Monday, December 14, 2009

In the beginning...

...Harvard said, "Let there be theses!" And there were theses.

Seriously, though, since I'm a member of the Folklore and Mythology department, I have to write a thesis in order to graduate. But scholarly writing makes me tear my hair out, so I'm pitching a Great Artistic Work as part of my final project.

Now...I do a lot of crafts. I sew. I knit. I crochet. I quilt a little bit. And that's my specialty, too - Material Culture, specifically textiles. For the big long written part I'm planning on writing about the rise of Material Culture as folklore as a result of the decline of the oral narrative tradition, with a special focus on collaborative creation (quilting bees, sewing circles, stitch and bitches...barn raisings, if I can find someone raising a barn to talk to). So my giant project is going to have to deal with that same kind of thing.

That's where you come in. I'm planning on making a truly enormous knitted/woven/felted/appliqued wallhanging depicting motifs from fairy tales, mythology, and other items of "popular antiquity" which have to do with the textile arts. So...Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, or the weaving battle between Arachne and Athena. And I want you all to help me. Over the next several weeks, post your favorite fiber-related folktale, legend, myth, saga, or whatever in the comments. In January, I'll do some charts and sketches for my favorites. In February you'll vote on which ones you like the best, and those will be the ones I include.

This is going to be my legacy at Harvard. And I want you all with me.


  1. One of my favorite folktales of all time: The Seven Swans.

    The Seven Swans
    Seven brothers were turned into swans by an evil spell cast by their stepmother. It could only be broken if their sister would weave them each a shirt, with not a sound passing her lips.

    The little sister sat up in the tree, intent on her work. She was discovered by the King of that land, who was so taken with her beauty that he married her.

    The King's mother, jealous, could not find anything good to say about her. A year after, when the couple's first child was born, the mother took it away, and told the King that his wife was a murderess, but the King would not believe it. This happened again with a second and third child.

    By this time the whole kingdom was upset, and the King was obliged to let her be tried, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. It happened that on that day, the shirts were ready, all except the seventh which was lacking an arm. Her brother's restored to her (the youngest with a swan's wing instead of an arm), she was at last able to speak in her own defence. The King's mother took her place at the stake, and was burned to ashes.


  2. I guess I should point out, since I typed that way too fast, that the shirts were made from thistle (raimie?)!

  3. Hi!!! Great thesis! I'm sure Rumplestiltskin has already crossed your mind, but it's one of my most remembered fairy tales.

  4. Although this isn't a myth, we still get together to help our neighbors in my rural section of North Central Montana. Every spring we have branding, as well as assisting each other in cattle moving. If our community needed a barn, we would be there to raise one!

  5. Hey HOH!
    I think this is a fascinating idea. My favorite "crafting" related mythology would be hum....Penelope and her weaving to fend off the suitors.

  6. The Seven Swans and Rumplestiltskin are both on my list! Others I've thought of:

    The Lady of Shallott
    The Greek Fates
    The Lay of Helgi
    The Emperor's New Clothes
    Spindle, Shuttle & Needle
    Lazy Gerda
    Mme Defarge (from A Tale of Two Cities)
    The Underground Railroad Quilts Legend

  7. Rumpelstiltskin, and Sleeping Beauty both came to mind for me as well... and after reading it I remembered Seven Swans.

    this might also help!


  8. Oh! I know! The legend of how silk came to be cultivated. And I've got a legend from central Mexico about weaving and one of their goddesses but it's not coming to mind. Dang my minor in Mythology from 15 years ago :P

  9. Ohh The Seven Swans, Spider Woman (similar to Arachne and Athena)... I am sure I can come up with a ton more when I'm not half asleep! :)

  10. I was sent a flyer on Saturday for an event called Distaff Day. I do not know much about it yet but here is a wikipedia link about it.
    I am planning to go on January 9th and will let you know if I find out anything else if this is the kind of thing you are looking for. Good Luck and I will help anyway I can

  11. Seven Swans is definitely my favorite, but here are some others (I can provide links if needed, but this think isn't letting me paste for some reason):

    -Tom Tit Tot (or, you know, that Rumplestiltskin guy)
    -Grimm's Frau Holda (as in the goddess)
    -The Good Housewife and the Night Helpers (OH YES)
    -Lazy Gerda (Ok, I don't actually like this one)
    -The Feather of Finist the Falcon (I ADORE THIS ONE! It has elements from Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and my favoritest fairy tale of them all, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. And a falcon.)
    -The Twelve Huntsmen (this one makes me laugh)
    -Hercules and Omphale


  12. I have no ideas at the moment but I wanted to comment and say that I'm here and reading and that I'll rack my brain for something!!

  13. Can't remember where this one came from or what it's called - poor woman vs rich woman in same village. Don't know if it's fiber related enough for you.

    Poor woman lets a beggar woman stay overnight, in the morning she reveals herself as a fairy. She's told that 'whatever she does the next morning she will do all day'. Next morning she gets up and measures a piece of fabric to see if it's enough to make something for her child, never stops, fabric gets more and more elaborate as the day goes on. End of the day, she's got a whole roomfull which she sells for a lot of gold.

    Rich woman hears the same story, when the fairy comes she comes as another rich woman, she's only hosted grudgingly but she promises the rich woman the same thing. Rich woman thinks she's being clever and decides to count all her gold the next morning so she'll have more. Only she thinks she'll need some money bags so she starts cutting some, the sun rises as she's doing this and she's unable to stop. She ends up cutting up all of the clothes in the house as well as all the curtains and rugs.

  14. The only one that comes to mind for me at the moment is the Moirae but I shall keep thinking, this is a brilliant idea.

  15. just thought of another one - usual story - lake maiden agrees to help if the man gives her the first thing that greets him on return home. It's his son. They get an extension to his 21st birthday.

    Somehow the family get a riddle for how to escape: 'warp of woollen & weft of gold when seven & seven & seven are told'.

    Solution is that his fiancee weaves a cloth out of her 'golden hair' whch is accepted instead.

  16. I've always liked 'The Quiltmaker and the King'. The quiltmaker makes the most beautiful quilts, but only gives them to the poor. She never sells them. The king of the land is very nasty and greedy and loves to receive presents. So he demands presents from all of the citizens, though he receives nothing from the quiltmaker. When he approaches her for a quilt, she makes a deal with him. She will make him a quilt if he gives away all of his posessions. The king begins giving his material wealth away and as he does he changes into a better person. When he has given all away, he receives his quilt.

    Lesley/abycat on Ravelry

  17. Not sure if it's quite what you're looking for, but Jason and the Argonauts did hunt for a golden fleece. Even they knew the value of good wool. There's a Ukranian folktale called the mitten where a boy's grandmother knits him a pair of white mittens. He loses one in the snow and a bunch of animals use it as a home. And in the Lorax the Once-lers knit up the Truffula Trees into Thneeds until all the trees are gone and the air and water are polluted.

  18. The seven swans is very much my favorite. The Emperor's New Clothes also comes to mind. Hmm, I will have to think about it and see if there are any others that haven't been mentioned. (PEby)

  19. Grandmother Spider and the First Woman (Anasazi/Navaho legend) - Grandmother Spider watches over The People and leads them from dark, cold places to warm, light places. There are many levels of the world in which The People have lived. Each world was destroyed by various means and it caused The People to leave to find the next world (through a hole in the sky). In the fourth world The People learned about irrigation and lived happily until the Water Monster caused a flood. The People are led by First Woman to the top of a mountain but the water continues to rise. First Woman then plants a seed and within 4 days, it becomes a giant tree. The People climbed to the top, but the water was still rising. The next world was inaccesible to them since the sky was rock hard. After the birds and locusts tried to make a hole, there was finally one tiny hole, but The People couldn't fit. Grandmother Spider flew up on the back of a dragonfly and wove a strong ladder, telling everyone to come up the ladder: smallest to biggest and with each passage the hole would become larger. And so everyone passed through this tiny hole amking it bigger with each being. Finally only First Man and First Woman were left. He insisted she go first, but she told him there were treasures she wanted to gather first. As she climbed the silken ladder, she wrapped it around her and by the time she reached the fifth world she was completely covered in woven silk.

    In honor of First Woman and Grandmother Spider The People declared that women shall do the weaving and wear woven items.

    There is more to this story, but here is the general idea. Good luck on your project! I'm looking forward to watching the progress.


  20. The Children of Lir (Seven Swans)is my favorite.

    A Czech tale called The Lady in White has some beautiful imagery.

    From Yeats' Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasentry, The Lazy Beauty and Her Aunts.


  21. The Seven Swans is by far my favorite, though I've always known it as the Six Swans. It should be re-emphasized that the sister makes the shirts out of starwort or thistle or some other prickly, painful plant. She must grow the plants herself, harvest them, and spin their fibers into yarn, then weave or sew or knit the shirts out of it, and every time she touches the fiber it puts her in excrutiating pain. And all the time (about three years) she is working on the shirts, she can't make a single sound.

    The best telling of it I've ever read is Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, which actually happens to be my favorite book.

    Also, I don't think anyone's mentioned Penelope yet? While Odysseus is away, she somehow gets talked into remarrying, and promises to do so as soon as she finishes weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus' father. She weaves all day, then stays up each night to unweave, to prolong the engagement, and ends up doing this for many years before she has to invent another trick.


  22. I'm here and reading, will have a poke through a few books that I have I remember something....but can't quite put my finger on it right now


  23. In the original Rapunzel, the Prince brings silk each day for her to make a rope with.

    Also, I have a copy of "The Mitten" illustrated by Jan Brett that sparksearcher mentioned. I can mail it to you. It's beautifully done. PM on Ravelry (JMN, in Hufflepuff) if you want it.

  24. Hey Julia! That sounds like a great idea for a thesis, much better than mine. My favourite textile-related fairy tale is a Japanese one, called Tsuru no On-gaeshi (A Repaying Crane.) It goes like this:

    One day in a forest a poor hunter came across a crane that was stuck in a trap. Feeling sorry for the hurt animal, he freed it and watched it fly away. Some days later, a beautiful woman came to his hut and asked for shelter for the night. She didn't leave in the morning, and eventually they got married. The woman, Otsuru, was possessed of a sweet disposition, so they got along well, but the hunter was too poor to support them both.

    Eventually, Otsuru told the hunter that she would weave a cloth that he could take into town and sell for money, but he could never see her weaving. Sheltered by a folding screen, she wove for three days, clack-clack. When the weaving sound stopped, she came out looking exhausted and holding a beautiful cloth. When the hunter took the cloth into town, the merchants fought to buy it, offering exorbitant amounts of money, because it was a prime example of tsuru-no-senba-ori, a very expensive damask fabric called "Thousand Feathers of Crane."

    The woman wove and wove, looking thinner and more exhausted every time, and the hunter came to live in comfort. Eventually, she told him that she was consumed, and could not weave anymore. However, the hunter had learned greed, and begged and cajoled her to make one last cloth. (In some variations of the story, he's forced to make her produce another cloth by the local feudal lord.) She eventually relented and retreated behind her folding screen again. But this time, the weaving noise continued past three days. After three more days of clacking, the hunter was consumed by worry and broke his promise, peeking past the screen. To his great surprise, he saw not Otsuru, but a great crane, weaving its own feathers into the cloth.

    When she saw that the hunter had seen her true form, Otsuru reassumed the form of a human woman. She explained that she was that same crane who had been freed by the hunter that day in the woods long ago. In order to repay her debt, she came to be his wife. However, now that he had broken his promise and seen her true form, she couldn't stay. Even as she spoke, feathers spilled across her form, and she launched up in a great beating of wings to reascend to the sky, leaving the hunter forlorn and grieving far below.

    -ritsuka (Debbie, from Dance Anthro :))

  25. don't know if this one's any use but you've got cutting and sewing leather as well as material
    shoemaker and the elves- the elves help a shoemaker out by making shoes for him ,in secret,to sell, eventually the shoemaker finds out who's been helping him. He and his wife find out , make them clothes and thy vanish, never to be seen again.
    ( meriadoc)

  26. You know, Meriadoc, I was just mentioning that one to a friend of mine, particularly because it establishes the "giving clothes to elves frees them" legend that will let me put Dobby on there...

  27. dolly parton wrote a song, and later a children's book, called "coat of many colors"

    "I couldn't understand it, for I felt I was rich
    And I told them of the love my mama sewed in every stitch
    And I told them all the story mama told me while she sewed
    And how my Coat of Many Colors was worth more than all their clothes"

    The song concludes with Parton singing the moral of her story:

    "One is only poor, only if you choose to be
    Although we had no money, I was rich as I could be
    In my Coat of Many Colors my mama made for me"

    the mother also told her of "joseph and his coat of many colors" as she made the coat.

    PoodleParade of Ravenclaw

  28. How about the Emperor's New Clothes? There's an old Mickey Mouse cartoon where he's a tailor, and I can't for the life of me remember what it was...I'll dig out my old Disney books and try and find it after work tonight!


  29. Hi Julia! I found my way to your blog via Debbie's (ritsuka) blog, and as a knitter with a deep interest in the academic studies of both textiles and mythology, I must say that you have a really fascinating project in mind for your thesis! I can't wait to see the outcome :)

    I thought of two particular stories as I read over your other readers' suggestions.

    1) The legend of the founding of Carthage by Dido (Elissa). I read and translated a big portion of the Aeneid in my high school latin class, and I remember discussing the this story, since it is mentioned when Aeneas first comes to Carthage. The whole story can be found here if you scroll to "Legends of Founding of Carthage: Queen Elissar," but the basic story goes like this: Elissa was a princess of Tyre, whose tyrant brother killed her husband and caused her to flee to Africa. She wished to found a city in present-day Libya, but the king of the local tribe in Byrsa told her she could only have as much land as could be covered by an oxhide. The innovative Elissa cut the oxhide into tiny strips and was able to encircle the hills of Byrsa. The city she founded there was Carthage.

    2) This Japanese tale is similar to the story of the crane wife shared by ritsuka, but concerns a tennyo, or heavenly maiden. The story was made into a Noh drama and the basic story is this: A fisherman finds the heavenly mantle (hagoromono) of a bathing tennyo and hides it from her, forcing her to stay on earth, since she cannot return to heaven without it. She marries the fisherman and bears his children, but years later she finds her mantle and flies back to heaven.

  30. Have you seen the book "Nuvisavik: The Place Where We Weave." Here's a link to some info:

    I hope that linky works, but a google should find you some info.

  31. There is a series called the Finovar Tapestry (3 books) by Guy Gavriel Kay that takes a few of the old stories and weaves them together into an overall story. It is based on five university students (from the University of Toronto) and what happens when they are transported into another world by Loren Silvercloak (a Gandalf, Merlin type of character).

    It takes the legends of Arthur, Guinivere, Lancelot; the Welsh cauldron that brings everlasting life; Liadon the human who sacrifices himself to end the winter; the twice born who dies on the tree of life; dwarves; magicians; a similar individual as Frodo and others into a great story.

    I am not sure how much information you need as I could go on for pages about these books. They are definitely worth a read as he has created another world similar to Tolkein. The three books are called the Summer Tree: The Wandering Fire and last The Darkest Road.
    P.S. I am Maigret in the HPKC

  32. The Homespun Tunic (Percivale's mother makes it)
    Will keep the brain percolating.

  33. This is so awesome, Julia! Please don't forget The Lady of Shalott. (Have you heard Lorena McKinnett's version - you should check it out for inspiration. But I am weird and like weird music) She has been cursed, and must constantly weave her tapestry while not being able to look directly out at the world. She can only view the world out her window through a mirror. Then along comes Lancelot and, as it always is with him, an unhappy ending ensues. (He must have been gorgeous to cause so much trouble with the ladies...)

    Tons of stuff online about this - I'm sure you are already well familiar with the poem.

    Good luck and congratulations!
    (P.S. I am GleeMarie on HPKC)

  34. the Brave Little Tailor- he killed 7 flies with one blow of his belt, so he stitched 7 in one blow on his belt and it was taken wrong by a giant.

    There's a superstition that if you knit your hair into a project, it will draw you and the recipient together.

    Vassalisa the Beautiful has fiber in, but it doesn't feature it.

  35. Hey Scarlett!
    Awesome project!

    First on the Seven Swans story - I always heard that the princess couldn't speak while she was weaving/sewing the shirts for her brothers, and that was why she got in trouble with her MIL. Also, the fiber she was processing was nettles / flax which we all know takes a lot of trouble to make into linen ;-)

    My favorite Russian tale is usually called the Frog Princess... King has three sons and charges them to fire arrows in different directions to find wives. Youngest son, Ivan, walks on and on and finally finds his arrow in the middle of a swamp in the mouth of a frog whom his father forces him to marry. Later, trying to find out what type of women his sons have married, the King asks his sons to get their wives to make, bread, an embroidered coat and a silk shirt. Each time, Ivan hangs his head and cries until his frog-wife tells him to go to bed and she will solve the problem. She casts off her skin and commands her servents to help her to first bake a loaf of bread out of the finest, softest flour (the SILs have stones and unground wheat), then a silk shirt so delicate it can be passed through the hole in a ring and finally an embroidered coat covered in gold and gems. Obviously, everything goes okay until Ivan finds out about the frog skin and burns it, then has to go on a quest to find his wife that involves finding a pike with an egg in its mouth with a needle in the egg that Ivan needs to break to kill the ogre and save the princess.

    Also, the story of Beautiful Vassilisa and Baba Yaga has three sisters that are in their house alone and it gets dark so the older sisters send the youngest for lights from Baba Yaga (the oldest doesn't need it because she can "see by the light of her golden needle" and the middle doesn't because she can see by the light of her silver pins"). A good version is here - and includes making the finest linen and silk trimmed shirt that is gifted to the Prince who then wants to marry her.


  36. This sounds like a great project! I can think of only a story yet unmentioned, and a riddle.

    There is the tale of the Elfin Knight, retold a few decades ago as 'Scarborough Fair'. The girl must make a shirt without seams or needlework if she would have the knight's favors. And she tells him he must sow pepper beneath the sea and bring her the harvest if he wants HER favors!

    And the riddle?

    Old Mother Twitchett had but one eye
    And a long white tail that hung down her back.
    Every time a step she took,
    She left part of her tail in a trap.

    What is she? A needle and thread.


  37. I'm with Kara on having Juliet Marillier's version of the Children of Lir as her favourite book (Daughter of the Forest?)

    I always heard that the princess wove her brothers' shirts out of nettles. That would make sense. Nettles, brambles, have much the same fibres as flax.

    Absolutely love the idea of your material thesis, Julia. As an old hand at theses, gimme a shriek anytime you need encouragement.

  38. aesops fables. You can find them all on good luck. great project.