Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond

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Chapter One

The place of craft within the world of art is a dynamic discussion, a long-running debate that I cannot address in full. The very contentiousness of this debate, however, is testament to the complex nature of craft and how it subverts conventional categorization. Crafts spans a vast field of workmanship, techniques, materials, and traditions, and have been perceived by scholars to contribute to, to defy, to lessen, or to remain entirely separate from fine arts. For the purposes of this paper, the distinction of a category of practical domestic arts that temper aesthetic goals with functionality will serve, as simplistic as that may be. Within this category, I will focus specifically on textiles, as a specific, and particularly rich, subset of crafting.

Weaving Words: Tensions in Text and Textile

The classical Greek vocabulary for verbal arts abounds with textile-words. “Proemium,” the beginning of a work of verbal art, comes from the Greek prooímion, or “initial threading.” And “hymn,” from humnos, has its roots in the idea of a web, the product of weaving and spinning. [17] The name “Homer” is, as Nagy explains, derived from the noun homēros, meaning “the one who fits/joins together.” Thus, “Homer as the master poet ‘fits together’ pieces of song that are made ready to be parts of an integrated whole just as a master carpenter or joiner ‘fits together’ or ‘joins’ pieces of wood.” [18] Ancient Greek artists and philosophers understood oral poetry as a technique, or craft. As Eustathius wrote, “Homeric poetry, after it had been scattered about and divided into parts, was sewn together by those who sang it, like songs sung into a single fabric.” [19] Pindar wrote similarly that “since the poetry of Homer had not been brought together under one thing, but rather had been scattered about and divided into parts—when they performed it rhapsodically, they would be doing something that is similar to sequencing or sewing, as they produced it into one thing.” [20] This concept of poetic rhapsody or rhaptein is the “principle of integration of threads from an existing weave into a new or next one,” as Harlizius-Klück and Fanfani explain so well. “Threads continue across [the] different structures, each structure providing a series of elements for the other.” [21]

The oral poet is like the weaver sat at the loom, a range of options available within the necessary steps to create a structurally sound weave. The frame of the loom is constant, the warp has been set, and a pattern may already have been chosen. The weaver knows how many weft strands she is weaving with, and while these may change in color or texture, to alter the number would be to alter the whole structure. Each throw of the shuttle adds a new row to the weave; each addition necessitates a subsequent action. So, too, is the poet working within the framework of his tradition. He has at his disposal the characters and stories that he will weave together in his own way. The meter is his warp; the larger mythology is the mechanism of the loom itself. The weaver and the poet are both technicians, using specific tools and techniques to assemble parts into a whole. They are both also artisans inspired by the creative spirit, whether they identify it as Divine inspiration or personal imagination.

Weaving Worlds: Mythic and Domestic Craft

Penelope is trapped in her own home, obliged to adhere to domestic conventions of hospitality and gendered rules of ownership, and forced into futility as she unweaves her work each night. She is stalling, keeping the suitors at bay until her husband returns and restores order. When Telemachus is coming into his manhood, he asserts himself by sending his mother back to her room and her loom, to let the men discuss. Weaving is both her punishment and her solace, a shield against the danger of the masculine world.

Weaving Women: Power and the Domestic

Alternatively, Penelope’s weaving is indeed a feat of metis, or cunning. She uses the socially respected, desexualized task of weaving a funeral shroud to maintain her freedom and sexual agency. On her loom she is weaving time: not only buying herself time, but also weaving Odysseus’s journeys back and forth across the seas. Perhaps Penelope is like the old woman in the cave, with the potential to bring the end of days if she finishes her weaving. Had Penelope finished weaving, neither Odysseus nor Telemachus would have rule over Ithaca, but she, along with the suitor of choice, would have. Penelope, then, not Ithaca, is home for Odysseus, for it all hangs in the balance of her loom.


[ back ] 1. Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 32–33.

[ back ] 2. Bryan-Wilson, 16.

[ back ] 3. Bryan-Wilson, 4.

[ back ] 4. Bryan-Wilson, 9.

[ back ] 5. M. Catherine de Zegher, “Ouvrage: Knot a Not, Notes as Knots,” in Cecilia Vicuna, QUIPoem/The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuna, ed. M. Catherine de Zegher, trans. Esther Allen (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1997), 26.

[ back ] 6. Bryan-Wilson, Fray, 20.

[ back ] 7. Bryan-Wilson, 4.

[ back ] 8. Bryan-Wilson, 8.

[ back ] 9. Judith Still, Derrida and Other Animals (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2015), 353.

[ back ] 10. Zegher in QUIPoem, 26.

[ back ] 11. For example, to “spin a yarn” or “weave a tale” as expressions of storytelling, or “weaving together the threads” of an argument, etc.

[ back ] 12. See Gregory Nagy, “Weaving while singing Sappho’s songs in Epigram 55 of Posidippus,” Classical Inquiries, January 7, 2016.

[ back ] 13. “Linen-songs,” also known as chansons d’Histoire, a genre of lyric poetry popular in the 12–13th centuries, featuring heroines of high status and often depicting women sitting indoors at a window, sewing or weaving. These songs are thought to have been sung by women as they wove or did needlework. See Charles Bertram Lewis, “The Origin of the Weaving Songs and the Theme of the Girl at the Fountain,” PMLA 37, no. 2 (1922): 141–181.

[ back ] 14. Waulking is the process of beating newly woven twill which requires many hands. The song provides a rhythm, allowing the beaters to remain synchronized.

[ back ] 15. The Naga people are known for their spinning, dying, and weaving traditions. Each tribe has unique woven patterns, and the women continue to use ancient weaving techniques. The rich folk song tradition includes songs for agricultural cycles, legends, and traditional tasks, such as spinning and weaving.

[ back ] 16. Ellen Harlizius-Klück and Giovanni Fanfani, “On weaving and sewing as technical terms,” Classical Inquiries, March 20, 2017.

[ back ] 17. Nagy, “On weaving and sewing.”

[ back ] 18. Gregory Nagy, “Pindar’s Homer is not “our” Homer,” Classical Inquiries, December 24, 2015.

[ back ] 19. Translated by Gregory Nagy.

[ back ] 20. Translated by Gregory Nagy.

[ back ] 21. Harlizius-Klück and Fanfani, “On weaving and sewing as technical terms.”

[ back ] 22. Meredith G. Clark, “Warping the Word: The Technology of Weaving in the Poetry of Eduardo Eielson and Cecilia Vicuna,” Textile 10, no. 3 (2012): 326.

[ back ] 23. Clark, 326.

[ back ] 24. Cecilia Vicuña, “Word and Thread,” Lecture recorded by Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, July 15, 1994.

[ back ] 25. Many African textile traditions are dominated by men weavers, but these prove to be an exception to the common woman/domestic context of other traditions.

[ back ] 26. Zegher in QUIPoem, 18.

[ back ] 27. “Tzutujil Maya use anatomical terms for loom parts (i.e., head, bottom, ribs, heart, umbilical cord), indicating that weaving is considered equivalent to giving birth.” Vicuña quoted in Zegher, 19.

[ back ] 28. For more on the Old Spider Woman, see Gladys Amanda Reichard, Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism (Princeton UP, 1963) and the many works of Paula Gunn Allen on the subject; for more on Native American legends see firstpeople.us, an education resource on Native American and First Nations cultures and history.

[ back ] 29. In English, there is a serendipitous word play in the story of Athena: one might say (and indeed many writers have) that Athena “sprang” from Zeus’s head fully formed. Incidentally, “sprang” is also the name for a kind of weftless weave, in which just the warp threads are used to create a textile. Sprang technique does not require the interlacing of two different threads, just as Athena’s birth did not require the presence of a second entity, her mother.

[ back ] 30. Judith Still, “Patriarchs and their women, some inaugural intertexts of hospitality: the Odyssey, Abraham, Lot and the Levite of Ephraim,” in Derrida and Hospitality: Theory and Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010), 67.

[ back ] 31. Lucy Larcom, “Weaving,” in “Words for the Hour”: A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry, eds. Faith Barret and Cristianne Miller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 87.

[ back ] 32. Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 164; quoted in Kathryn Sullivan Kruger, Weaving the Word: The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna UP, 2001).

[ back ] 33. Still, “Patriarchs and their women,” 62.

[ back ] 34. Zegher in QUIPoem, 27.

[ back ] 35. Zegher, 27.

[ back ] 36. Olive Schreiner, From Man to Man (New York, 1927; Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014).

[ back ] 37. Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: Women’s Press, 1984), ix.

[ back ] 38. Susan Gubar, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 2 (1981): 260.

[ back ] 39. Juliet Lynd, “Precarious Resistance: Weaving Opposition in the Poetry of Cecilia Vicuna,” PMLA 120, no. 5 (October 1, 2005): 1590.

[ back ] 40. Zegher in QUIPoem, 28.

[ back ] 41. Parker, The Subversive Stitch, 215.