Shakespeare Knits: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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.

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: 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?

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.

Textile Tools: Medieval Images of Spinning Wheels


Woman spinning on the great or walking wheel.
Luttrell Psalter, British Library, London 14th c. England

The great wheel produced thread more quickly than the drop spindle, but the thread was lower quality. It was underspun (not twisted enough) and uneven. The wheel was turned by pushing a stick against the spokes (above) or by turning a crank. Because the spinner had to use one hand to operate the wheel, she was left with only one hand to draft the fibers, resulting in uneven thread.

Woman spinning on a great wheel which is turned by a crank. MS 17, Musee Dobree, Nantes 16th c. France

British Library, early 14th century

The spinners above are drafting the fibers with one hand and turning the crank with the other. The next step in the evolution of the spinning wheel was to attach a foot treadle to the crank. The spinner could then use her foot to turn the wheel, freeing both hands for drafting.

Roving, Rolags, and Batts

On  some of the fiber arts forums I haunt, some of the members have asked what “roving” is. Well, as Wikipedia explains, a roving is a long and narrow bundle of fiber with a twist to hold the fiber together.  It is created by carding or combing the fiber, and  then drawing it into long strips where the fibers are parallel. Wool fleece in roving form is much easier to spin than wool in rolag or batt form, especially when using a walking wheel. If I am doing a historic spinning demo, I card my fleeces myself using reproduction hand cards. But when I spin at home or at a fiber fair, I use roving. Carding isn’t fun, so I buy rovings in order to get to the fun part faster. I also use rovings at times for dyeing.




Batts are also used for dyeing, quilting, stuffing, and felting.