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

  Use the following persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_PsychasHE.Women_Weaving_the_World.2018.


This project attempts to apply a poetics of weaving to literary analysis and the theatrical devising process. Taking my inheritance of weaving techniques, of the Finnish language, of family stories, and of the many cultures and experiences that have shaped who I am, I weave a story that is part of many traditions: the Kalevala stories and mythology of my maternal heritage, the rug weaving I learned from my grandmother, the line of strong-willed women crafters from whom I descend, and all of the experiences beyond my Finnish heritage that I bring to the loom, to the page, and to the stage.

As a student of literature and theatre, I draw inspiration from the women weavers of our cultural imagination: Penelope weaving and unweaving as Odysseus blows back and forth across the sea; Arachne challenging the gods with a woven story of human power; the three fates, in their various cultural iterations, spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life; and the women of the Kalevala tradition—the daughter at the loom, the goddesses weaving in the heavens, and the grieving mother magically weaving her son back to life.

As an artist, I find my inspiration in the women who weave stories together to speak to power, who are integrating the threads of women’s voices into the fabric of history. Whether the knitters of pussyhats, performance artists, or writers who are sharing, unabashedly, their experiences of womanhood, these women are weaving a magic of their own in picking apart and re-stitching the dynamic textile of society.

The following chapters contain a “charm,” a weaving together of choice words aimed at capturing both the sum and the core of the subject at hand. In the Kalevala tradition, charms are carefully crafted phrases of valuable knowledge that can provide protection and hold powerful magic. To undo a charm, it must be said or sung backwards; like weaving on a loom, to undo requires redoing, in reverse. The labor and process of learning and using a charm are important, and it is this aspect that I take as my guide. In three chapters of three parts each, this nine-part [1] text integrates and overlaps ideas in a new combination, at once only a piece of a much larger whole and, hopefully, a revelation of something new about its component parts. In the writing and presentation, and now reading, of this work, a process of weaving is at work.

The first chapter introduces historical and theoretical overlaps in three elements of this project: textiles, text, and womanhood. First, an examination of weaving words and the fascinating overlap in concepts of text and textile. Then, narratives of weaving worlds and the feminine spaces of craft that are a product of, and perpetuate, a patriarchal power structure. Finally, a refusal of this oppression through women weaving power and claiming communication through textile.

In the following chapter, I examine the Kalevala text as a narrative woven from the greater Kalevala tradition, and how the roles of adapter and translator are like that of the oral poet, making selections from a communal cultural memory. Within the stories of this crafted tradition, craft is a source of power. Words hold the power to sway the gods and the elements, and the best singers can shape the world to their bidding through the craft of song. Weaving, specifically, is crucial in every realm of Finnish mythology, from the farm, where maidens weave their dowries, to the heavens, where the goddesses weave precious gold and silver. The threads of womanhood, weaving, and power will culminate in a close examination of Runo 15 of the Kalevala, in which a mother uses her language and knowledge of craft to reassemble and revive her son’s body.

The final chapter builds on the concepts explored in the previous sections, examining their modern resonances in feminist art, craftivism, and performance art. Integrating my personal narrative and the influence of many writers and performance artists, I explore how inheritance, craft, and womanhood can provide the foundation for a performance that draws upon weaving as a framework for action and integration. I conclude with a proposal for such a performance, inspired by the women weavers of history and mythology. In this proposed piece, seven women share their stories and their weaving with the audience in a space that serves as a dynamic “performance loom.”

This three-by-three weave serves as a meta-structure for this text as a whole. In an experiment with the numbers and structures important to the weaving traditions I have been studying, I propose a second way to conceptualize the previously outlined contents of this paper:


Here, the nine sections form a grid, with each chapter creating a row. The progression of these chapters is also generally temporal, from the ancient Greek world through the 19th century Kalevala to the feminists of the 20th and 21st centuries. By arranging the sections in this way, interesting connections between the chapters emerge. The columns separate the subject of the sections: the first section of each chapter pertains to a framework or historical precedent, the second to the weavers working within or responding to said framework, and the final is a subversion or transformation of the previous two in instances of intersecting femininity, voice, and power.

Finally, across the charm from top-left to bottom-right (green), connecting the first section, “Weaving Words,” the central “Weavers and Wordsmiths,” and the performance proposal for an original play, is the central momentum of this work. This is the direction of the research: theories and histories of text and textiles provide a lens through which to view the crafted world of the Kalevala, and this in turn propels my creation of my own world of craft. From ancient-frameworks to recent-women, this project is an ambitious interweaving of broad themes and specific examples, spanning history and cultures, from the distant to the personal. This charm-structure opens up possibilities for reading connections across sections and chapters in a non-linear understanding of argument.

The wealth of connections the grid offers is also demonstrative of the limitations of this project. While the current structure presents the topics side-by-side and suggests connections, integrating inter-chapter analysis into the text would allow for further exploration. To take one example: the dynamics of oppressive language are not examined in this work, though the Finnish language, as the folk, uneducated, poor counterpart to the imposed Swedish of the ruling class is a hugely important part of why the Kalevala is such a significant work. Dissecting the social hierarchy of language along with the narrative of Finland as Suomi, the idealized, feminine, natural, and peaceful nation, would provide a wealth of interesting overlaps in gender, language, and narrative-building. This is just one of the many opportunities for further research and analysis.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that this work is reductive in its conflation of sex and gender expression and its focus on Western traditions. The limited binary of gender dynamics generalizes womanhood and feminism to imply the experiences of the conventionally feminine woman within a patriarchal society. Again, the scope of this project is not sufficient to explore the full range of intersecting identities and experiences, and further investigation would surely provide a more nuanced argument about the nature of texts and textiles.


[ back ] 1. Three and nine, along with seven, are auspicious numbers in the Kalevala traditions, as well as across many cultures.

[ back ] 2. “Text/ile,” “text(ile),” and “text-ile” are used by various scholars to denote works between these two media or to claim narrative function for textiles.