Deep-Seated Associations: Textile Threads in Language, Myths, Fairy Tales, and Novels

Stories that feature the primacy of textiles and the way they are connected with women are quite ancient. Our language is full of metaphors that demonstrate these deep, primal associations.

Beverly Gordon a month ago

Deep-Seated Associations: Textile Threads in Language, Myths, Fairy Tales, and Novels Primary Image

Theseus and Ariadne. Illustration from Stories of Gods and Heroes by Thomas Bulfinch with color illustrations by Sybil Tawse (1920). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary literature is filled with novels—especially mysteries—that use knitting or quilting as a background motif; the heroine runs a yarn shop, for example, and is part of a community of women who are drawn together through this interest. This type of book is a relatively new phenomenon, but stories that feature the primacy of textiles and the way they are connected with women are quite ancient. Our language is full of metaphors that demonstrate these deep, primal associations, as are the myths and fairy tales and treasured stories that we (Westerners) grew up with. These associations not only reflect but also help shape our assumptions and attitudes.

We literally often visualize our reality in textile terms. The expressions and metaphors refer to textile elements (fibers, filaments, cords, strings, or threads), to textile processes, and to finished cloth. Sometimes the metaphors are biological—fiber terms, in particular, are used to express the essential stuff we are made of. We have long had metaphoric expressions such as “life cord” and “moral fiber.” Now, our metaphors even extend into the realms of sophisticated science. We routinely describe DNA—our very genetic codes and life building-blocks—as strands that twist or ply around one another. Other metaphors refer to connections with our fellow humans. We interact daily, for example, with a World Wide Web or Internet, and we use metaphors such as “life hanging by a thread.” We speak of the “web of life,” the “social fabric,” and “the fabric of human relationships.” Our lives are “entwined” or “inextricably bound” with one another.

Some textile expressions allude to the magic of creation: when we draw out a thread or make a solid fabric from mere wisps of fiber, we are seemingly making something out of nothing. We speak of “spinning a yarn” when we draw out words and put them together to tell a tale, and we “put a spin on” ideas or events, shaping them as we would like them to be. People who dabble in magic “weave” spells.
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Statue of the Minotaur, found in Athens, Greece. Ethnikó Arheologikó Moussío (National Archaeological Museum), Athens. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Classic literature reflects these primary associations. Threads are sometimes seen as pathways, lines to follow. A familiar example in Greek myth is the Theseus story. Theseus was sent to Crete to be ritually sacrificed to the monstrous Minotaur, who lived in an underground labyrinth. No human had ever emerged from the labyrinth alive, but Ariadne, King Minos’s daughter, who loved Theseus, equipped him with both a sword and a ball of thread. As he went in, Theseus tied one end of the thread to a doorpost at the entrance and let the ball unwind behind him as he went deeper inside. He slew the monster with the sword, but it was only by following the thread Ariadne had provided that he was able to find his way out of the complex corridors of the impossibly dark cave. In “Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle,” a fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm many centuries later, a prince similarly follows a “shining golden thread” to the girl he is bound to marry.

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The very life journey is also represented as a thread. The ancient Greek Moirae (Fates) are female deities who determine the fates of humans. Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis determines the length of thread (the lifespan); and Atropos wields the shears that cut the thread at the time of death. By extension, threads are also associated with time. In The Odyssey, by Greek writer Homer, Odysseus’s loyal wife, Penelope, is effectively able to stop time by raveling the threads she weaves at the end of each day, thereby forestalling her suitors and giving her husband time to return from his many-year voyage. An analogous tale was told by the North American Lakota people, who describe an old woman sitting in a hidden cave, making a decorative strip for a buffalo robe. She is working in the traditional manner by embroidering with porcupine quills. However, her dog pulls out the quills whenever her back is turned, so the work is never finished. This is good, for if she does complete it, the world will come to an end at the exact moment she puts in the last quill.

The primary association between women and textiles is evident in these stories. In preindustrial times, spinning was a constant in women’s lives. It took numerous spinners to produce enough yarn to keep a weaver working (generally about ten to fifteen, sometimes far more). Almost universally, spinning was done by women; indeed, the phrase “the distaff side of the family” (the mother’s side) equates the female line with the task (a distaff is an upright support that holds the fiber being spun). On one hand, spinning was kind of magical because it made something (a coherent thread) out of almost nothing (mere wisps of fiber); it was symbolically equivalent to creating life. On the other hand, spinning was a never-ending task, a drudgery. Small wonder, then, that the task often showed up in fairy tales associated with endless work, with goodness (a good woman was a good spinner), and with magic. Supernatural helpers sometimes stepped in to complete the work. In “Rumpelstiltskin,” for example, a miller tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold—a kind of alchemical, magical feat. It is not true, but magic does enter in when she is locked in a room and a strange little man appears to do the work for her. Although he is more goblinlike than helpful and demands her first child in payment for spinning straw into gold, she is able to trick him by learning his real name. Some scholars believe this tale is actually about 4,000 years old, and has appeared in many guises. “Rumpelstiltskin” is a German tale. In the English version, the goblin’s name is Tom Tit Tot. The symbol of Rumpelstiltskin is still potent in our culture—it appears in everything from an Anne Sexton poem (included in Transformations) to novels such as The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis and John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. However, the spinning is now less significant than the name-guessing and supernatural help.
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Polychrome terra-cotta relief depicting Ulysses and Penelope. 5th century BCE. Greek civilization. Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Many other fairy tales reference spinning and related women’s textile tasks, often similarly connecting them with trickery and magic. “The Lazy Spinner” tricks her husband so she will never have to spin, and a lazy girl’s mother plays a similar trick in “The Three Spinners.” In “The Six Swans,” a ball of yarn with special powers shows a king where his children are hidden. The heroine of the aforementioned “Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle” enchants her textile tools so they will draw a prince to her and do the tedious work (again, “invisible spirits” seem to make her cloth). Another variation on the enchanted spindle theme appears in “Sleeping Beauty.” It is the spindle that pricks the princess’s finger and puts her to sleep for 100 years until Prince Charming rescues her.

None of these fairy tales references decorative needlework; rather, they focus on the basic textile tasks of spinning and weaving, which were the first fiber-related processes to be industrialized. By the Victorian era (mid-nineteenth century), most people were relying on commercially made cloth. Spinning and weaving faded from contemporary literature as they lost their symbolic potency, but sewing and needlework moved to center stage. Victorian heroines always had needlework to do. In the very first chapter of Little Women, which is set at the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Louisa May Alcott gives a “little sketch of the four [March] sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without.” This description epitomizes the era’s romanticized image of the fair sex. Alcott was able to demonstrate her alter-ego Jo’s feistiness by showing her resistance to staying at home with her workbasket: “‘I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!’ Jo shook the blue army sock till the needles rattled like castanets, and her ball bounded across the room.”

Other Victorian novels put a more positive spin on the conflation of needlework and female identity. Oliver Wendell Holmes captures the sense of calm that needlework brought in The Guardian Angel. The hero says reassuringly, “Take your needle, my child, and work at your pattern; it will come out a rose by and by. Life is like that—one stitch at a time taken patiently and the pattern will come out all right.” In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, heroine Hester Prynne is cast out from society because she has committed adultery, and must wear a symbolic A on her clothes as a badge of her sin. She embroiders it herself, however, and is so skilled that it is quite stunning; it functions as a sign of beauty as much as a symbol of humiliation. Hester’s fine work is in great demand, so she is able to comfortably support herself and her daughter with her work. Fancy sewing also serves as a means of support in Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book, in which the heroine sells her lovely needlework in secret. Like Hawthorne, the author admires the artistry of the work and the talent of the needleworker.

Even into the Gilded Age (late nineteenth century), needlework functioned in novels as both a mainstay of the domestic scene and women’s separate identity. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence describes the way that New York society women would repair to the drawing room after dinner while the gentlemen smoked downstairs. “After dinner, according to immemorial custom,” are the words Wharton uses to introduce the scene in which two women sit at a rosewood worktable facing each other, working by lamplight. They are stitching on “two ends of a tapestry band of field-flowers” that will adorn a drawing-room chair.

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By the middle of the twentieth century, needlework skill and practice were no longer taken for granted, but the symbolic connection between women and textile-making was still salient. Ray Bradbury wrote the short story “Embroidery” in 1951. It is late afternoon, and three women are sitting on a porch embroidering, discussing the importance of handwork. Motif by motif their work begins to disappear, however, because the end of the world—the atom bomb—is expected to strike at about 5:00. Bradbury writes, “[She] watched an embroidered flower go. She tried to embroider it back in, but it went, and then the road vanished, and the blades of grass. . . .” Eventually, the whole design disappears as the consuming fire reaches her body. Although Bradbury was probably not aware of it, this story is eerily reminiscent of the Lakota story of the quill embroiderer—as long as the stitches keep growing, the world will continue. We are also brought back to the Greek Fates: women symbolically create life by working with fiber, and when life ends, the threads or stitches end as well.

Late in the century, when quilting gained enormous popularity, quilts and quilting became the common leitmotif in many novels. For example, Toni Morrison uses patchwork as a symbol in her prize-winning novel, Beloved. One of the characters remarks, “[The quilt] gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” In Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, about a nineteenth-century woman convicted of murder, the quilt similarly works as a narrative device. Grace calmly stitches as she tells her story, and each chapter is named for a quilt she is working on—for example, Broken Dishes and Snake Fence.

These stories are set in the past, but the twenty-first century is now rife with novels that are firmly situated in the present. They still link women and textiles, but the focus has changed: the underlying message is on community, the idea that women bond over fibers; textile work brings them together and gives them a sense of solidarity and empowerment. “Knitting fiction” and “quilting fiction” are now recognized, profitable genres. The characters may run shops together, as in Debbie Macomber’s novels centered around a store dubbed The Good Yarn. In “cozy mystery” novels, women join forces to solve crimes. There is always a sense of place and belonging. The deep-seated associations we hold with thread, cloth, needlework, life, and women are still present, in other words, but in contemporary stories, the women are more in control of their separate sphere. They choose to engage with fiber on their own terms, much as they engage in the life they create through it.

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A page from Once Upon A Time: A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales by Katharine Lee Bates and illustrated by Margaret Evans Price (1921). This page, from the story of "Rumpelstiltskin," shows the titular sprite as he speaks to the miller's daughter as she is seated at a spinning wheel. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Further Resources

  • Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868–1869 (published in two parts).
  • Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.
  • Bausum, Dolores. Threading Time: A Cultural History of Threadwork. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2001.
  • Bradbury, Ray. “Embroidery,” Marvel Science Fiction, November, 1951. Text available online: www.henleycol.ac.uk/media/1339/english-lit-embroidery-story-and-critical-cards-for-task-1.pdf.
  • Connolly, John. The Book of Lost Things. New York: Atria Books, 2006.
  • Gordon, Beverly. Textiles: The Whole Story: Uses, Meanings, Significance. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.
  • Grand, Sarah. The Beth Book. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1897.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1850.
  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell. The Guardian Angel. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
  • Jacobs, Joseph. English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales. 1890. Reprint. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002.
  • “List of 58 Quilting Fiction Books,” Paperback Swap: www.paperbackswap.com/Quilting-Fiction/tag/4543.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987.
  • Schaffer, Talia. Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Sexton, Anne. Transformations. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.
  • Tevis, Walter. The Man Who Fell to Earth. New York: Gold Medal Books, 1963.
  • Thomas, Candice. “Through the Eye of Her Needle: Examining Needlework in Contemporary Fiction.” University of Southern Indiana Amalgam, 2006 Issue 1. Available online: www.usi.edu/media/2416969/candicethomas.pdf.
  • Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1920.
  • Wolverton, Nan. “Talia Schaffer, Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Winterthur Portfolio 47, No. 1 (Spring 2013).
  • XOXO Grandma, “44 Books to Read With a Sewing/Quilting Theme—And A Free Giveaway,” January 30, 2015: www.xoxograndma.blogspot.com/2015/01/44-books-to-read-with-sewingquilting.html.
  • Zipes, Jack, ed. (translator and introducer). The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

Beverly Gordon has followed a lifelong passion for historic textiles and their meanings in our lives. She is professor emeritus in the Design Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; in retirement, she pursues her own art. She has published previously in PieceWork and is the author of numerous other articles and books. Her major works include Textiles: The Whole Story—Uses, Meanings, Significance (she gives presentations on this topic under the title “The Fiber of Our Lives: Why Textiles Matter”); Shaker Textile Arts (Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1980; almost forty years in print!); and Feltmaking: Traditions, Techniques and Contemporary Explorations (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1980).

This article originally was published in the Winter 2018 issue of PieceWork.

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