We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

The Three Spinning Women

Be it the spindles in Mother Holle and Briar Rose, or the wheels in The Twelve Huntsmen or Rumpelstiltskin, spinning is everywhere in the background of Grimm’s fairy tales. As Maria Tatar points out, there’s also an ‘especially congenial’ alliance between spinning flax or wool and telling stories. Spinning a yarn would have alleviated the repetitiveness of spinning yarn or thread, and with spinning being such a necessary part of the domestic background, it’s no surprise that it appears in so many stories. In The Three Spinning Women (KHM 14) in particular, every part of the story centres around and relies upon spinning.

literature, aphorisms, "Und drinnen waltet die zuchtige Hausfrau", woodcut by Ludwig Richter (1803 - 1884), 19th century, histor

Spinning flax is central to this story. The question for this spinner, though, is why flax instead of wool? Wool is easier to prepare – shearing and skirting followed by combing or carding, compared to the lengthy process of pulling, rippling, retting, breaking, skutching (or swingling) and finally hackling – and should be at least as plentiful. Wool would be, in terms of both period and place, just as likely a fibre for spinning, and although an upright treadled spinning wheel is sometimes called a ‘flax wheel’, it is equally possible to use them to spin woolen yarn. Without  flax, however, the story does not work. Flax is spun damp, but wool is not; nobody would suffer an overhanging lip from spinning too much wool. But there is more to it than that: the importance lies in what the flax symbolises and demonstrates, rather than in the spinning itself.

The cloth woven from flax is linen, which immediately carries with it connotations of house and home. The term ‘household linens’ has been in use for centuries, meaning tablecloths and bedsheets. These domestic concerns feminise the story even further; not only are the women in this story spinners, and therefore already associated with the distaff line of storytelling, but what they create is inextricably tied up with feeding and comfort, feminised virtues, tablecloths and bedsheets. But it is the bedsheets which interest me most, particularly when taken in conjunction with the strange assertion by the Queen that the girl’s ‘indefatigable industry is dowry enough’. She, of course, has no industry, defatigable or otherwise, and given that the Prince releases her from ever having to spin again at the wedding, her spinning skills will certainly not be brought into married life.

It is significant, also, that until fairly recently, linen was the most suitable, and therefore most common, textile for underwear. Chemises, drawers, clothing that would be directly next to the skin, would ordinarily be made from linen rather than wool, cotton, silk or any other textile. Linen is not only the fabric of the sheets on the bed, it’s the fabric worn against the bare skin, the most intimate of fabrics. Where wool is more suitable for outerwear, due to its tendency to prickle and insulate, linen is the fabric of underwear, particularly the linen woven from the ‘finest’ thread, spun by the three spinning women. Wool, then, is the public fibre, of coats and blankets, made conspicuous by its absence from this story. Flax is the private fibre, bed sheets and underthings. In spinning the fine flax for her, the three spinning women are leading her not only to domesticity but to motherhood, guiding her away from her status as maiden and towards the next stage of her life. She literally has to finish spinning the flax before the queen will allow her to marry, and the three spinning women must figuratively prepare her for the domesticity associated with the flax before she is ready to become a wife.

This preparation puts the spinning women in the position of surrogate mothers to the lazy young girl. As John Patrick Pazdziora has pointed out, the girl’s natural mother is hardly adequate, verbally abusing her before gleefully selling her to a queen with clearly false expectations and no assurance that the queen will treat her with anything resembling compassion or kindness when she discovers that she has been tricked. The spinning women protect their charge, offering help with little demand of recompense, and as Sheldon Cashdan notes, what fairytale mother wouldn’t like to see her daughter marry a prince? They are almost an inverted version of Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who seeks to take away the first child of the bride he helps. They insist upon being adopted as her aunts, the sisters of her mother, placing themselves generationally adjacent to her parents, but in truth they are more parents to her than any other character in the story. And, of course, in revealing their deformities to be directly resulting from spinning, they save her not only before her marriage, but also for the rest of her life, releasing her from the obligation of spinning and also from her reliance upon them. They free her and themselves from each other, sending her into marriage with the social and sexual maturity they have symbolically instilled in her through their production of flaxen thread on her behalf. Briefly they become her tripartite mother and then send her into marriage, no longer needing a mother, ready to become a wife, and later mother, herself.

 

Bibliography

Cashdan, Sheldon, The Witch Must Die
Franquemont, Abby, Respect the Spindle
Gould, Joan, Spinning Straw Into Gold
Juvan, Lee, ‘Tow the line
Pazdziora, John Patrick, ‘Unsettling Wonder
Tatar, Maria, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales


Reader Comments

  1. For me, as a spinner and a storyteller, both are a way of tangibly reaching back in time. People have been spinning using spindles for thousands of years, and been telling stories for at least as long. Although of course one can spin without telling stories, and can tell stories without spinning, there is a particularly special link between the two actions, as demonstrated in the metaphoric use of ‘spinning a yarn’ to mean telling a tale.

  2. Both right. Among folklorists of my acquaintance, spinning is usually understood to be a metaphor for storytelling. Thus the importance of the girl needed to learn to spin: she needs to learn the narrative of her culture and her place in it.

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