Oh, Arachne . . .

Athena_Arachne_Caselli

from The Illustrated Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch, Giovanni Caselli (Illustrator)

. . . You should’ve known better. You shouldn’t’ve messed with the gods, Arachne.

Have you ever noticed how many of the myths and legends and fairy tales on which we were nurtured are cluttered with references to makers and making?

When I think back, so many of my favorite stories contain textiles and fibers and women making things of beauty and purpose. We have a princess tasked with spinning gold from straw, a mother-to-be pricking her finger while sewing and imagining her “snow white” baby, a girl making shirts from nettles, to transform her brothers from swans back to men.

Weaving, in particular, pervades old stories. Penelope weaves, and unweaves, her tapestry as she waits for Odysseus’s return. The three norns weave the fate of humans and Philomela, having been raped and her tongue cut out, uses her loom as her voice.

And then there’s foolish Arachne, a mere mortal but exemplary weaver.

Arachne, who lacks humility to a dangerous degree.

Arachne, who boasts of her skill and challenges Athena, the goddess of weaving, to a contest. Arachne, who uses her skill to weave a tapestry that mocks and belittles the gods.

Arachne, who is brought to humility by Athena, and who hangs herself.

Arachne, returned to life by Athena. Returned to life but such a different life, a life that stands as a lesson in humility to other weavers and humans:

Live,” [Athena] said, “guilty woman! And that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times.”

She sprinkled her with the juices of aconite, and immediately her hair came off, and her nose and ears likewise. Her form shrank up, and her head grew smaller yet; her fingers cleaved to her side and served for legs. All the rest of her is body, out of which she spins her thread, often hanging suspended by it, in the same attitude as when Athena touched her . . .

and transformed her into a spider.

Arachne, in my garden

Arachne, in my garden

Rapunzel Weaves . . .

IMG_3815

As a child, I was enthralled by fairy tales. I loved them all, from the grim and scary Grimms to the pasteurized versions from Disney.

I spent a lot of time with this beautiful book.

IMG_3813

I knew that it was gift from my paternal grandmother; the inscription reminds me that I was eight years old when I received it.

The book has many of the stories I loved—Sleeping Beauty, The Valiant Tailor, Red Riding Hood—all illustrated by Tasha Tudor in her captivating style.

And Rapunzel. Oh, I loved Rapunzel, with her sad, lonely life and that beautiful hair. I spent hours with this illustration, absorbing every detail, enjoying the romance of it all.

Rapunzel

Is it any surprise that, as I started a new weaving project and made the long, long warp threads into a chain to prevent them from tangling, all I could think of was Rapunzel?

IMG_3809 IMG_3805

And do you remember what Rapunzel did, to try to effect her escape? Her suitor brought her silk thread every time he climbed her braid to visit and . . .

Rapunzel wove. She wove a silken ladder, with hopes to use it to escape.

I won’t weave a ladder but the simple, repetitive act of weaving, of throwing the shuttle and watching the fabric grow, will allow me to escape for a bit, into memory, into nostalgia, into whimsy.

Making Magic

Rumpelstiltskin

Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, ca. 1889

Can you spin straw into gold?

What? You say that’s ridiculous, it only happens in fairy tales? And with the help of creepy little elves?

I beg to differ.

We probably all know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. The young woman in the story is tasked with the seemingly impossible, the magical—she is told to spin straw into gold. But that doesn’t happen in real life.

And yet this morning, as I took plain, pale ingredients and cooked them into the molten gold of caramel, it occurred to me that spinning straw into gold is a metaphor for the creating we do with our hands at home.

When the spinner takes flax (really, isn’t that basically straw?) and, in her hands, it becomes finest linen, that’s magic being made.

When the weaver or knitter takes string and manipulates it into rich tweed or an Aran sweater, that’s magic being made.

When the woodworker or the quilter or the cook takes bits and pieces, plain and unlovely, and transforms them into something as valuable as gold, magic is made.

The magic comes from making something useful from the useless, something beautiful from the plain, something special from the quotidian.

There was a time when people made this magic almost routinely, and out of necessity. If one wanted cloth, one likely needed to spin and weave it. If one wanted food, one cooked. If one wanted most anything, they made it. It was a do-it-yourself world.

Today we don’t NEED to make much of anything. We can buy so much, so easily and so cheaply, often for far less than we could make it ourselves.

And, yet, all indicators suggest that, for many of us, we don’t care if we can buy it. We want to make it. We want to do it ourselves.

Why would someone in the 21st century spin her own wool? Bake his own bread? Build their own bookcase? I think the answer is that we believe in magic and we want to participate in the magic, to create the magic in our own world.

Because when we make something with our own hands, we don’t just transform the ingredients into something different, we transform ourselves.

We re-make ourselves from consumers—dependent on others for what we eat, wear, and use in our homes—into makers—competent, creative, individual.

And if that isn’t magic, my friend, I don’t know what is. It’s time to get busy—go spin some straw into gold.

 

 

The Maker’s Marks: Battered Hands at Home

The-Three-Spinning-Fairies-35Has your art or craft left its mark on you? Do you have calluses or scars that speak to the work your hands do?

I remember a fairy tale that fascinated me as a child. It was from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and was called “The Three Spinning Fairies.” The three fairies all were physically marked by the work they did as spinners. One had a big, flat foot, from turning the wheel; one had a large underlip that hung over her chin, from wetting the thread; and the third had a very broad thumb, from twisting the thread.

The story gets me thinking about the ways our activities mark us. The musculature of the long-distance runner tells a tale of her hard work. The tanned and lined skin of the farmer speaks of a life working in the sun. I knew an elderly teacher who had develop a verbal tic of punctuating her every sentence with “shhh,” after years in the classroom.

The activities I engage in are easy by comparison yet even “loving hands at home” tell a tale. The work, and play, I do have left their marks. When I play the guitar regularly, I form calluses on my left hand (when I pick up the guitar irregularly, I just whine!) During gardening season, I perpetually have soil under my nails. I wake up every morning, and my joints are kind of creaky.

But some of the marks my hands bear deserve special recognition:

The most annoying

I don’t always choose to quilt but, when I do, I prefer handwork (I’m channeling that guy in the Dos Equis ad!). During the process of hand quilting, both hands are in action, the dominant hand on top, sort of rocking the needle through the layers of fabric, and the other hand under the quilt, deflecting the needle back up.

Each stitch pricks the top of the underside finger and, pretty soon, you have either a) a sore hole in your finger; b) a callus; or c) both.  I never have quite built up a fully protective callus, so this is a niggling injury. It completely stops progress because I cannot go on quilting until it heals.

I always thought I could incorporate this maker’s mark into a murder mystery. Someone is killed and the murder weapon reveals an odd pattern. The lack of a normal fingerprint on the third finger leads to a deranged quilt maker.

The most psychologically unsettling

I don’t have any actual scars from jewelry making, which is odd because I use more substantial and potentially damaging tools there than in any other hobby. But I have mental scars—I can feel, in my memories, the way the slender, sharp blade of the jeweler’s saw cuts into the side of my left index finger when I slip as I’m cutting the silver. It cuts right where the fingernail joins the skin at the side of your finger. And you know it’s going to happen. And you promise yourself it won’t, not this time. And then it does. Again. I wince just writing about it!

The most painful

The most painful injury I’ve had in pursuit of handmade heaven is a burn from hot sugar syrup. I regularly make caramels and toffee and, to do so, you need to cook sugar syrup to the “soft ball” stage—about 240 degrees. That’s hot. And sticky, so you can’t brush it off. The hot syrup sticks to your skin and stays hot and just . . . keeps . . . burning.

Last winter, during the height of candy-making season for my business, I flipped a big glob of hot syrup on my finger and it kind of wrapped around the base of the finger. I got it into cold water almost immediately but not soon enough to prevent huge blisters and scars. And, by the way, if you ever get hot food on your finger, do NOT stick your finger in your mouth! As much as it hurts to burn the skin on your hand, it’s worse on the tender skin inside your mouth. I’m just sayin’ . . .

The dumbest 

The dumbest injury I’ve sustained came when I was working in a gallery, as a picture framer. I was handling a big piece of glass to put in a frame over a poster—it was about 3 feet by 2 feet. I finally got the glass all clean and I picked it up to place it in the frame. But a scrap of paper had gotten stuck to the underside glass, with a little bit of masking tape. It was just a little bit stuck so I figured I could dislodge it, without putting the glass down.

I gave the huge sheet of glass a little shake, just to knock that tape off, and it pretty much exploded in my hands! Glass everywhere, including one big sharp dagger of a piece that embedded itself in my palm. The good news: it could’ve been so such worse! The bad news: the scar dissects the lifeline on my left palm, creating great confusion when I get my fortune told!

People think that crafting and cooking are delicate pastimes, for those with soft lady-like hands. You and I know different! Any beloved, repeated activity leaves its mark upon us, whether physical or psychological. I look at my hands, after a lifetime of using them to make all kinds of things, and they aren’t pretty.

They do, however, look capable and strong and agile. And I will take capable, strong, and agile over pretty any day!

______________________________________________

Do you have scars and calluses to show you’ve lived a busy life? What are your maker’s marks?