Spinning and Weaving


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In this episode we will be looking at the history, folklore and mythology surrounding spinning and weaving. Hear about Valkyries weaving bloody tapestries, how the sun is linked to spinning , why it is advisable to rest sometimes and what terrible things may befall you if you don't.


Christopher Dyer, 'Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520' (2002).

D.L. Ashliman, 'Superstitions from Europe' https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/superstition.html

Donald Haase, 'The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: Q-Z' (2008).

Freyalyn Close-Hainswoth, 'Spinning a Tale: Spinning and Weaving in myths and Legends' https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/spinning-a-tale/

Gunnvôr Silfrahárr, 'Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seidr and Spa' http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/seidhr.shtml

Gunnvôr Silfrahárr, 'Valkyries, Wish Maidens and Swan Maidens' http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/seidhr.shtml

Icy Sedgwick, 'Spinning in Folklore: Impossible Bets and Crafting with the Fates' https://www.icysedgwick.com/spinning-in-folklore/

John Martin Crawford, 'The Kalevala: Rune VIII Maiden of the Rainbow' https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune08.htm

Lisa Schnaidau, ' Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland' (2018).

Marianna Vertsman, 'Kikimora, Domovoi, Baccoo, and Other Strange and Spooky Creatures', https://www.nypl.org/blog/2015/10/30/scary-creatures-world-folklore

Mark Norman, 'Telling the Bees and other Customs: The Folkloer of Rural Crafts' (2020).

'Njal's Saga', trans. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson (1960).

Ronesa Aveela, 'A Study of Household Spirits of Eastern Europe' (2018).

Transcript: Pohyola's fair and winsome daughter, Glory of the land and water, Sat upon the bow of heaven, On its highest arch resplendent, In a gown of richest fabric, In a gold and silver air-gown, Weaving webs of golden texture, Interlacing threads of silver; Weaving with a golden shuttle, With a weaving-comb of silver; Merrily flies the golden shuttle, From the maiden's nimble fingers, Briskly swings the lathe in weaving, Swiftly flies the comb of silver, From the sky-born maiden's fingers, Weaving webs of wondrous beauty. Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at spinning and weaving, why these crafts were important to people in the past and how they are depicted in folklore and mythology. Spinning is one of the oldest crafts. Very early in human history, as far back as ten thousand years ago, people learned how to get fibre from plants and would twist it between their fingers to strengthen it, creating string that could be used for tools and weapons. The first items that were used to facilitate this process were simple stones and sticks that were used to wind the twine. At some point these were combined together to make spindles, one of humanity's oldest tools and one that has been found in nearly every culture across the world. In the neolithic period, as people started developing settled communities, the methods of spinning and and working with fibre also developed. Looms could be used to weave large pieces of fabric that could be used for clothes, blankets and sails for boats. Sheep began to be kept domestically on farms, and their fleece was used to make wool. The fact that both of these skills became so widespread across the globe at such an early point indicates how integral these skills were to humanity. They enable us to make clothes to stay warm and protected from the elements, make nets and traps for hunting, rope and sails for ships, rope to pull heavy loads and string to fix blades and handles together to make weapons and tools. Despite its importance, spinning was considered to be a low-skilled activity and, with a distaff, the stick used for holding the unspun fibre, tucked into a belt or under the arm, a spinner could produce yarn while doing other tasks. It takes a lot of time to make enough yarn for your needs and there are medieval images of rich and poor women spinning while sat chatting together, while riding on horses, caring for children and feeding the chickens, among other activities. It is apparent that at some point in European history spinning came to be seen as a predominantly female activity, unlike weaving which was considered to be more skilled. Anthony Fitzherbert, in his book of husbandry, states that it was not really possible to make a living from spinning, but that ‘it stoppeth the gap.’ Weaving, on the other hand, was a respected and established industry as shown by the existence of weavers guilds in larger towns by the twelfth century. The strong connection between women and the work of spinning is probably most well known through the term ‘spinster’ to describe older, unmarried women. This term often has negative connotations and has historically been used as an insult. The association between women and spinning seems to have been strongly entrenched by the late 1300s, with the English Lollard priest John Ball stating in a sermin in 1381 ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’, alluding to gendered work after the loss of Eden, despite no mention of Eve spinning in the Bible. It has been argued that while spinning was predominantly done by women, it was probably not solely their domain, and it was likely men working in jobs such as travelling traders or shepherds would have been spinning to help meet the large demand for yarn. Unsurprisingly, as an important part of culture and society, many superstitions, taboos and celebrations developed around spinning and weaving. It was forbidden to spin or weave during certain times of the year - the exact taboo days varied across Europe, but they tended to be on particularly certain holy or rest days, with the longest taboo on spinning being over the twelve days of Yule. In Iceland it was expected that all spinning, weaving and sewing chores were completed by the end of this year, an expectation reflected in the tales of the Yule cat, who would eat children who had not received a new piece of clothing for Christmas - a sign that these jobs had remained uncompleted. In England this period of rest over Christmas ended on the 7th January, known as distaff day, when women picked up their spindles to work again. Although according to a seventeenth century poem this day was probably only slightly productive, as the men and women would play pranks on each other to impede the work - the men setting fire to the flax and the women throwing water over the men in retribution, a sign that the return to work was not necessarily an enthusiastic one. In many areas spinning during these taboo times was assumed to invite the wrath of a deity. In Romania spinning and other domestic activities were forbidden on Tuesdays, a semi-holy day in honour of a deity named Martolea. Those who were caught spinning on this day may have their guts ripped out and spread around their home or their husbands and children killed or possessed by a demon-like entity. Assuming that these traditions were developed to enforce rest periods from a task that was important and ever present it says something about the importance of the task that meant they needed such strong disincentives to stop. Other superstitions upholding these taboos and times of work were less severe. Spinning on a Good Friday would cause your fingers to become inflamed. In Germany not putting your spinning away on a Saturday evening ready for the Sunday rest would cause it to tangle, while any spinning left undone by the end of Saturday would ruin any leftover flax, making it impossible to spin or bleach. In this case the superstition was to encourage good time management, hard work and good housekeeping. Similarly in Slavic countries it was said that a type of household spirit known as a kikimora would come and tangle any textile crafts left out overnight. While in these instances leaving spinning out overnight is punished in some way, there is another German superstition that says that if someone gets up from a spinning wheel without loosening the thread, an elf will sit and begin spinning on it. The elf will not be seen, but the spindle will be heard whirring by itself. Traditional accounts of spinning in fairy tales often reflect the real life attitudes and folklore surrounding the craft. Characters are often shown spinning to represent their industrious and domestic nature. For example, in the Grimms tale of Mother Holle, the sister who gets rewarded for her hard work finds Mother Holle’s realm by spinning so much her fingers bleed, thereby dropping the spindle into the well that leads to her domain. Another Grimm tale spindle, shuttle and needle tells of an orphan girl who is left these three instruments by her grandmother after her death, using them to scrape by a living. When the King visits the village searching for a bride who was at once richest and poorest. He comes across the orphan spinning, but leaves when she shyly looks away. She remembers the rhyme taught by her grandmother "Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away, and here to my house bring the wooer, I pray." her spindle magically flies out of her hand to follow the king, who follows it back to find her house beautifully decorated by the shuttle and needle. He declares her both poorest and richest through her skills and proposes marriage. Other tales recall assistance in the tasks of spinning and weaving by the fairy folk. One tale from the Isle of Man tells of a young woman who is given an impossible amount of spinning to do by her employer, but who manages to achieve it with the help of the fynoderee, the fairies native to the island. In the tale of Rumplestiltskin, a woman is imprisoned by a king after her father boasts she can turn straw into gold. This is not an entirely outlandish claim when looked at metaphorically, as a skilled spinner could turn straw-like plant fibre into fine yarn that could be used for weaving, and was worth far more than its original form. Taken literally, though, the task is impossible and Rumpelstiltskin agrees to help the lady in return for her first born child, a deal she gets out of after correctly guessing his name. A similar story is the Norwegian tale of the three sisters, in which a king hears other people’s claims about a young womans spinning and agrees to marry her if she can prove that these claims are true. This is unfortunate for the young woman as she actually has no idea how to do either. She is spotted weeping by three old women, who agree to help her at her task if she recognises them as her aunts at her wedding. When the wedding day comes the three old women arrive and, acknowledging the widespread alarm at their ugly appearance and the disbelief that they could possibly be related to the beautiful bride, claim that it was their years of hard work spinning and weaving that hunched their backs, wrinkled their faces and shortened their sight. Upon learning this the king decreed that his wife should never spin or weave again, despite her obvious skill, to maintain her beauty - letting her off the high expectations that had been set for her. In other tales it is the act of spinning itself that holds the wonder and magic. In the tale of the six swans a young girl is only able to lift a spell that is placed upon her brothers, turning them to swans, by silently spinning and sewing them shirts made of nettles. It is also unsurprising that many deities were associated with spinning and weaving, considering their importance. The Finnish Kalevala, compiled in the nineteenth century from oral folklore, contains a number of references to spinning and weaving, such as in the poem Rune 8 quoted at the start of this episode. In northern Europe sun and moon deities seemed to have a link to these crafts. The Sami goddess Beiwe, whose name derives from the regional word for the sun, was closely associated with spinning and flax and spinning wheels are left as offerings to her during major festivals. Similarly, in Baltc countries the sun goddess Saul is said to spin sunbeams and is represented by a spinning wheel. In this region spindles made from amber, known locally as sun stones, have been found in graves, further suggesting a link between the two, while in Finland the moon Goddess Kuutar spins and weaves golden yarn. Further south, in Ancient Greece, Ariadne, the granddaughter of the sun God Helios, was said to have spun the thread used by Theseus in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, while Athena was so proud of her weaving she turned Arachne into a spider for challenging her skill. Interestingly, I was not able to find any European gods of spinning or weaving, reinforcing the feminine link with these crafts. Spinning and weaving were so integral to society that they were both used as a metaphor or lens through which to understand the world. In Plato’s republic he likens the axis of the universe as a spindle with the starry heavens as a whorl that spins round the centre. Telling stories, the means through which people communicate and explore ideas to understand the world, are also often referred to as ‘spinning yarns’ possibly because women would tell each other tales when they got together to spin, a theme found in the fifteenth century collection of stories named the spinners tales, framed through the motif of ladies telling each other the stories as they spin, in a similar manner to the Canterbury Tales and the Decamaron. Stories, and lives are also sometimes seen as a tapestry, with the individual strands of a single life woven tightly together, influencing the pattern of the whole. In some mythologies the deities responsible for the fates of gods and humans are spinners and weavers. In Ancient Greece the three fates worked the fibre that shaped a person’s life. Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis measured its length and, in some versions spun it into a tapestry, and their sister Atropos cut the thread to mark the end of life. In Norse mythology, the three Norns cared for and lived at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, that connected the nine realms. Together they spun the threads of fate, determining who’s life thread was cut short. In The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, found in the Poetic Edda, the Norns visit Helgi Hundingsbane at his birth and wove the golden threads of the web of fate to determine the shape of his life. The Valkyries were also known for their weaving abilities. While these entities are often seen as warrior women due to their association with battles and their role of carrying the slaughtered to Folkvangr or Valhalla but this is not either primary role in early literature. Often they were portrayed as having a role not dissimilar to that of the Norns, watching over the battle, weaving the fates of those fighting. The epic Beowulf tells of the valkyires crafting the weavings of victory. The Skaldic poem Darraðarljóð, found in the eleventh century Njal’s saga describes twelve valkyries weaving the fate of warriors in battle. This poem goes into quite gruesome detail saying. ‘Blood rains from the cloudy web, Of the broad loom of slaughter. The web of man, grey as armour, Is now being woven; the Valkries Will cross it with a crimson weft. The warp is made of human entrails, Human heads are used as heddle wights, The heddle rods are blood-wet spears, The shafts are iron bound and arrows are the shuttles, With swords we will weave this web of battle.’ I find the conflicting attitudes to these skills, but particularly spinning, to be absolutely fascinating. Both were obviously important skills to ensure people remained clothed, and also as a means of gaining a source of income. Vast quantities of yarn and cloth were needed to meet the needs of society, yet rest days were enforced with such conviction that horrors were threatened to those who ignored them. Those who span and wove were considered to be industrious, virtuous and ideal wife material, yet the skill of spinning in particular was not particularly valued outside of this. Spinning was in some ways such a low status activity that the word spinster was used as a pejorative insult towards women who had passed the expected age of marriage without a husband, and yet was the primary skill held by the very deities that maintain life on earth and controlled the lives and fates of men. Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my patreons Robin, DD Storyteller, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Ben, John and David. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are greatly appreciated. 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