Spinning Tales

Now this king and queen had plenty of money, and plenty of fine clothes to wear…

I’ve been thinking about the Brothers Grimm tale of Briar Rose—better known in our time as Sleeping Beauty—in a new light.

The fairytale, true to form, comprises many farfetched aspects, but until I took a spinning wheel class, I’d never before considered the biggest hitch in the plot’s logic.

To refresh your memory:

Causing the whole brouhaha was the queen (always blame the mother) failing to invite the thirteenth fairy to the birthday celebration of miraculous newborn Briar Rose, for good reason—the king and queen didn’t have enough dishes.

So [the thirteenth fairy] cried out, ‘The king’s daughter shall, in her fifteenth year, be wounded by a spindle, and fall down dead.’ Then the twelfth of the friendly fairies, who had not yet given her gift, came forward, and said that the evil wish must be fulfilled, but that she could soften its mischief; so her gift was, that the king’s daughter, when the spindle wounded her, should not really die, but should only fall asleep for a hundred years.

The king hoped still to save his dear child altogether from the threatened evil; so he ordered that all the spindles in the kingdom should be bought up and burnt.

My recent epiphany: if all the spindles were burnt, nobody would have new clothes for fifteen years. Which is how I operate all the time; about once per decade I force myself on a trip to the Sears dressing room with a bundle of jeans.

I am not a medieval princess with the hem of my homespun skirts sweeping across the flagstones of drafty castles. I have a closet full of clothes made with synthetic fibers on machines. And I’d acquired enough yarn in less than two years of knitting that my hoard might last me 15 years.

Photo taken in a Scottish museum by Cat Bordhi

Thus, until I stupidly tried to work a spinning wheel, I’d never before considered that once upon a time all fabric for clothes first required spinning. Humans created fiber before creating fire. “Twisted fiber is the oldest human technology, far older than fire-making,” I was surprised to learn from knitting teacher and designer Cat Bordhi (through the wonders of Facebook posts).

Because no fiber could be spun and woven into new fabric, despite their loaded coffers the king and queen wore their fine clothes thin over 15 years. Only threadbare capes and frayed gauntlets filled the armoires of the entire kingdom. For no reason.

The king had not been listening (this is a fairy tale, remember, and doubtless not at all reflective of typical male behavior of the time, but perhaps simply an exception in the case of a privileged and powerful male who has married a woman half his age–and certainly not at all typical in our enlightened modern times).

There was no danger until Briar Rose turned 15. Her 15th birthday was the very day on which he should have burned all of the spindles.

But what did they do, instead?

It happened that, on the very day she was fifteen years old, the king and queen were not at home, and she was left alone in the palace.

Wait! Huh? The parents left town on this supposedly beloved child’s 15th birthday? With a curse hanging over her head? After they’d taken all the trouble to burn all of the spindles to keep her safe? And everyone wore stained undergarments and socks with holes?

The first day of the first year in which they should watch her more carefully than ever, they let down their guard. They boogie. Vamoose. Scram. As parent to a teen we now call JT, short for Junior Terrorist, I get this inclination. I’m sure many parents of teens can relate. And this was probably one pissed-off teeny-bopper princess: hand-me-downs her entire life and no cell phone.

While learning to spin wool, I realized that Briar’s parents had to leave town in order to shop for party clothes. Tattered tunics and ragged girdles would never do for such a monumental celebration.

Her parents decamp, so Briar Rose of course pokes around all of the castle rooms, because that’s what teenagers do while their parents are gone, looking for copies of Joy of Sex and the dog-eared pages of Peyton Place, for Virginia Slims and mead.

…and there sat an old lady spinning away very busily. ’Why, how now, good mother,’ said the princess; ‘what are you doing there?’ ‘Spinning,’ said the old lady, and nodded her head, humming a tune, while buzz! went the wheel. ‘How prettily that little thing turns round!’ said the princess, and took the spindle and began to try and spin. But scarcely had she touched it, before the fairy’s prophecy was fulfilled; the spindle wounded her, and she fell down lifeless on the ground.

I too felt like dying with my first attempts at the spinning wheel. What the heck was I thinking to take up this “meditative” craft when I already have more than enough frustrations to keep me occupied?

“See how relaxing?” my teacher, Vivian, purred as she demonstrated.

Vivian called my first yarn attempts “pig tails,” wound so tightly it corkscrewed upon itself. An apt metaphor for my state-of-mind.

“People have to take special classes to learn how to make pigtails,” she encouraged.

Over four hours of classes, I spun a whopping seven yards of yarn.

Including the pig tails and my randomly super bulky and super skinny (“lace weight!”) sections of yarn, this style of yarn is called Art Yarn when spun by experienced spinners and sold for a fortune. As long as I remain consistently bad at spinning, I could make way more at this craft than at writing.

On average, a minimum of 1,000 yards of yarn is needed to knit an adult sweater (according to knittingauthority.com).

That should take me about 571.43 hours, which is about how much time I’ve spent in the juvenile court building this past year, waiting on another hearing involving JT’s not-always-harmless shenanigans.

Sometimes Security won’t let me bring in my knitting needles. Wonder how they’d feel about my bringing in a spinning wheel? My modern rented spinning wheel has no spindle. Nothing dangerous on it.

Just the mother behind it, swearing and muttering—sometimes at the wool, sometimes at JT, sometimes at the ineffective juvenile justice system that seems as broken as my homespun yarn that continually snaps off instead of feeding smoothly through the orifice and onto the bobbin. There are days when I’m frustrated enough to think that shoving a spindle through an orifice sounds like a damn good idea.

This mother would have gone to Goodwill to buy an extra set of party dishes, or used Dixie plates for one and all, instead of slighting the thirteenth fairy. On the other hand, having JT go to sleep for 100 years on his 15th birthday wouldn’t have been such a bad idea, either. An extra hundred years for his frontal lobes to form sounds about right. Plus, this mother is in serious need of about a century of sleep.

In hindsight, splitting town on the dawning of her offspring’s 15th year was a genius move. I might have done the same had a benevolent fairy whispered in my ear that all hell was about to break loose.

* * * * *

For a fun read, here’s a somewhat related post:

Disney Princess Historical Costume Influences: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


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