Many words and expressions that have their roots in the needle arts frequently help us understand matters entirely unrelated to threadwork and clothing. Consider examples of language associated with the craft of weaving that have found new life far removed from looms and fabric. A prime example is the word “weave.”
These words of Chief Seattle (circa 1790–1866), patriarch of the Duwanish Indians of Puget Sound, resonate today: “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Country music singer Johnny Cash, speaking on the television broadcast Amazing Grace, acknowledged: “We weave ourselves into little prisons—drugs, alcohol, a relationship, a habit.” The artist Andrew Wyeth has said, “I work in drybrush when my emotion gets deep enough into a subject. . . . It is what I would call a definite weaving process. You weave the layers of drybrush over and within the broad washes of color.” All three used language denoting the interlacing of warp and woof threads on a loom to express ideas in three unrelated areas, and we are able to transfer meaning from the original context to the new.
Words and phrases borrowed from threadwork, humankind’s oldest and longest enduring craft, have enriched our language since ancient times. The biblical Job, fearing that the end of his life was near, borrowed words from a craft familiar to his contemporaries and transferred their everyday meaning to something else: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope.” And in the Iliad, the Greek warrior Achilles tells the father of the slain Trojan commander Hector, “[T]he gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives.”
More recent weaving metaphors include this one by the eighteenth-century English poet William Blake borrowed for use in her 1997 Christmas Day broadcast to the British people by Queen Elizabeth II: “Joy and Woe are woven fine / A clothing for the Soul divine. / Under every grief and pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.”
Historian William H. McNeill used weaving terms to explain civilization. He wrote: “The creation and maintenance of social groups—together with resulting rivalries among groups—constitute the warp and weft of human history.”
Although many people living today have no direct experience with weaving and weavers, weaving metaphors still convey meaning by evoking clear mental imagery andemotional understanding. Language with roots in threadwork will continue to have meaning for future generations as long as threadwork survives.
Dolores B. Bausum is the author of Threading Time: A Cultural History of Threadwork (Fort Worth, Texas: Texas Christian University Press, 2001).
This article was published in the July/August 2002 issue of PieceWork.