For my creative project I learned to spin and knit. I expected this to be straightforward. However, just as in fairy tales, these apparently simple tasks took me on an unexpected journey into the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth.
All over the world, the act of spinning thread is interwoven with myth, fairy tales, and the sacred; Godwin sees the age-old path of esoteric wisdom in its myriad manifestations as a single ‘golden thread’ (Godwin 2007: xi). However, in contrast to our usual perceptions of Western mysteries, most of whose prophets and proponents are male, textile arts historically have been the domain of the female, and thus may offer insight into the particular nature of women’s wisdom.
Just as one thread is formed from many small fibres, my creative project is a synthesis of different aspects. In this review I look at three main strands. First, spinning in history and mythology, particularly as women’s work; second, practical techniques; and third, my experience of spinning as a labyrinthine pathway to self-knowledge, through an encounter with death and a glimpse of the healing potential of spinning.
The Three Fates, Norns or Moirai are powerful deities who spin, measure, and cut the thread of a person’s life. They are known in virtually every Indo-European culture (West 2007: 380). In Greek they are the daughters of the goddess Ánanke (Ἀναγκη), ‘necessity’, and their names are Clothó, Láchesis, and Átropos. Because my creative project was based on three elements – intellectual, practical, and personal – I would like to invite them to help tell my story.
To me, the wool in my lap, becoming thread in my hands, was indeed ‘a living presence’: I could feel in its movement the springy fleece being sheared from the sheep, the grass gently waving in the wind in the field, and the warm breath of the sheep as it ate the grass. As the thread took shape as an unbroken line flowing like a river between my fingers, I saw both the image of the thread, and the thread itself, as a long, narrow bridge between general and particular, outside and inside, just as Angelo predicted (ibid.: 20). Thus I experienced the act of spinning as both an intensely personal expression of individual creation at one specific moment in my life, and a transpersonal enactment of an ancient craft whose very universality lifted me outside limitations of time, space and my own small self.
Whereas I had gone through my spinning journey largely alone, through the knitting circle I experienced the context of community which has surrounded women’s textile work since prehistory (Slocum 1975: 45). This connection never breaks: just as our word ‘context’ comes from Latin contexo, ‘to weave together’, new ‘fibres’ are continually being woven in as new friends join, although the old ones leave us when their life-span meets its end. And in this woven-together context of women’s community, those who are weak in one way can nevertheless experience themselves as an invaluable part of something strong.
Three generations of Greek Sarakatsani women, resembling the Three Fates: the daughter spins, the mother measures, and the grandmother winds the cut thread into a ball.
The creative project convinced me that spinning represents an essential quality which our culture has lost, connected with ancestors, women’s wisdom, and the balance between self and community, right and left sides of the brain, and the qualities we think of as ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’. Spinning naturally brings together ‘the body, the soul, and art’, the three elements which McGilchrist identifies as ‘escape routes’ from an overly dominant left brain. Therefore, activities such as spinning may be able to help restore the whole-brain functioning which is so necessary now for our individual and collective healing (McGilchrist 2009: 438).
Looking back on the whole journey, I see it as a labyrinth, where the first few steps take you towards the centre, but then the path detours around through many changes of direction. Eventually the path, like a thread, reaches the end, in its own perfect time.