There was Gem at her loom on the summit of the Guardian throwing shuttles filled with rainbow yarn back and forth across the raised and lowered warp threads of time. Down across the pale limestone cliffs where he had found the good fortune not to fall and fail, the infinite-flowing tapestry from this weaver of dreams displayed on its lustrous surface the events of his journey, and each moment was as clear as the tones from a silver bell. — “The Sun Singer”
Weaving has long been viewed as a woman’s art and a woman’s chore. In myth and fairytale, weaving has magical connotations associated not only with gold and clothing but with the creation of the world itself.
Women’s work had to be compatible with child rearing. Needless to say, weaving was very child safe when compared to hunting, clearing forests for fields or defending the community. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber writes in Women’s Work: The First 20,00 Years, “For millennia women devoted their lives to making the cloth and clothing while they tended the children and the cooking pot.”
The making of baskets, rugs and clothing were important feminine tasks in the life and culture of Indian tribes just as spinning wheels and looms dominated the cabins of pioneer families.
The DistaffIt’s difficult not to note the dual meaning of the word distaff. While a man traditionally wielded a spear, a woman’s distaff held the flax or wool for spinning. Though it’s fallen out of use except in horse racing, distaff also refers to the female branch of a family.
At one time, the man’s side of the family was referred to as the spear side. The terminology is certainly apt.
According to The Word Detective, The “staff” of “distaff” is just that, a long staff with a cleft end. In the Middle Ages weaving was an important home industry, and the purpose of the “distaff” was to hold the wool or flax (“dis” or “dise”) and prevent it from tangling as it was drawn into the loom.
Weaving in Myth and StoryThe Moirae in Greek mythology were said to control the fate of every individual. Clotho used her distaff and spindle to spin the thread of life. Lachesis measured the thread with her rod. Atropos cut the thread with her shears, determining the length of one’s life.
In the Odyssey, Penelope is a weaver as is Helen in the Iliad. The goddess Athena was associated with crafts, including weaving. In fairy tales, weaving plays a role in the widely known stories many of us heard in childhood such as Old Mother Hubbard, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Rumpelstilskin
Closer to home, Spider Rock in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Park reminds us of the Navaho story of Spider Woman who taught the people the art and craft of weaving. The Tewa also saw a supernatural natural aspect in weaving, asking in their Song of the Sky Loom prayer for mother earth and father sky to knit them a garment of brightness.
The Novel in Progress
While doing research for The Sun Singer, I was drawn to looms and spinning wheels and the cultivation of flax because weaving and the clothing trade were part of the story. As I write Sarabande, I see again the multiple literal and figurative connections between weaving and its traditional place in women’s lives.
My inclinations toward magical realism as an approach to fiction, also take me into the world of mythology and the supernatural. As the character Gem in The Sun Singer wove the story of young Robert Adams’ hero’s journey, Sarabande and her mother in Sarabande create not only the clothes they wear but the fabric of their lives.
Resources for the Journey
All Fiber Arts (weaving in stories and fairytale)
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Linen from flax seed to woven cloth by Linda Heinrich
The Joy of Handspinning - many details, photographs and demonstration videos
Grading, Spinning, Dyeing: an introduction to the traditional wool and flax crafts by Elizabeth Hoppe and Ragnar Edberg
Fibers of Being – Judy’s detailed weaving blog
Eva Stossel’s weaving blog – In addition to information about weaving, both Judy and Eva include lengthy blogrolls.