A witch conjures a storm with her distaff
“Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!”
William Wordsworth, Song of the spinning wheel
I have written previously on the fairy economy on this blog and in my book British fairies (chapter 9) but there is one craft activity that seems to be particularly associated with the denizens of faery: this is the making of thread and the weaving of garments.
I have recently been reading Hobgoblin and sweet puck, a book by Gillian Edwards from 1974, which examines fairylore through the origins of names and terminology. It’s an interesting and entertaining book if you can track down a copy. She noted that the fairies may be traced back through early medieval fees/ fatae to the original Three Fates of classical mythology. They spin and sever the threads of our lives, so creating an ancient link between cloth making and the supernatural.
Much later, the Reverend Kirk has this to say of the sidh folk’s skill:
“Ther Women are said to Spine very fine, to Dy, to Tossue, and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.” (Secret Commonwealth c.5)
Quite a few other sources confirm the connection. Brownies performing household tasks will often undertake stages of the cloth making process, for instance dressing hemp (though at the same time their aversion to linen is to be recalled), carding wool and spinning tow (coarse hemp fibres used for ropes and the like). The fairies are said to spin with mountain flax (according to Addy in Household Tales).
In his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (p.15) J. G. Campbell recorded that typical activities within the fairy ‘brughs’ included spinning and weaving. In Evans Wentz (Fairy faith p.98) there is an account from Skye of fairies heard ‘waulking’ (that is, fulling) some cloth and singing as they do so. At Green Hollow in Argyllshire there was reputed to be a cloth dying factory operated by the fairies of Lennox. When humans tried to steal the secrets of their natural plant dyes, it is said that the cloth workers concealed all their materials and fled. The hidden materials still stain the waters of a local pool.
The loireag is a Highland fairy specifically responsible for overseeing the making of cloth through all its stages, from loom to fulling. She was a stickler for the traditional methods and standards, apparently. Offerings of milk were made by home producers to propitiate her. Another Scottish spirit, the gyre-carlin, had comparable links to cloth-making. It was said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all. Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, she would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners.
Logically, of course, fairies had to be able to manufacture cloth and garments. Their royal courts and nobility are marked for their sumptuary splendour and robes, gowns and other costumes of green are central to many accounts. It is only really the Dobbies who are habitually naked or dressed in rags.
Nonetheless, this skill is not what might be anticipated, as it seems too settled and domesticated for the wild fairies of uninhibited Nature. Perhaps the transformation of raw plant or animal materials successively into thread and then into garments was remarkable and impressive enough at some stage to give it an almost magical mystique. There are sources which lend some support to such a theory. In Hobgoblin and sweet Puck Gillian Edwards notes that in Sweden the word dverg means both dwarf and spider. The dwarves too are said to have been famed for their spinning and weaving skills and to have taught these to humans. The gossamer webs seen in autumn are further evidence of their craft, she suggests. The miser who spied on the fairies at the Gump near St Just in Cornwall was overpowered and tied up; in the morning he found himself on the moor covered in spiders’ gossamer threads. From the Isle of Man comes a story of a woman who went to a river bank and called upon the spiders to help her with spinning clothes (Briggs, Dictionary, p.138). There appears to be here some equation between the almost miraculous manufacture of webs by unseen creatures and fairy abilities. There could too be some aspect of fairy ‘glamour’ in all this.
Thread and cloth making are not only marvellous, the process may also be perilous according to fairy tales. On the one hand, fairies may enter your home to carry out these tasks. Such an intrusion is not just a trespass, but risks too close a contact with these unpredictable beings, and measures had to be taken to prevent it. Several Manx tales warn how a failure to disengage the drive band on a spinning wheel before retiring to bed enables the fairies to come into a house overnight to use it for their own purposes. By inviting them in, albeit indirectly, you are placing potentially yourself in the power of the ‘Li’l fellas.’ In the Highlands, this precaution was Christianised and it was said that the band should be disengaged on a Saturday night to prevent fairy spinning early on a Sunday (Sabbath) morning. It was believed to be the solitary female creatures the glaisteag and the gyre-carlin who would most commonly attempt to enter human homes to spin, causing nuisance and considerable noise through the night.
The perils of spinning
The danger of spinning can be greater still, though. A number of fairy stories pair fairies’ spinning skills with a task imposed upon a human that can be both impossible and fatal if it is not completed. The British examples are:
- in Habetrot a girl must prove her female skill at the spinning wheel or face some unspecified punishment by her mother. A fairy woman named Habetrot (whom Briggs calls the patron spirit of spinning) appears and assists her, along with a team of helpers including Scantlie Mab;
- in Tom-Tit-Trot a girl has to spin a large quantity of yarn overnight or face beheading by the king. The imp Tom-Tit-Trot helps her on condition that she belongs to him unless she can guess his name. Fortunately she overhears it and is saved;
- Sili-go-Dwt, Trwtyn-Tratyn, Terry-Top, Perrifool and Whuppity-Stoorie are all similar tales in which an elf helps with spinning and demands a forfeit unless its name is guessed;
- Evans-Wentz relays a tale (p.97) of a girl who is abducted by the sidh folk under a hillock and is told that she will be held there until she has spun all the wool in a large sack and eaten all the meal in a huge chest. Neither diminish and she faces eternal confinement and labour until another captive soul tells her to rub spit on her left eyelid every morning. By so doing, she makes daily inroads into the wool and meal and finally escapes;
- in the story if Welsh girl Eilian (told by John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.212), she was obliged to become the wife of a fairy man when she failed to finish the large quantity of wool he had demanded that she spin. This would have meant she was trapped in Faery forever and could never have returned home to her family;
- Addy in Household tales has a couple of similar impossible tasks imposed upon young women. In one, a cruel old woman imprisons girls to work for her. One is required to make twenty one shirts in a day- or face being “clammed” (dialect for pinched, that quintessential fairy punishment). She is assisted by a kindly fairy, who later helps her escape; and,
- lastly, readers may recall the Grimm’s comparable story of Rumplestiltskin. A girl is imprisoned by the king in a tower and has to spin straw into gold on pain of death. The eponymous sprite helps her, first in return for her necklace and then demands her first born child- unless she can guess his name.
There is also a curious Scottish ballad called The elfin knight in which the fairies appear to be associated with superlative mastery of the tailoring craft. A human maid is told that the only way she has any hope of marrying the fairy knight is:
“Thou must shape a serk to me/ Without any cut or heme, quoth he/ Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse/ And also sew it needle-threedlesse.”
This impossible task is combined with a comparable demand to sow and harvest a field subject to unachievable conditions. Needless to say the shirt is never made and the girl doesn’t get the boy.
The stories listed above link two curious themes. One is the power of knowing a fairy being’s personal name. If you possess it, you can overcome and escape the creature; if not, you face perpetual subjection (see too chapter 19 of my British fairies). Intertwined with this is the obligation to perform an almost unattainable feat on pain of death (or, again, of fairy enslavement). Quite how these came to be involved with spinning skills is rather hard to explain. Perhaps there is some notion of exacting a high fee for the teaching of the fairies’ remarkable craft knowledge.
One might offer a Marxist interpretation of these stories, arguing that we have in these stories a critique of the loss of artisan craft-skills through the imposition of mass production and commercial deadlines. Individuality is lost as the worker is subjected to the anonymous discipline of the factory proletariat, with sanctions for failing to meet the capitalist’s production targets… There may be some fun to be had here. Certainly it seems significant that these accounts feature some of the very few individuated and named fairy characters.
In many respects, then, the fairies are just as hard-working as any human. For their society to function, they need to make their own cloth, build their homes, grow their own food, mine their minerals and forge their own metals.
An expanded version of this text appeared in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide 2020. See too my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.