I am a fiber nut, so when I read Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jan Klassen I promptly fell in love. This is not exactly a folktale, but I think it can pass as a literary one. It’s a quirky, sweet story about a little girl named Annabelle who finds a box of yarn that never runs out. Annabelle knits and knits, creating beautifully patterned clothing for everyone and everything around her – people, animals, and objects, alike. Her drab towncomes alive with color and texture. Then a greedy clothes-loving archduke steals the box for himself, but he gets his comeuppance and Annabelle her box back. Jon Klassen’s illustrations are priceless. I just wanted to sit down and knit right away.
Reading this put me in mind of all the wonderful myths and folktales in which fiber is central to the story. Going all the way back to myth there is of course the tale of Arachne who boasted that she was the best spinner in the world and got challenged to a weaving competition by Athena. Arachne’s hubris became her undoing when Athena turned her into a spider. Then there are The Three Fates who spin the thread of life and determine if it will be strong or weak, prosperous or poor, long or short. Any good collection of Greek Mythology will include these tales, the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myth, Donna Jo Napoli’s Treasury of Greek Mythology, and my own Gifts From the Gods to mention a few.
Perhaps the best-known folktale with a spinning theme is Rumpelstiltskin (Paul O Zelinsky). Grimm’s folktale, The Three Spinners, is an intriguing variant on this, as is the British Tom Tit Tot, and the Irish Duffy and the Devil.
The Crane Wife (Odds Bodkin) is a Japanese folktale about a sail maker who nurses a wounded crane to health. She comes back to him in the shape of a young woman. They marry and when times are tough she promises to make sailcloth for him provided he never ever looks in on her while she works. Of course he does, and sees that she is spinning the cloth from the very fibers of her own crane body. It ends very sadly.
Much happier and with a very resourceful heroine is Robert San Souci’s A Weave of Words. While hunting in the forest a prince meets and falls in love with a weaver’s daughter but she won’t have him because he can neither read nor write nor make his living by his hands. So the determined prince takes up the challenge, learns to read and write and weave a beautiful carpet. Years later, when they are married those skills enable the girl, now a queen, to find and save him from a monstrous, three-headed dev.
The Six Swans is another Grimm fairytale in which a little sister has to sew shirts out of fragile flowers for her brothers in order to free them from the curse that forces them to be swans. This one would be good to read along with H.C. Andersen’s The Wild Swans, which features eleven brothers and a little sister who must knit shirts out of stinging nettle to free the brothers. Ouch.
To round out the picture, my own Noah’s Mittens is a story about the origin of felted wool, which in case you didn’t know, happens on the Ark! I just found a very different legend, “the Secret of Felt” in a collection called Tales Told in Tents, Stories From Central Asia by Sally Pomme Clayton. It’s a completely different take on the origin on the world’s oldest fiber.
For adult fiber nuts, check out Spin Span Spun: Facts and Folklore for Spinners and Weavers by Bette Hochberg and Women’s work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. It’s a marvel of a book and how can you resist that title?
And this website has tons of good information: http://www.thorshof.org/spinmyth.htm
Enjoy your fibers. There’s never a bad time to play with yarn.