Friday, April 13, 2018

Reflection: Whatever Happened To That Enchanted Ball of Yarn?

Leimomi Oakes - textile and fashion historian and seamstress,
in a Ramie (nettle linen) smock she created, based on the story
of the Wild Swans and historical research.
Note: Our Fairy Tale Newshound was doing some research last month and wandered down a rabbit hole, only to find newish information that put a well-loved tale in a different light. Here are her musings on The Six Swans, weaving shirts out of nettles and that enchanted ball of yarn we lose track of after the beginning of the tale. We thought you might enjoy the thread...

Whatever happened to that ball of enchanted yarn?
Was it made of nettle-fibers, spun fine as royal linen*?
Was its thread then woven to silence your brothers?
Was it the example left for unraveling the curses' sting?
Was it all of these?
(Gypsy Thornton - March 2018)
*Nettles have a fiber which, when extracted can make something like linen, only much finer, called Ramie. It was one of the main sources of plant fiber in Europe for most of history. Many garments thought to be linen are now being discovered as made from nettles! Raime is specifically made from stinging nettles – urtica dioica - though there are many kinds of non-stinging nettles too, which could be used. The pain from the stinging nettles is clearly important to the story though, so urtica dioica is the plant it likely was. Interestingly, people who work with these fibers seem to often refer to them as 'silk'.

Nadezhda Illarionova
In the Six Swans a king secretly hides his children, six boys and a girl, from his new queen, and can only find them by unraveling and following, an enchanted ball of yarn.

I got to thinking: what if that yarn-of-secrets was more key to the story than we've thought before? What if the yarn betrayed the hiding place one day to the jealous (aka evil) queen? What if that yarn was made of the finest quality at the time, which we now know would likely have been by using nettle fibers, and inspired a cascade of tragic events?

The witch-daughter-queen makes more balls of enchanted nettle-yarn, which not only is bound to the family so the King can find his children, but she then weaves it into fine, royal-linen-quality shirts? Shirts that look like priceless gifts but are also designed to be binding, transforming traps? Being so enchanted and family-bound, the shirts bind themselves to the actual forms of the princes as they put them on, cruelly changing them to become silent swans**. The unspoken family secret, once revealed, bites them in the back and becomes their compulsive silence.

But enchantment likes to work in circles...

It may be that those magicked, fine-threaded, nettle-yarn balls also held the key to the princess finding her brothers again and unbinding them from their curse**.

Of course it would make sense that to create the reverse of this spell it would have to be done in silence! And it makes sense that the princess would have (be given/gifted/discover!) a prototype of nettle-yarn on hand so she would know when she had beaten and refined the fibers of that spell enough for it to work.

So she would know when it was time to weave the shirts.

So she could be certain her spell would work.

So she would be reunited with her family, again.

But there's one more relevant bit of history for this story, and it's related to the bittersweet ending where the youngest prince is left with one swan's wing. It's one of the reasons this story pulls at our heartstrings so very much.

Apparently, there was a revival - of sorts - in creating ramie during the 1980's, that is, linen made from nettle fibers. The linen created was finer yet more durable than hemp and creased more precisely too. One of the concerns that reportedly came up was that nettle fibers were often so long and fine that they could become nearly invisible (!º) and could easily catch alight if they came close to an open flame.

In The Six Swans (and related tales) the Princess, (Elisa in The Wild Swans^), is hurriedly working on finishing the shirts on her way to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. (Full circle indeed!) We read the story as that the shirt for the youngest prince was unfinished and only had one sleeve, but perhaps it was less straightforward than that. Perhaps it was hurriedly done so the fibers weren't woven so well together as they ought to have been. Perhaps the sleeve hadn't reversed the curse weaving quite enough and perhaps the fibers, loosely woven on that final portion, hadn't yet been transformed themselves from the fine weavings of the not-easily-visible, to the weft of obviously a finished fabric form, and so that sleeve caught alight as it neared the flames.The undoing of the spell vanished in a puff of smoke, and the consequences of those loose threads remained forever.
Anna & Elena Balbusso

** Side note: in medicine of 'yore' and now, nettles are used to treat joint pain - something I imagine would be extremely prevalent in transformation! Nettles are also used to treat hay fever, bleeding, eczema and alopecia - all symptoms easily connected to transformation.

º Invisible thread?? That sounds like the inspiration for another tale. Or inspiration for the tricksters of another tale at least.
^And The Shape of Water! Consider this an Easter Egg. ;)

Sources used: 

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