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Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on a spindle, the Lady of Shalott is entwined in thread, Silas Marner is enclosed in his loom – why have spinning and sewing so often been associated with danger and isolation? AS Byatt follows the tangled threads between text and textiles
Saturday June 21 2008
We think of our lives – and of stories – as spun threads, extended and knitted or interwoven with others into the fabric of communities, or history, or texts. An intriguing exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, The Fabric of Myth, mixes ancient and modern – Penelope’s shroud, unpicked nightly, with enterprising tapestries made in a maximum security prison out of unravelled socks. In an essay in the accompanying catalogue, Kathryn Sullivan Kruger collects words that connect weaving with storytelling: text, texture and textile, the fabric of society, words for disintegration – fraying, frazzling, unravelling, woolgathering, loose ends. A storyteller or a listener can lose the thread. The word “clue”, Kruger tells us, derives from the Anglo-Saxon cliwen, meaning ball of yarn. The processes of cloth-making are knitted and knotted into our brains, though our houses no longer have spindles or looms.
Myth-makers have given forms to both spinners and weavers. The Greeks had the Moirae, the Fates, one to spin the yarn, one to draw out the thread, one to cut it. They are sometimes confused with the Graiae, three grey old women with one eye and one tooth between them, sisters of the Gorgons. There is a beautiful and surprising tapestry from a Henry Moore drawing in this exhibition, depicting the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, as grave swathed figures, with Atropos standing between her sisters, pointing the fatal shears at the life-thread moving between the two. Their faces are solemn and sad, the first two apprehensive, Atropos almost appalled. Milton confused her with the Furies, in “Lycidas”, when he wrote: “Comes the blind Fury with th’ abhorred shears, / And slits the thin-spun life.” This is unforgettable partly because of the way those thin-sounding words – “slits”, “thin-spun”, “life” – mimic the dangerously fine thread.
The Norse, too, had their three Fates – the Norns, who spun the thread of life at the roots of the World Ash, Yggdrasil. They are sometimes young, mature, old, and sometimes three crones. They sing wildly in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, as the plot of the world unravels. Their thread is a golden rope that was once attached to the destroyed World Ash and is now precariously anchored on other trees and sharp rocks. It rips apart; they wind themselves in it, and go under the earth; the Twilight of the Gods has come.
As children we read fairy stories about spinners – always with something menacing in this essential domestic activity. The miller in Rumpelstiltskin imprudently boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. Shut in a room with heaps of straw, she is rescued by a manikin who does the work and claims rewards – ultimately her first child – unless she can tell him his name. Then there is Sleeping Beauty, who is kept from the knowledge of spinning wheels until, as a grown girl, she climbs into a turret, pricks her finger with the spindle of an old woman, and falls asleep – along with all the inhabitants of the palace – for a hundred years. As a girl, I registered the sense of danger and unease in this enclosed activity. Both the miller’s daughter and the princess were passively trapped and endangered by spinning.
The same went for sewing and weaving. I remember my own first attempts with a needle – hemming an apron, with white thread on bright purple cotton – when maybe I was seven. I couldn’t make the stitches advance along the hem: they made a thickening rigid lump. My blood fell on the cloth as I pricked and pricked my finger – there was a trail of crimson and browning stains all over it. It was an abject failure. My grandmother and aunt spent their evenings embroidering by the light of a paraffin lamp, and therefore so did I – I learned a great many embroidery stitches, feather stitch, daisy stitch, satin stitch, chain stitch, cross stitch. I had a canvas on a frame and distorted it into humps. I felt it was one of the bad things about having to be a girl. Perhaps for that reason my aunt, a reception class teacher in the village school, insisted on teaching all the boys to knit, embroider and darn.
Many of the stories illustrated in the exhibition associate weaving and sewing with enclosure and fear. Ariadne, unusually, leads Theseus out of the fearsome labyrinth with her clue of twine. But both Penelope and the Lady of Shalott are closed in confined spaces with looms for company. Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus, keeps dangerous and disorderly suitors at bay by making them wait for her to finish weaving her father-in-law’s shroud. Every night she unpicks what she has done in the day. This is an image of futility, but I have also thought that it is a tragic way of keeping the thread of time unwound, of keeping her marriage unchanged through the long years of the Odyssey
Other enclosed and abandoned women have the rhythms of their solitary spinning turned to music – Goethe’s betrayed Gretchen singing “Meine Ruh’ ist Hin”, Ibsen’s Solveig spinning steadily as she waits for Peer Gynt to finish his unending adventures, the spinning song made into music by Grieg. One touching example of captive embroidery, displayed at Compton Verney, is a small – slightly disproportionate – dog, worked by Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment. She also embroidered a crowned ginger cat, watching a mouse, which evinces a certain wry wit.
Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” is clear and bright and simple as a myth plainly told. I do not know where he got the idea of a woman who must weave “magic pictures” of a world she is only permitted to view in a mirror. She resembles the people in Plato’s myth of the cave and the fire, who see only what shadows are cast on the wall in front of them. She speaks to and for all those women who were kept indoors in drawing rooms, doing ladylike work, looking out from behind lace curtains at the street – except that she may not look out at all. I have always associated her with Yeats’s admonition that “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work / And if it take the second must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.”
There is the sense in which she is every perfectionist artist who makes up, pieces together, records, weaves a world – at the expense of living in it, or tasting it, or loving it directly. And of course she is disturbed by sex, by the knight flashing and blazing into her mirror, so that she must see the real thing. “Out flew the web and floated wide; / The mirror crack’d from side to side; / ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott.”
All schoolgirls in my day giggled knowingly about the “curse”. They were not so wrong – there is the association between weaving, or spinning, and blood again, like Sleeping Beauty’s pricked finger, or Snow White’s mother’s three drops of red blood (also from a needle) on white snow. The Lady is the dreaming girl before womanhood, which will disappoint (indeed kill) her. The exhibition has Holman Hunt’s wonderful engraving of her, standing inside the rail of her round loom, with the snapped threads spinning round her and entwining her like a spider caught in her own toils. We don’t see the window; we do see the mirror and the back of the insouciant knight. She is simple and perpetually mysterious.
There are men associated with sewing and weaving, and it is interesting that they – both ancient and modern – are also confined. George Eliot’s Silas Marner, the weaver of Raveloe, is literally closed inside his handloom, his body and vision shaped and distorted to accommodate it. “Strangely Marner’s face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart.” He is also compared to the archetypal spinner. “He seemed to weave, like the spider, from pure impulse, without reflection.” He adopts the foundling Eppie and ties her to his loom with a linen strip to prevent her getting into danger. I have seen the same image in 16th-century emblems. But Eppie steals the scissors, jaggedly slits the threads, and runs into the field. When Silas finally retrieves her, the reader feels that a bad fate is foiled.
Two of the most exciting artists at Compton Verney work in perpetual confinement. Ray Materson is in a maximum security jail, where he begs and barters and secretes bits of thread to unravel and make into embroideries. He makes images of cocaine in a spoon and tube, and allegories of the first cigarette. He constructs extraordinary perspectives – I particularly admire an image of cells, locked and unlocked doors, a prisoner standing at a railing, a rising and vanishing shadowed flight of steps.
Quite different is the Brazilian Arthur Bispo do Rosário, who spent most of his life in a padded cell, ceaselessly constructing startling and lovely hanging cloths, brightly embroidered and decorated, which Louise Bourgeois (who was influenced by him, Antonia Harrison tells us in the catalogue) said “represented his fear of losing contact”. She wrote: “Like Penelope and the spider, he has spent his whole life doing and undoing. He was seeking an order to the chaos, a structure and rhythm to time and thought.”
On display is Bispo do Rosário’s Presentation Cape, which he often wore, sumptuously embroidered with signs and symbols, fringed and decorated with a web of threads. There is also a bed for Romeo and Juliet, veiled and hung about with knotted ropes of colour, celebratory and menacing.
Bourgeois, like Henri Matisse, grew up with fabric workers. Her family were weavers and restorers of Aubusson tapestries. In the exhibition is her sculpture Fuseau (Spindle), a fine powerful arch of steel, full of energy and ambition, with a curl of flax at one end. She is endlessly inventive with textiles and soft things. Also in the show is Spider Woman, painted on a square of linen with drawn thread-work. In an oval egg-shape is a small human female face. Instead of hair, this person has eight rays of dark, bent spider-legs, a perfect hybrid.
This brings us to Arachne, the young woman weaver who challenged a goddess to a contest and was shrunk to an ugly creature, secreting silk.
Ovid’s account of this tale is full of ambiguity. His Arachne is an upstart, a common girl with one extraordinary skill. There is a moving moment when she challenges the goddess, Pallas Athene, and says that if she loses they may take anything, everything, as her skill was all that mattered to her. Ovid does not exactly tell this story as one of hubris, of the punishment of overweening. He is a great poet who brings detail – in this case spinning and weaving – to life in colour and texture. He describes Arachne spinning the rough yarn, teasing the wool in her fingers, drawing out fleecy threads, fine as clouds, longer and longer, twirling the spindle. The reader feels it in her fingers. Later, when the goddess and the girl are weaving their worlds, he makes us see and hear the looms at work. He mimics the darting shuttles, he describes the notched teeth of the hammering slay (in Latin, insecti pectine dentes – insecti here meaning “cut into”, that is “jagged”, which is an interesting light on insects in language). He paints the two opposed embroideries in enchanting detail and colour. Athene weaves an image of order and authority – the 12 high gods sitting on their thrones. In the corners she weaves vengeful transformations of humans into beasts and objects – from cranes and storks to marble temple steps. Arachne weaves an abundant, wild series of narratives of gods seducing and destroying innocent girls – with Jupiter disguised as gold coins, falling into Danae’s lap, and as a silky white bull to rape Europa. It is a poem, not a picture, full of visual delights and felicities.
Ovid tells us that neither Pallas Athene, nor Envy himself, could find any fault in Arachne’s work. Nevertheless the goddess, enraged, tore up the woman’s work and beat her on the head, three or four times, with her shuttle. The story continues not quite as we usually hear it. Having lost everything, Arachne hangs herself. It is at this moment (mercifully? ironically?) that Athene rescues her by turning her into a spider. She becomes a sac, withered and shrunken, losing nose and ears, retaining her fingers (as in the Bourgeois image) fringing her belly, to work the fine spider-silk.
Velázquez’s painting Las Hilanderas was for a long time thought to be a genre painting about a workshop of spinners and weavers. In the foreground are a group of working women, balls of yarn, a spinning wheel, a woman holding the fine thread in precise fingers. The light catches on the thread. In the background, a group of tiny women stand in front of a tapestry – some in lovely silk dresses. A figure with an upraised arm, wearing a helmet, is now thought to be Athene, in a painting about Arachne. The background tapestry is interesting. It is believed to be a depiction of the Rape of Europa, which forms part of Arachne’s weaving in Ovid. It is Velázquez’s virtuoso working of the tale into a rendering of rippling cloth, and it copies a painting of the subject by Titian, owned by the king of Spain, who also owned a copy of Titian’s painting by Rubens. Velázquez, who worked in the king’s collection, must have known both images well, and added his own version. He has painted beautifully the threads of fine yarn and threads of light from the window above the painting, catching on threads of dust in the air.
Spiders are amazing creatures, carnivores who can make traps out of their intricately woven webs, or tunnels of silk, whose hatched children float away into the air on long threads, in a phenomenon known as the aerial dispersal of spiderlings, which can leave glistening networks on hedges and lawns. They see the world differently – they may have two, four, six or eight eyes, and some cave-dwellers are blind. They can be disguised as leaves, seeds, pebbles, ghosts, stained with russet, with rose, with slate grey or moss green; they can be ogre-faced gladiators or laughing masks, anthropomorphised, and can resemble hanging bats, jet beads or crackled porcelain. Alexander Pope wrote: “The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine! / Feels at each thread, and lives along the line”.
Their alien mystery was caught by Emily Dickinson in a perfect poem – though, like most 19th-century people, she assumed spiders were male.
A Spider sewed at Night
Without a Light
Upon an Arc of White.
If Ruff it was of Dame
Or Shroud of Gnome
Himself himself inform.
Shakespeare, in Troilus and Cressida, fused Ariadne and Arachne when Troilus declares that his once indivisible beloved – who left “no orifice for a point as subtle / As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter” – is now split apart like sky and earth.
Anansi the Spider is a West African divine hero, creator of the sun and moon, King of All Stories. The exhibition includes a West African Anansi textile, with a pattern of perfect spider-webs of all sizes, each with its ghostly inhabitant at its centre.
Humans are now thinking about the possible uses of spider-silk, a rock-solid protein, which can be woven into fabrics of “biosteel” stronger and more elastic than Kevlar body armour, which has possible medical uses because it is organic. It cannot be harvested in quantity, so goats have been genetically engineered to secrete it in their milk. Two of these goats, Webster and Pete, have been bred in Canada to transmit spider genes to their offspring.
In the 20th century, feminists reclaimed the arts of textile working, sewing and weaving. They made soft sculptures, banners and texts in surprising shapes. This revival extended beyond feminist revaluations and icons. A student at Bath Spa University recently knitted herself a full-size scarlet Ferrari, with black stocking-stitch windows and embroidered badges. (I was sent an image over the internet – I should say web – by a friend in Korea.) This paper recently showed the Institute for Figuring’s crocheted coral reef, which has sea slugs and sea urchins, partly made to protest about human destruction of real coral reefs. The institute calls it a “woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft”. It can be endlessly reconstituted and refigured, unlike the reefs we are losing daily. The exhibition at Compton Verney has a work by Michele Walker, In Memoriam, which is about her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. It is an asymmetrical quilt, sewn with the imprint of the artist’s own skin through layers of clear plastic and wire wool. A pale blueish-grey, it is criss-crossed with the fine folds and wrinkles of the skin. Its ghostly quality contradicts the tradition of traditional quilt patterns handed down from generation to generation.
In the days of arts and crafts, ancient things were prized – vegetable dyes, earthenware pots, handwoven woollen cloths. Now, in our eclectic world, anything can be a sculpture or a tapestry. Annette Graae, a Danish weaver, made four daemons of parcel-string, fruit-tree netting, strips torn from old frocks, flax, silk, lycra and viscose, brittle and glittering. The daemons may lounge in modern bars or light up urban evenings. Anything is possible.
· The Fabric of Myth is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, from today until September 7. Details: comptonverney.org.uk [http://www.comptonverney.org.uk]; 01926 645500.
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