Thursday, January 5, 2012

"She Seeks Wool and Flax, and Works With Willing Hands"

“Kristina packed her wool cards, her knitting needles, sheep shears and her swingle, a betrothal gift from Karl Oskar, who had painted red flowers on it. A great deal she left because it would take up too much ship space, things she knew she would need later. She could not take her loom or her flax brake, her spinning-wheel or her yarn winder, her spooling wheel or her flax comb. She had been accustomed to working with all these implements; they were intimate and familiar to her hands; she knew that she would miss them in the foreign land.”

I can’t help using this blog post to spread the word about some of my new favorite novels by Vilhelm Moberg. The novels depict the immigration of a group of Swedish peasants to the new land. I found the books absolutely enthralling, though also heartbreaking. The novels take place only a century ago, which is almost unbelievable when you consider the use of technology in the story compared to our technology today. As an example, consider the passage above. Domestic activities like knitting, crocheting etc. are often thought to be  difficult and troublesome. And yet not only does Kristina, the wife of main character Karl Oskar, knit and weave the family’s clothing, but she also makes the yarn with her own hands. And she longs for her tools and the labor of her hands when she must part with them to cross the ocean and start a new life.

When I read books like this I long for that simplicity, that intimacy between the hand and the tool. And yet I am so lazy and easily intimidated. Case in point:  Last Christmas, my husband’s family gave me a drop spindle and several bundles of roving to be made into yarn for knitting. I was thrilled and touched by this gift, but I will admit that I was also intimidated. Never mind that women have been spinning for centuries. 

Fortunately, the Good Lord has a way of making things more accessible to little me. A few months ago (yes, almost a year after I received the spindle and roving), while at the downtown Open Air market, my husband sent me to sample the bloody Mary mix on the other side of the market. Thank goodness he did. Not only was the bloody Mary mix delicious, but on the way, I also happened to stumble (literally, in fact) upon a booth with homespun yarn, as well as other goodies like homemade goat cheese and goatmilk soaps. I glimpsed a drop spindle behind the counter and inquired immediately. Turned out, the woman who ran the booth was starting a spinning class in three weeks! Not only was she going to instruct the students in two types of spinning, but she was also demonstrating how to wash, card and hand-dye wool with natural plant dyes. I was beyond excited and signed up the next day.  I completed the class in October and am so grateful I took it.

In the meantime, you might wonder: what does this have to do with the Forgotten Altars project? There are a few reasons. Firstly, spinning is a meditative art. I’ve noticed that some activities (making bread, gardening, brewing, and even cleaning) are noticeably conducive to prayer. They make me want to pray and put me in a posture of openness, much like what I seek to achieve during contemplative prayer. Spinning may top the list when it comes to work that inspires prayer. The monastic “ora et labora” is particularly easy to achieve while spinning. 

Second, spinning is a feminine art that connects us to our ancestors. I once took pride in the fact that I didn't do anything "domestic," including cooking, sewing, crafting or anything of the sort. To do so would be old-fashioned and backwards. I think this mentality is common. Ironically, as women gain access more and more to the things that men do, they lose touch with what were once considered to be the feminine arts. Not just arts and crafts, but true art, techne. Women used to work with their hands. We lucky housewives of today have ready-made clothes and Clorox wipes that are pre-soaked in sanitizing solution for easy cleaning. These conveniences certainly make life easier, and I won't say that I don't use them myself. But at times I actually wish that I had the pressure these women had to truly be the matron of the household. To truly clothe my own children--not just by purchasing their clothes, but by spinning the very fabric with my own hands. When I am spinning, I feel a sense of kinship with women of past ages. 

And, on a practical level, spinning is the perfect activity for a busy housewife with little ones. It is meditative, simple and so enjoyable.  Children can do it too—my three-year-old is halfway there! In coming weeks, I will provide a few posts with more specifics on the process. In the meantime, here is a collection of a few artworks that depict women spinning.

Labor in the City, France, 15th century (A depiction of Aristotle's polis)

St. Margaret and Olibrius; 1450
Woman With a Spindle; Antoine Watteau

And one of my personal favorites...

The Child Mary Spinning; 17th century Peruvian


  1. I totally agree with your thoughts on the deep good of handicrafts, most especially spinning and knitting. I recently learned, from reading a great book titled, "The Year 1000", that English law in that century afforded more protection to women ("wife-persons") than to men ("weapon-persons") because women were valued as the stabilizers of society and those who fostered order, particularly through their domestic arts. In fact, the word "wife" comes from the Old English word "weave", and women were usually buried with their spindles, distaffs, and so forth.

    I currently devote my energies to learning how to heal my family's ills with essential oils, apple cider vinegar, etc, as well as feeding my family well; to that end, I grind my own flour, make my own raw milk yoghurt, and so forth. But, in the years to come, especially when we have our own flock, God willing, I look forward to spinning, dyeing, and knitting.

  2. Hello Katie Rose,

    Once again, thank you for your insightful and informative comments! I love what you pointed out about women being valued for their role as stabilizers of society, as well as the etymology of the word "wife"--I had no idea that was the original meaning! How beautiful.

    I'm reading a book right now called "The Age of Homespun" which provides an intriguing look into womens' roles as spinners in early colonial society, as well as the transition into industrial production of cloth and its effect on the familial structure. Its really quite fascinating! I've put "The Year 1000" on my list as well!

    Although I feel discouraged at times that women have lost the skill and appreciation for so many of these arts, perhaps our modern situation affords us a new appreciation of things like spinning, weaving, knitting, healing with home remedies, and so many other household arts.

    God bless you and your endeavours as a "wife-person!"