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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wizardry, Wisdom & Craft


The Glass Wizard
There once was a wizard who created treasures using a lump of rock. His sister used her sorcery to create amazing works from animal skins and plants. They had two cousins, brothers, who were also powerful in magic, one with a simple handful of sea-sand and ash, the other with river mud! Many were the legends surrounding them and their disciples down through the mists of time and place, but none of them ever answered the questions of how they had first devised the spells that gave them the mastery of transforming these common items into marvels.

Sound like a folktale?

It''s not!

In ancient times, it was believed that smiths possessed magic, whether they were blacksmiths making tools, horseshoes, and household implements, or weaponsmiths, because the craft of creating an object from such an unlikely thing as a lump of ore seemed so, well, magical! And although producing leather and cloth (animal skin, fur, wool, cotton, linen), glass (sand) and pottery (clay mud) have been largely demystified by becoming large-scale productions by guilds or home industries, still when you think about it, there is wonder in how on earth someone, back in the beginning, ever thought of the initial idea. I mean, who would think that if you heated a lump of rock and beat on it with somthing, eventually you'd get some kind of usable object? Or that by blowing into a pipe on a glob of hot, almost liquified, sand, you'd get something akin to frozen ice when it cooled? How did someone make the leap from a spiderweb to a wad of plant fiber to thread?

Besides the absolute necessity for shelter, food, drink and clothing, humans seem to need to not only create but to improve and decorate. A tree stump, a length of log, or a good-sized rock will serve as a seat. A heap of leaves or straw or a pile of cloth will make a bed. Yet there is a huge variety of designs for almost every manmade object, even though you can almost always see the underlying form dictated by its function in good design.

Every craft has its mysteries, aka trade secrets, whether a special process, dye, stitch, or hammerstroke. And often they are embodied in folktales, proverbs and other lore--even nursery rhymes and counting games!

John and I used to watch a show (whose title I can't recall) featuring modern American artisans who had elevated their work from craft to art. Each show had three segments, which might show a jeweler, a stonemason, a glassblower, a woodcarver, a potter, a basketweaver. Dale Chihully is an example of such a talent. He did an exhibit of his glass at Phipps Conservatory here the year before last, and we saw it twice--once during the day, looking closely to see parts of the installation among the plants in various rooms, and once at night, when the lighting rendered some parts completely different from their daytime appearance. All of it was spectacular, filled with texture, color, and images that created tiny stories, each one different for each visitor, each time. Modern magic from making!

Some of the most ancient cycles of legends and myths, as well as folktales and modern fantasy novels, include tales of powerful beings who create things with or without the aid of magical objects, spirits, or helpers. The word wizard is rooted in the idea of wisdom, of being wise, of knowing often mysterious things. The Gobhan Saor (which means "free carpenter" and is spelled several ways, depending on what country a tale version is from) is clever as well as a renowned artificer and craftsman; he and his son not only can build a marvellous palace in a remarkably short period, but they can also outsmart the kingly employer who is trying to cheat on paying them. Whether as famous as he, or a local smith like the one who dared bargain with the King of the fairies to get back his kidnapped son, using his cold iron dirk stuck in the fairy mound's door-frame to keep it from closing and imprisoning them inside, a smith was a mighty antagonist. In many Scottish tales, (for example, "The Lass Wha Lost the Laird's Daughter"), even a simple forged iron nail wound with scarlet thread is as potent as a piece of Scripture in protecting a hero venturing into Otherworldly halls.

In an earlier post, I wrote about needlecrafts and women's history. Coming from a family of women who had to spend copious amounts of time (as most women up into the twentieth century had to) not only maintaining hearth and home, garden and field, but also clothing the family, I am interested in both--and in folktales about them.

When I was a little girl, Mother got me a subscription to a children's magazine, Jack & Jill, which is where I first read a version of the Japanese folktale, "The Crane Wife," the first non-Scottish weaving tale I ever saw. I also recall a Baba Yaga retelling, a serial, about her black-and-white cat having to find "every spiderweb in the forest before the dew dried," detach it from the bushes, and lay it, untorn, flat in a woven basket to take back to her. I don't remember why she wanted it, although I'd love to reread it and another one with the cat.

But getting back to Celtic ones, I have tales on shepherds and sheep, scutching (preparing the flax before it can be spun into linen thread), spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, and lace-making, the origin of the thimble, needles, and related superstitions, proverbs and nursery rhymes.

Everyone knows the famous European story of "Sleeping Beauty," in which the princess pricks her finger on a spinning-wheel's distaff. This story is an example of technology in folktales, because the spinning-wheel wasn't invented until the 11th century, used in China and the Islamic world;  it didn't make it to India for another 100 years or to Europe until the 13th Century--and wasn't widely used there until the 14th or 15th centuries.

How do we know this, since the earliest ones, made of wood, haven't survived? Because of other arts--notably, manuscript illustrations and paintings, which very nicely show us particular models in specific places (and since the artists' patrons were usually wealthy, they would be status symbols, used by a rich woman or her servants but not necessarily by poorer women, or women in rural areas. They went right on using drop spindles and distaffs. What are they? The basic spindle was a weighted round piece (you could use a drawer pull nowadays if you wanted to) attached to a short dowel or stick with a notch or hook at the other end. You attach a piece of yarn called a leader, and from there, dropping the spindle and making it rotate clockwise (spinning), puts a twist in the drawn-out fibers (wool, flax, cotton, whatever), and you get thread.  (You can watch more than one youtube video how-tos, if you want.) This was and is highly skilled work. Where did they get the fiber from?

The fibers were bunched and pinned or tied around the end of the distaff. That was a long wooden rod or staff, held under the left arm, and it was a dis-taff because "dis" is a German word for female. A woman's staff. In Russia, the top of it was a flat vertical board, elaborately carved and painted, with an L-shape at the bottom that the spinner sat on, called a dontse. You pulled or pinched off some of the fiber and drew it out as it spun onto the spindle as thread. This was not a simple task, to produce a long continuous thread that was the same diameter without any lumps, thin parts or knots. In Scotland and most western European countries, women just used the spindle and distaff. My granny told me a story about a girl who was so skilled that she could spin and walk at the same time along a country path, probably over uneven ground at that. She must have had really steady hands!.

Treadle Wheel
And yes, if you have ever heard the expression, "from the distaff side of the family," when used as an adjective, it refers to your mother or the women of a family. The men were the sword or spear side, although that expression is rarely used nowadays.
Great or Muckle Wheel
The first spinning wheels in Europe were large ones, large so that it was easy to use one hand to rotate the wheel. Smaller ones came with the invention in 1533 in Brunswick, Saxony (now Germany) of a foot treadle; with the foot turnng the wheel, freeing both hands, so the wheel itself could be smaller and production faster--and which also dates "Whuppety Stourie" and "Habetrot" as being told after that invention. Another earlier kind, called a "castle wheel," had a small wheel almost on top of the bobbins, very compact. Modern ones can fit into an overhead plane compartment.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary,
castle wheel, by
Marianne Stokes
 There are many worksongs concerning this subject; after all, these were repetitive and necessary skills. Linda McNair and I have talked about doing a program, "A' Chaorach do'n t-Sheála / From Sheep to Shawl," of clothmaking tales and work songs, which could be Celtic or multicultural. Just for fun, I once mocked up a program...which I now can't access because it's in a different version of Publisher than my laptop supports (sigh). Last September, Kathryn o' the Hills and Jill Stuart Moncilovich, two fiber artists, talked with me about putting together a workshop in which they would demo the craft(s) in folktales I'd tell. Kathy does spinning, dyeing, and knitting, and Jill is adept as a weaver and lacemaker. That project kind of languished over the winter, since both of them live at a distance from me, but hopefully we can put it together over the warmer months. I'd love to do either of these projects or a solo version at some point. We are thinking of maybe doing the demo/telling for historical events or schools.

What would I tell? In a Celtic program, definitely I'd begin with a shepherd's tale, perhaps "The Kelpie & the Barra-Lass," (which also has knitting in it, from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland), or "The Golden Chair" (very definitely knitting and sheep or cattle, from either Scotland or Wales). For spinning? There's the Cornish tale of "Cherry & the Devil" (which also has knitting in it), or the Irish "Feet Water", an odd little tale, or "Whuppity Stourie", a Scottish tale, or the Manx "Old Christmas." Weaving? I;d choose between three Scottish ones, "I Weave 'til Dawn,"  "The Bad Bailiff of Rusko," or "The Witch of the Routing Brig," Sewing? There's any number of tailor tales, including at least three versions of the tailor in the church overnight braving a monster, or the Breton "Lady Yolanda's Thimble," some needle stories--including an ancinet Welsh one in which the hero sews himself--and (if I want to save some time), one of Granny's favorites, the Scottish "Spin, Weave, Sew" or the Welsh "Nabla & the Housewifely Arts."

Celtic music for such a program? There are shepherd songs, lullabies/croons, reels, and worksongs. A beautiful one I learned at camp, Walk, Shepherdess, Walk, has a story with it. There are spinning songs from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, and weaving songs, as well as songs about tailors. Some of these have more than one clothmaking and/or needle art mentioned in them, especially in waulking songs.

No, that's not misspelled. Waulking cloth is a way of rendering woolen cloth more wind- and waterproof, akin to felting in a way. This is also known as fulling or milling. Waulking was done in the Scottish Highlands, especially in the Hebridean islands, and many of the waulking songs from the Isle of Barra and other of the Outer Hebridean isles such as the Uists, are still sung.

How do you waulk cloth? It was a community endeavor; women would gather at someone's home, where a special board  or a door taken off its hinges would be set up on trestles like a quilting-frame, usually outdoors or in an outbuilding. The women would come in old clothes, and the cloth to be waulked would be sewn together on its ends so it formed a giant loop (say, 70 yards). Then it would be wetted with human urine which had been saved for the purpose--and if you can get past the eeeuuwww! of our less earthy times, please keep in mind that these people were thrifty of necessity, using what they had; the ammonia of the urine would help shrink the weave, break down the dogfish livers used in dressing the wool in an earlier step, and intensify the colors of the cloth. You would grab handfuls of the cloth in front of you, bang it on the wood, pushing it back and then slightly to the left as waulking songs were sung. These songs could be 400 years old--or composed on the spot, incorporating themes of hunting, fishing, sewing, and local gossip, reflected in titles like ’S E Mo Leannan Calum Gaolach/Beloved Calum Is my Sweetheart, Ailein Duinn/Brown-Haired Allan, or ’S Moch an Diu Gun D’Rinn Mi Èirigh/If It Was Early Today It Was Earlier Yesterday or Cuigal Na Maighdin/Distaff of the Maiden. The best singer would sing a verse, and the rest would join in the chorus, often just a few syllables, some of them vocables without meaning like "Ho ro ho", but which served to set a beat. You'd bang your bit of wet cloth a couple of times on the board and push it to the left, grab a new double handful, bang it on the board and so on. It was a daylong task, and considered unlucky not to finish in one session. This was measured in songs instead of time, as in "It'll take another song," which could take an hour. And when you were done, the cloth would be brighter, thicker, tighter, maybe as much as three inches narrower--and you knew that when it was made into clothing, trousers and coats and so on, that the wearers would be warmer and dryer thanks to your labors. In a place where the living was made by crofting (marginal farming) or fishing, in all weathers, this was important for a family's welfare. That is why the second part of this process was consecrating the cloth, done by the oldest woman present and two others. The oldest would take the cloth, now almost dry and folded, and turning it halfway clockwise on the board, she would intone in Scottish Gaelic, "Cuirim ca deiseal" ("I give a turn sunwise.") Liftintg her hands clear, she would lower them to the cloth again, turn it halfway again (so it was turned completely around), adding, "Am freasdal an h-Athar" ("Dependant on the Father.") Then the middle woman would repeat, this, only invoking the Son, and the youngest would invoke the Spirit.

I mentioned Cuigal Na Maighdin, a waulking song about spinning and weaving, which I can remember Granny singing to me as a lullaby, and which Linda and I have sometimes matched up with a Scottish tale, "Whuppity Stourie," one of my favorite Scottish spinning tales.

May the work of your hands for those you love be blessed!

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