because those little barbs that are on the hair catch on each other and keep catching. That’s why the item seems to get smaller and smaller,” Kelly says. Dog hair can be up to eight times warmer than sheep wool. In contrast, dog hairs have neither crimp nor barbs, which means no stretch and no shrinkage. However, you may not want grandma to re-knit you that sweater a la Fido just yet—dog hair can be up to eight times warmer than sheep wool. “Dog hairs have a hollow core that acts like insulation,” Kelly says. “If you wanted to make a sweater with all dog hair, it would be really, really hot to wear.” Spinners describe the care of dog hair items as similar to things made of wool. “I wash dog hair the same way I would wool,” says Kruthers. “You treat it like you would any good wool garment.” Another striking element to knitted dog hair is its halo, a knitting term for the soft fuzz that outlines an item. Angora rabbit fur has a similar feature, which adds to softness and is considered luxurious. Many spinners liken dog hair to Angora rabbit. “If you held an item made of dog hair up to the light, you would see this beautiful fuzz that sticks out,” Kelly says. This halo also adds to dog hair’s warmth. The Briard dog, Britty, who got Patty Kruthers into spinning dog hair / Courtesy Patty Kruthers It doesn’t take too much dog hair to make a small item. “If you have a brown paper grocery bag full of dog hair, that would probably be enough to knit a scarf,” Kelly says. “That would be about six ounces.” One serious grooming session with a brush—or vacuum behind the couch—may be enough to make those mittens you’ve always wanted but spinners warn not to use hair shaved from a dog. “When you clip, you get stubble along with the long hairs,” says Betty Kirk, who teaches classes on different types of spinning and weaving in Lemont, Illinois. Perhaps part of the reason dog hair may never be mainstream is a certain reaction to having a clothing item made from dog hair. Fiber length influences the strength of the yarn being made. Dog hair about two inches in length is ideal for spinning. “If the length of the hair particles is too short, it ends up being a very weak yarn,” Kruthers says. “The longer the hair is, the stronger the yarn you will make.” Individuals interested in an item made from their dog’s hair can mail the hair to spinners who will then clean the hair, spin it to make yarn, and then knit the yarn into a final product. “People like it as a memento,” Kirk says. “Sometimes I’ll get a panic email saying someone’s dog just died.” As for what the future holds for the chiengora enthusiasts, it seems it will stay a niche market. “I think it’s a thing, just not a big thing,” Kirk says. “Like, don’t dump your whole inheritance into it because you won’t become rich doing this. But, you’ll always have a little niche.” Perhaps part of the reason dog hair may never be mainstream is a certain reaction to having a clothing item made from dog hair. “Usually people think it’s pretty cool,” Kirk says. “But once in a while they think it’s gross. You can just point out that your silk blouse is made from worm spit. I’d rather have dog hair.” 1234 1A bundle of the dog hair yarn / Courtesy Patty Kruthers 2A pair of mittens made from the hair of a Samoyed / Courtesy Doreen Kelly 3Kruthers makes a winter scarf from the hair of a Shetland Sheepdog / Courtesy Doreen Kelly 4A coin purse made from the hair of a Husky / Courtesy Doreen Kelly Part of the stigma is from the incorrect assumption that something made from dog hair will therefore smell like a dog. “People don’t understand that if you have a wool sweater, when it gets wet, it smells like wool, not like the sheep in the barnyard,” Kirk says. Likewise, wet yarn from dog hair smells like wet yarn, not like wet dog. “I just think it’s cool because it’s such an odd thing,” Kruthers says. “My dog Britty may be long gone, but her garments live on. Everyone has too much dog hair lying around anyway. It’s very comfortable and very pretty.” This sort of thing might make one wonder what else out there could be spun. Domestic cat hair reportedly can be used, but what about something more exotic? “I’ve spun a lion’s mane,” Kelly says. “It was from a circus and someone wanted to make bracelets for the employees. That was pretty neat.” CULTUREDOG WEEKWOOL Related
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 making 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 to 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 .
Remember playing “Old Maid” as a kid? Who ever got stuck with the old maid card was the loser and received a lot of taunting. The proper term for old maid is spinster, which means a woman beyond the usual marriageable age who is still single.
But what does the “spin” in that word refer to? Since at least the 14th century, any person who did wool or flax spinning was called a spinster, gender, age, and status notwithstanding. As late as the first half of the 20th century, it was considered inappropriate for any woman to live alone. In many families, an unmarried female relative, be she cousin, aunt, or sister, would be taken in, and to “earn her keep”, was often assigned the task of spinning. So how did it become a rather demeaning term? Through common usage, it’s believed.
Some famous spinsters from history:
Jane Austen * * Louisa May Alcott * * Emily Bronte * * Helen Keller * * Greta Garbo * * Florence Nightingale * * Queen Elizabeth I * * Diane Keaton * * Oprah Winfrey * * Condoleeza Rice
Hardly a boring, sexless bunch!
Add your favorite spinster!
In centuries past, January 7th, the day following Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, was known as St. Distaff’s Day. It was not really a holiday, nor is there really a “St. Distaff”. But the marking of this day by common people indicates the importance of spinning in the days before the industrial revolution. The distaff, or “rock”, was the medieval symbol of women’s work. Year round, spinning was a never-ending chore. During the Christmas season, however, both men and women took a break from many chores during the 12 days of the holiday.
But on January 7, the festivities were officially ended, and women would resume their daily round of household tasks. Men, however, did not resume ploughing until Plough Monday, when their ploughs were blessed. That left young men with time to play pranks on the girls, as described by a poem by Robert Herrick. But whereas women would recommence spinning on Distaff Day, the men did not return to the plough until after Plough Monday when their ploughs had been blessed.
“You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.”
So St Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, as it was sometimes called, was a final opportunity for some playful high jinks,with the lads setting fire to the flax and in return, the maids soaking the men from the water-pails… Life might have been difficult during the middle ages, but there was still some room for fun.
Note the distaff behind Thisbe and the spindle in front.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act I, scene i:
HERMIA. My good Lysander!
I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow,
By his best arrow, with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn’d the Carthage Queen,
Act II, scene 2:
O, take the sense, sweet, of my innocence!
Love takes the meaning in love’s conference.
I mean, that my heart unto yours is knit
So that but one heart we can make of it;
Act IV, scene i:
Fair lovers, you are fortunately met:
Of this discourse we more will hear anon.
Egeus, I will overbear your will;
For in the temple by and by with us
These couples shall eternally be knit:
And, for the morning now is something worn,
Our purposed hunting shall be set aside.
Act V, scene 1 :
O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.
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.
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?