The cloud-yarn is woven into gossamer cloth. Scottish peasants call upon the faerie Witch Gyre Carline for skill in spinning. If she grants it to you, she will come to your home every New Year's Eve to inspect your spinning wheel. You must have the drive belt loose and the bobbins empty. If you have left a partly full bobbin on the wheel, she will spin the rest up for you, but she will mutter and curse you for being lazy.
Throughout history the art of cloth-making has been associated with magic. The earliest examples of woven cloth are linens from ancient Egypt. Isis is believed to have given the Egyptians the gift of spinning and weaving - 4,500 years ago she was depicted holding a shuttle, and her devotees wore only white linen. Linen yarn is processed from the stem of the flax plant, which can be grown in any temperate climate with a three-month growing period and a moderate rainfall. Because the basic structure of flax inclinesto the left, many spinners have spun flax yarn counter clockwise with an 'S'-twist,unlike the majority of fibres which are spun clockwise with a 'Z'-twist.
Flax fibres are separated from the stalks by retting - the stalks are crushed with river stones, washed to remove the unusable pulp, then boiled all day in a pot and left to stand overnight. They are then hung in the open on racks to bleach. An old wives' tale tells us that the flax bleaches to a beautiful shade of silver-white when it is layed out in the light of the full moon.
We often hear in faerie stories of maidens spinning stinging nettles to make cloth, a process less painful than it sounds, since as soon as the harvested nettle goes limp in the sun it loses its sting. The leaves of the nettle can also be cooked as a green vegetable.
Another cloth used throughout ancient Europe was hemp, Cannabis Sativa, possession of which unprocessed vegetable has in recent times become illegal.
Cotton, which originated in India, was first cultiavted in Europe in Elis in the first century C.E. Cotton can be spun straight from the boll; the fibres butt to the seed and can be peeled off by rolling the seed between the fingers while the fibres are held during spinning. The seed falls from the hand and spinning goes on as a continual process.
Plant fibres have certain advantages over wool and other animal fibres: they do not interest moths and other destructive insects,and being of high cellulose content they are less prone to decay than the protein-rich animal products. However, these latter substances have their own power and beauty.
Wool has hooked ridges in its structure which interlock when spun into yarn. There are two ways of spinning wool; woolen and worsted. With woolen yarn the fleece is carded up and layed with the fibres oriented in alternate directions and then spun. With a worsted yarn the fleece is layed up any way and the yarn is drawn from the middle during spinning. (Incidentally, animal fibres can be given an added lustre and a clean feel by washing them in water to which lemon juice or white vinegar has been added. This also removes the alkaline residue of soap, which should be avoided in the cleaning of these fibres.)
It is, of course, as much in the spinning as the substances that magic may be found. The spinning wheel first appeared in India around 500 C.E. as a hand-operated machine, And by 1200 C.E. had reached China, Persia and Europe. Prior to then all spinning had been done on hand-spindles. These devices consist of a shaft inserted through a whorl. The shaft is usually of wood and pointed at one end, with a cross-piece or hook at the other. When the whorl is mounted low on the spindle the yarn is wound between the cross-piece and whorl, so the spindle must be dismantled to remove the ball of yarn. With a high whorl spindle the yarn is wound below the whorl and can slide off the bottom when the ball is formed.
Yarns may then be plied together to increase thickness or for other decorative effects. The yarns are plied in the opposite direction to the way they were spun so the initial twist locks them together.
Distsaffs were used with hand-spindles in almost every part of the world. Fibres are attached with criss-cross or spiralling ribbons, which are often elaborately embroided and fastened with carved wooden or ivory pins. Hand-spindles and distaffs reflect an age when folk made their own tools with love and magic. Spinning tools have been found decorated with dates, initials, hex-signs to ward off trouble, religious symbols to bless the spinner and the work. Some were even strung with tiny brass bells to make music.
In magical terms, the shaft and the whorl represent the male and female sexual organs, this being the origin of cord magic (see 'The Weavers and the Web', Shadowplay #8). When our ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere viewed the Sun from the 'centre of the world', under the pole star, it was seen to rotate clockwise, or deosil. Thus in weaving, the 'Z'-twist, which is spun clockwise, became representative of male, Solar energy. Similarly, when viewed from beneath the nail star, the Moon is seen to rise later and later each day of her monthly cycle, apparently moving backwards with respect to the Zodiac, and therefore anticlockwise, or widdershins; and so the counterclockwise 'S'-twist came to represent female, Lunar energy.
'S'-twist yarn has been widely used by shamans and Witches for medicinal, ritual and magical purposes. For example, it is said to be effective against rheumatism and in easing difficult pregnancies; and when travelling, an 'S'-twist yarn, dyed red or brown, can be worn around the neck or wrist to ward off accidents. It is also often used as a love charm - a girl when weaving will slip in a small length of moon-thread and give the garment to the man she wishes to capture. Once he has worn the clothing he will be in love with her forever.
In many societies it is forbidden to spin 'S'-twist yarn - it must be obtained from the local shaman or wise-woman who is the only one permitted to spin moonwise. Other societies believe it is permissable to spin 'S'-twist yarn only when there is a specific magical reason for doing so.
'S'-twist yarn is also used to treat people whose souls have fled there bodies due to fright. Wool is spun moonwise, then torn into small pieces to be flung into the wind while the local shaman calls for the soul to return to the body. The patient is told to hold pieces of the yarn in each hand and to stand within a ring of the cord lain on the ground. The following day the wool is burned and the ashes are mixed with water; the patient drinks this potion and the soul returns to its owner.
Here in the southern world, as we stand under the Southern Cross, the Sun is seen to move counterclockwise and the Moon deosil, a situation which leaves southern Witches and Pagans divided over magical directions. Some maintain the Northern Hemishere tradition on the very defensible grounds that it is the magical intention which is all important. But many others feel the northern workings lack power here and prefer to use those forces natural to our immediate environment, and so attribute the 'S'-twist to Solar force and the 'Z'-twist to Lunar. But in the end magic is what works for the individual, and it is intent which is the deciding factor.
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