Apologies, everyone! I have been busy with a monster home renovation project that completely took over my free time. It’s finally done, and I can get back to this blog. Michele Braun submitted this post awhile ago and has been patiently waiting for it to appear.
“The yarn Jacob was now tying to a bush at the entrance of the labyrinth came from a tailor’s shop in Vena, and there was nothing magical about it except for the skill involved in spinning common sheep wool into a firm thread. This was going to be their thread of life….” So opens Chapter 43 of Cornelia Funke’s Fearless. In a story of life on the other side of a mirror, in an alternate world filled with spells, good witches, and evil fairies, the hero now relies on wondrous handiwork that can be learned and mastered in our world.
Spinning wool into thread is magical, both for the physical skill required and for transforming one material into another. Jacob Fearless’s tribute to yarn sent me searching through favorite picture books for other stories in which raw materials were turned into thread, then cloth and into many other useful things. In the spirit of handy-to-know skills, this article ends with a craft activity.
Let’s start with the classics: As told by Jacob and Wilhelm (“the Brothers”) Grimm, the poverty-stricken miller in Rumpelstiltskin kicked off trouble by bragging that his daughter could spin straw into gold. Clearly this is a skill that should have had the king or, at least, the reader, asking why then was the family so poor. But fairy tales follow their own logic, and we should all be impressed by the daughter’s skill at transforming a common substance into something valuable. Unfortunately, of course, when locked up in a roomful of straw we learn that the poor lass had no clue as to how to spin straw into gold. It is actually possible that she didn’t know how to spin at all. Fortunately for her, the “ridiculous little man” called Rumpelstiltskin does have the necessary transformative skill and he is willing to do the work on her behalf. For a price. The bartering begins, the price gets too high, and, well, you’ll have to read the story to learn how things turn out.
The Brothers Grimm also collected and retold the story of Sleeping Beauty, which they titled Little Brier-Rose. This heroine also doesn’t spin anything. But in planning the celebration of her birth, her royal parents ran afoul of a wise woman or of an elderly fairy—depending on the version of the story—who delivered the following blessing on the innocent child: "In the princess's fifteenth year she shall prick herself with a spindle and fall over dead." Using drop spindles to transform wool into yarn is quite an ancient skill.
But despite the visual of a spinning wheel with a sharp upward point in the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, spinning wheels don’t actually have spindles or prickly points. (Confession: I happen to love the Disney version, especially Maleficent before and after she turns into a dragon.)
Now for some more recent stories of yarn and fiber transformation.
The picture book Sheep in a Shop by Nancy Shaw, also author of Sheep in a Jeep, presents a half dozen fluffy white sheep off on a day of shopping for a gift. They are quite enthusiastic—although the shop owner might have described them as “destructive”—in their search for just the right present. Finding themselves short of cash when it comes time to pay, the sheep barter “three bags full” of fluffy wool. That wool, we will learn in the book described below, can be transformed into some very useful products. The colored pencil illustrations by Margot Apple vividly demonstrate antics of mischievous sheep!
Charlie Needs A Cloak, by Tomie dePaola, takes us through the many steps necessary to transform fluffy sheep’s wool into usable clothing. As illustrated by the author, Charlie the shepherd sheers his flock, cards, and spins the wool. He weaves, cuts, and sews the cloth with whimsical assistance from a house-pet sheep. Now, read the book a second time, looking to see what the little mouse is up to in each picture.
Something from Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman, illustrates a different transformation, fueled by fiber, skill, creativity, and love. Joseph’s grandfather is clearly a skilled tailor who wields his needle through repeated transformations from one thing into something else. Starting with a baby blanket, the grandfather turns an increasingly worn piece of cloth into ever smaller but always useful pieces of clothing. Finally, told that “even your grandfather can’t make something from nothing,” Joseph performs the most permanent transformation of all!
Time for some transformations at home: Follow the directions at this link to create a woven piece of art. Or, create something else useful. For example, picture a lacrosse stick and see what you can create using fallen branches, strips of cloth, yarn, and string.
Fiber transformation is both human and magical. Give it a try!
Michele says, “At bedtime, my mother would read to us. Summers during junior and senior high school, my mother would insist that I not spend my ‘down time’ sprawled on the couch; I should go outside. So I’d take my book to the lounge chair out back, but never stop reading. Since my daughter was born, I’ve read thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pages to her, rediscovering old favorites and exploring new stories and worlds together.”
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