Storytelling and fibre art

The weekend before last, I had the opportunity to take a course through Storytelling Toronto. It was a great learning experience, and to my surprise I was able to successfully complete the weekend’s goal of learning and telling an oral story. I chose this story, one close to my heart as a nerd where Celtic myth is concerned.

One the way home on the Saturday, I got to thinking about the tradition of storytelling. Of our mostly illiterate ancestors, sitting around fires or hearths and passing on their oral history with a dual goal of entertainment on long winter nights and establishing cultural memory. Often they did this while engaging in handicrafts that were necessary in order to food and clothe the village.

This made me wonder if there were myths and legends featuring knitting, weaving, or spinning. If so, how many? How are these crafts portrayed? In my research, I came across some interesting resources:

This page on allfiberarts.com features a pretty decently extensive list of myths featuring fibre arts, complete with links to the myths themselves.

 

 

I also enjoyed this blogger’s post on the knitting Huldra character from the folklore of Norway.

 

Speaking of the northern reaches of Europe, here is a great piece, featuring gorgeous photographs, on the traditional folk costumes of Scandinavia, which of course features lots of knitwear. They even have a book available on the subject.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, one can’t talk about European knitting traditions without mentioning Estonian textiles. Nancy Bush’s seminal book on the subject is something every knitter should read, in my opinion, but the essays of  this blogger makes for pretty good reading as well.

There is of course a rich knitting history in the British Isles too. Here are some great sites on the art of Fair Isle, Arans, and Guernseys.

Heading around the world now to the Andes of Peru, no tour of knitting culture would be complete without mentioning the rich textile tradition found there. I could not find as much knit-related folklore from the area (not in English anyway), but this photographic travelogue richly illustrates the vibrant culture and mentions some folk traditions, as do the essays located here and here.

 

The Folk Knitting Flickr group has a great bibliography of books on folk knit patterns and history on the bottom of their description page. Being a librarian of course, I have a few gems I would like to add.

1) Folk Knits: Traditional Patterns from Around the World by Melinda Coss. It’s out of print and hard to get your hands on, but a few patterns can be found on this Flickr user‘s account, mostly on the 2nd and 3rd pages.

2) Knitting on Top of the World by Nicky Epstein

 

 

 

And on a related (to knitting, folklore not so much), the Toronto Star published this article on the rise of the knitting commuter on the weekend. I was so pleased 😀

Why do we knit?

I often wonder why I am so drawn to this hobby. Especially as someone who tends to fret over how wisely I spend my time and how enriching my pastimes are. But I love to knit. I have URGES to knit – my hands will actually itch. I browse Ravelry and Knitty in my breaks at work.

What is it about using sticks to loop string around and around itself in repetitive motions until you have something functional, something that took 100+ hours of your life to produce when you could have bought it pre-made for $30 (and quite possibly less than the cost of your wool)?

To be entirely honest, I don’t quite get it. I’m nearly as obsessed as they come, and I can’t come up with a solid answer.

Is knitting the new yoga? I’ve heard this oft-quoted mantra many a time, but I’m not quite buying it. And this is coming from a girl who quit yoga after 3 sessions.

Though, there may be something to the calming aspect of it. It forces one to slow down and contemplate. It’s almost meditative in a way.

I think that is a big part of the attraction, however I think there is more to it than that for me. On a recent trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario, I was struck by their new photography exhibit. Featured were stunning turn-of-the-century prints taken in rural parts of France. Now, I don’t want to romanticize what I’m sure was a tough existence, but part of me felt a connection to the images, especially those featuring women going about their daily lives, namely spinning yarn, knitting, and washing and mending clothes by hand. (For more on my love of handicrafts in the days of yore, see here).

Suddenly, something clicked. I was reminded of an essay I had recently read in Ann Budd‘s book Knitting Green and immediately re-read it when I got back home.

In Touching the Sun Through Fiber Carmen S. Hall writes, “I can feel my dear grandmothers watching over me when I knit, and the presence of other ancestors I never knew… I touch the souls of others when I knit. I also learn to better touch my own soul… Zen poet Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about looking deeply into a piece of paper. He says that if you are still enough and look deeply enough, it is possible to touch the tree from which the paper was made, to feel the soil beneath its roots, the wind that blew through its branches, the shade of the cloud that passed overhead, the gentle rain that fell… if you look deep enough, it is possible to touch the sun… As I knit, I hope to pave the path for others as they tap into the mystery of craft and creation. I hope my children will remember me knitting though joys and through sorrows… I hope they too will learn to touch the sun.”

I could not have said it better myself.

Elizabeth Zimmerman may be able to say it more succinctly, however:

“Knit on, with confidence & hope, through all crises.”

The Distaff Gospels

The Distaff Gospels (Les Évangiles des Quenouilles), is a 15th century French collection of more than 250 popular beliefs, forming a sort of gospel of late medieval women’s wisdom. A writer and tale-teller (trouvere) named Jean d’Arras attended the daily winter spinning sessions of a group of local neighbourhood women over a period of six days. His task was to record their discussions of beliefs, recipes, remedies, and advice so that they might be preserved for future generations. The result is a rich repository of folk wisdom and lore, often buried under a gloss of the pervasive Christianity of the time period.

Here are some yarn-related excerpts:

“If a woman leaves flax unspun on her distaff on Saturday, the thread that will be spun from it the following Monday will never be any good and the cloth made with it will never be really white.”

“To get rid of warts, you must take a thread that a woman has spun after her lying-in [recovery period after giving birth] and tie it around the warts: they will all fall off instantly without difficulty.”

“A young woman who wishes to know the name of her future husband should stretch out the first thread which she has spun that day at her door and then find out the name of the first man to pass by – she can be certain that this will be the name of her husband.”

Translation I used: The Distaff Gospels. Eds and Trans. Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay. New York: Broadview Editions, 2006. Print.

The Witch of Forest Grove has a great article on the Distaff Gospels on her blog, with some more quotes and pictures, here.

The Wikipedia article on weaving and mythology also provides some facinating historical context.