Sometimes when I knit, I think of my grandmother, who patiently taught me to knit when I was little. Her needles flew, with a rapid click-click that never seemed to stop. She lived in England, so when she wasn’t visiting us, she would mail me books, comics, and nature articles clipped from magazines. I became a voracious reader, and while those Rupert Bear books will always have special place in my heart, my favorite stories soon became the fairy tales.
Have you ever noticed how often fiber arts come up in these types of stories? Is it because knitting, spinning, and weaving were integral parts of daily life for the original tellers of our favorite tales? Or is it because the fiber arts have a kind of magic of their own — a something-from-nothing spell? Fairy tale characters are often clever and resourceful — dare I call them “crafty”? The craftiest one of all might just be Anansi the spider from African folklore. Anansi spins stories as well as webs, and frequently uses his weaving/spinning ability to get himself out of a tight spot or to get the better of a rival.
Many of the fiber artists in stories are strong, resourceful women. The most well-known example might be Penelope, of Homer’s Odyssey. In a bid to delay having to choose a suitor, Penelope states that she will make her choice once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. Every night, she unravels that day’s work, postponing her decision a little longer. While Penelope cannot forcibly eject the suitors from her hall, she utilizes her knowledge of fiber arts to outsmart them until Odysseus returns home.
In Cap O’ Rushes, the heroine, cast out of her father’s house, is able to disguise herself by weaving a cap and cloak out of reeds. No one recognizes her for the noblewoman she is, until she chooses to reveal herself. Because she knows how to transform grasses into garments, she survives and even lives happily ever after.
The magical power of knitting features prominently in The Wild Swans, where a young woman must make a special sweater for each of her brothers, who have been transformed into swans. (In some versions, she sews shirts.) The sweaters must be made from a specific plant, which also varies from tale to tale, and she may not speak until the project is completed. In the end, the young woman runs out of time — one brother is left with a swan wing, as his sweater was missing a sleeve. However, her determination and skill saves all of their lives.
I feel a thrill to know that I share skills with these impressive heroines. Traditional fiber arts skills have been passed along for generations, and now I am a part of that story. While my sweaters may not be able to break a spell, there is something undeniably magical in the creation of a garment out of sticks and string.
Do you have fairy tales from your childhood that feature fiber arts as well?