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Fibercraft and Witchcraft

By Rosemary
(Written for Ecclasia)

It is with reason that we call what we do “the Craft.” It is working in patterns handed down to us from those who have gone before. In earlier times people, especially women, spent huge amounts of time in working with fiber. The difference between a civilized people and barbarians, in many places and times, was that the civilized people wore woven cloth; the barbarians only tanned leather. As late as Alexander of Macedon, in the flowering of Greece, the Macedonians were scorned because of their barbarity: within memory of living men, their grandfathers had worn only sheepskins against the cold. Only the nobles wore cloaks; it showed who you were, if you could afford woven goods.

Civilization means leisure; it also means activities to eat up that leisure. In agricultural areas, much thread was spun and cloth was woven at home; the family that had an unmarried sister or aunt, who could therefore devote more of her time to spinning rather than tending children and husband, was better off and wore better clothing due to her energies. To this day “spinster” is a legal term denoting an unmarried woman. In urban areas, clothmaking tended to be done by guilds, or by slaves, depending upon place and time. There are frescos extant showing Egyptian slaves at work together in a house, clearly a place of manufacture of cloth. The women spun; the men wove on primitive warp-weighted looms. By contrast, in more agricultural economies, a household manufactured its own; the women wove and every spare pair of hands, including the boy watching the sheep, spun at all spare times. There are painted Attic vases to be seen in museums to this day, depicting women in brothels. The woman is shown either spinning while awaiting customers or having set aside her wool basket--clearly visible under her stool--while smiling and drinking with a client. It is unclear whether this detail is painted because it was very common for an owner to get “double duty” from his slaves--as spinners and hetairas--or whether it is because, in the highly gender-segregated city-states of Greece, there was sexual allure in even the trappings of femininity, which of course included the wool and spindle. Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, the excuse for the Trojan War, was queen in her right, not just by marriage to Menelaus or her subsequent liaison with Paris, Prince of Troy. One of her wedding gifts was a golden spindle. Even a queen, it seems, would spin, though her tools would be of the finest material available.

Sometimes, though, the expectations clashed. When Alexander of Macedon was fighting Darius, King of the Persian Empire, and had captured Darius’ mother, wife, young son and ladies of the harem, he set the ladies up in their own pavilion with servants to wait on them, put a guard around them to see that they were undisturbed and unraped, and did not even kill the son and heir as was expected by everyone as a normal act of war. However, he initially offended the ladies gravely by sending them a packet of colored wools (expensive goods) and cloth to embroider. He was concerned for their comfort; he had thought it would give them a pastime and his own mother and sister (Queen Olympia and Princess Kleopatra) did such work; but to the overbred Persians, such work was only for slaves, not for gentlewomen. So far had civilization come. When the people forget how to work with their hands, they are very close to death. We must never forget our Mother; never forget that we are closest to the Divine Creator when we ourselves are creating.

Fibercraft and magic of various types have a long history together. The Greeks spoke of the Three Fates: Niobe who spun the thread, Clothe who measured it, and Atropos who cut it off. This thread was the measure of a human life, and every one of us has a thread belonging to that person alone. In the Odyssey, Penelope wove by day and unraveled by night, so that she would never be finished and therefore, by the terms of her bargain, could not be compelled to remarry. (Odysseus did come home after twenty years, justifying her fidelity. There are those who say that this story demonstrates that Penelope was the ruler, and he the king only by courtesy, being her husband; that was why the suitors demanded she choose another year-king or corn-king.)

In many cultures, a sympathetic magic is practiced by ensuring that a woman in labor has nothing tied, knotted or braided about her, even her hair. The idea is that the womb should loosen easily and allow the baby free exit, not stay tightly knotted and tied-up. Poppets of various types have been used in a variety of situations, for both good– and ill-wishing. In some places, if a girl or woman thinks of her beloved while combing out and then doing up her hair, she will bind his heart to her.

Navajo rug weavers are known for making a bit of the pattern apparently unfinished or broken. This is so the spirit of the weaver, or of the viewer, will not remain trapped in the pattern. The Amish make cloth dolls with no faces for their little girls, in obedience to the command against making graven images.

Modern fiction also has the themes of fibercraft and magic intertwined. Barbara Michael’s Stitches in Time features an antique American quilt, circa antebellum South, which appears to be a picture block quilt, with embroideries of a woman riding, bouquets of flowers, a little summerhouse, and so on. Upon closer inspection, it turns out there is something subtly wrong with each and every picture: the bride is blind behind her veil; the riding woman’s horse is about to shy at a venomous snake under its hooves; the gorgeous rose has a nasty little green worm at its heart, and so on. Foreign materials were also inside the quilt: fingernails, bits of vegetation, and a strand of a woman’s hair. The story turned out to be that the young woman who made the wedding quilt was a slave, albeit a valuable one, and the skilled seamstress had been forced to do this fine work for her lover’s new wife-to-be. Therefore, out of her powerlessness to affect the outcome in any other way, she ill-wished the master’s bride over the many, many months that such a project would have taken. Apparently the ill-wish worked in the story; the wife died young, in childbirth, but the seamstress also died untimely, even before having seen the result of her painstakingly worked curse.

As well as being interwoven in terms of working, fibercrafts and magic require many of the same disciplines and attitudes. When one sets out to make a piece, one usually has some idea of where one wants to end up, and some idea of the tools and materials one has to work with. So far, so good. However, the actual working of the piece changes according to the work of the fiber, the mood of the moment, and the leading of the Spirit. So with magic; where you end up is not necessarily where you planned to go. Or to put it another way, when you open yourself to the Divine, you must be prepared to journey where you are led.

The working of the fiber is particularly suited to working magic. Repetitive motions, meditation in motion so-to-speak; if you grudge the stitches, you will not end up with what you planned, or probably, anything worth having. The emotion shapes the piece, and the piece shapes the mind as well. Taking pains in the work, putting one’s energy into it, makes a tremendous difference in the results of the work. A part of oneself, energy from the individual as well as that generated by the process, is inextricably woven into the work. A worked piece is identifiable as that person’s work; magic has the flavor of the one who worked it as well.

Fibercrafts have very practical applications to magic. Amulet bags, herb bags, dream pillows, altar cloths, veils, charms, poppets, rosaries, cloaks, robes, tarot bags, crystal wraps, talismans, cords, garters, sheaths for the athamé or sword, tabard, banners, mats, baskets large and small–many others will doubtless spring to mind for you. Of course, the more time something takes, the more energy of yourself you have put into it, the more potent your magic will be. It is for this reason that I have begun with raw wool. I did not grow the wool myself (or rather, cultivate the sheep), but I have taken it from the first step after shearing.

I bought this wool with money earned by my own hard work (bought before I married). I washed this wool. I combed it. I doffed the rolags. I fluffed it. I am spinning it. I may then ply it. Then I shall weave, crochet or knit it into a coherent item, to be used for a magical purpose. At every step, my hands, my energy, are involved with the material. It is very personal to ME; it is full of power and essence channeled through me. It is a natural material, partaking of the essence of the Creator, the earth, the elements, and the animal that grew it.

In “The Sick Rose,” a fascinating little story by Dorothy J. Heydt, published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress XV, a young Hebrew woman is simarly cursed by the gift of a special wedding dress. The story is set in indeterminate times, but Greece and Carthage are still powers in the Mediterranean. “The package contained a long gown made of fine linen, ornamented at neck and hems. Little figures of plants and birds and animals had been cut out of cloth of different colors, stitched into place and embroidered to give detail. From far off there seemed to be a wreath of flowers, and close up a line of dancing creatures running around the wearers’ neck.” The dress is also decorated with cheerful birds, and a large rose in the center of the bodice. When the spell is suspected, Cynthia orders that the gown be taken apart, picking out every stitch, saving every thread, to find out what’s wrong. They do not burn it, fearing that it might “set” the spell, like baking bread or kilning a brick. They find many things: a bunch of blue flowers appliquéd and embroidered conceals a small coil of hair, taken from the young bride-to-be herself; a bird, made of red fabric, its bright eye a tiny bead of glass, its raised wing a separate piece of cloth stitched against the body, conceals an embroidered arrow pointing at the bird’s heart, the point a small thorn, held in place by stitches as fine as eyelashes. They find weapons in stichery, crumbled bits of herbs that no one can identify, but which no doubt were poisonous; an image of a fish, perky and bright-scaled, with another image beneath it, of a Punic fish-god named Dagon, an old enemy of the God of Abraham. And there is a basket full of fruit, bunches of grapes, rosy apples, crisp melons. The images underneath are of animals: a crab, a pig, a rabbit--all unclean animals under Mosaic law, and a pious Jew might prefer to die rather than eat them.

"When they have found all there is to find, this is what they do: “The gown came apart and went back together, resewn with new needles and clean thread. Healing herbs from Cynthia’s supplies went in where the poisons had come out: centaury against fever and valerian against pain, wild lettuce to bring on sleep and woad to stop bleeding; even cyclamen that aided in childbirth and orache that brought on the milk, in the hope they would be needed. Sheep and goats and sleek-feathered birds hid under the fruit basket, and under the fish where the Punic god had been, Bethaniah had painstakingly copied four angular Hebrew letters taken from one of Sarah’s books.

The big central rose they had taken apart petal by petal, finding little worms and beetles and a thick wad of leaves that Cynthia recognized as foxglove: a medicine for an ailing heart, but dangerous for a sound one. They puzzled over what to put in its place, till Cynthia said, ‘Oh crows take it, sometimes the best symbol is the thing itself,’ and they plumped out the flower with dried rose petals, still fragrant after months or years in the jar.”

Cynthia says, “What’s needlework to a man, anyway? He buys it, or his wife or mother makes it for him, and he puts it on and wears it. He wouldn’t think of the hours that went into every garment, one stitch after another, and so little to take up her attention while she sits stiching, so that her mind turns to dwell on what she loves or what she hates, stitching her love or her hate into every line….”

When I knit, or sew, or crochet, or especially, spin; I feel myself connected to all those who have gone before. Both in the sense of my hands knowing what to do because the patterns are bred in after all the generations who have needed to do this work in order to live, and in the sense of the spirits of all those ancestors, looking approvingly at me. I hope I am not too unworthy a successor, both in the work of my hands and as a practitioner of magic.


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This page last updated July 4, 2004