Fevered Threads 14

Bess’ Tapestry (Andruss)

As we saw women traditionally wove not only cloth, but also spells.

This is how labour-intensive weaving was:

In 2003 Dr Jacqi Wood recreated a collared hood beautifully preserved in a peat bog. A collared hood includes a yoke sitting over the the chest and upper back. Using early medieval technology, Dr Wood took 102 hours to spin the thread and 98 hours to weave the garment.

Collared Hood (courtesy Esty)

Classical Greece and Rome denigrated women’s skills. While some goddesses were highly skilled weavers, such as Athena, they are not goddesses of weaving. Athena was so proud of her weaving skills, when she heard Arachne boast she could teach the goddess a thing or two, she challenged the girl to a contest.

Athena & Arachne: from other figures (Andruss)

There are different versions of the tale. In some Arachne swears never to weave again if she loses, in others she wins and is forbidden to ever weave again. In despair the girl commits suicide by hanging herself with a skein of thread she spun. In a pang of conscience, Athena turns the girl into a spider – the ultimate weaver.

Then there is Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus. Odysseus joined the decade long Trojan War, and after being blown off-course, spent another ten years trying to make it home. Seven years of which, it must be said, he spent in the bed of the demi-goddess Calypso on sepulchral island of Ogygia; a land of the dead. Calypso’s name means to hide or deceive. It comes from the Indo-European word ‘Kel’ that gives rise to ‘Hell’, the eponymous kingdom of Loki’s daughter.

Ancient Greek Weaving from pottery frieze (Andruss)

With her beloved husband missing so long, Penelope delayed giving an answer to the loutish suiters (eating her out of house and home and determined to claim her lands through marriage) by saying first she must weave a burial shroud for Odysseus’ farther. She diligently worked all day, while at night unpicking what she had woven.

The Incas took weaving (essentially knotting two or more threads together) to a new level with the invention of Quipu, or talking knots. Initially it was believed Quipu was simply a counting system: with different coloured threads representing different products, or groups of people. They were certainly recognised as legal evidence in mercantile disputes.

Inca Quipu courtesy of Wikipedia

However, there is evidence quipu is a complete writing system. Professor Laura Minelli of The University of Bologna discovered nine folios in Spanish Italian and Latin written by two 17th century Jesuit missionaries discussing how to read quipu. It states syllables were represented by symbols formed in the knots. There is even a list of words found in quipus. Unfortunately, as the conquistadors destroyed most of them, there are too few to study and so the history of a whole civilisation was wiped out.


When writing Thomas the Rhymer, I drew on these threads (pardon the pun) when thinking about how fairies might preserve their own history. As fairies races are matriarchies ruled by fairy queens, it seemed they would choose weaving skills to keep memories and traditions alive. And so each fairy queen weaves a tapestry of her life, for her successor to read.

Bess of Holborn’s tapestry often shows images of London through the 400 years she lived. (illustration: Andruss)

In contrast fairy queen Sylvie chooses to conceal her tapestry within another, an ancient work of ruptured threads showing St George fighting a dragon. (illustration: Andruss)


Animation: Andruss

In the extract from Thomas the Rhymer this is what happens when Bess’ servant Polly takes Jack’s friend Catherine to see the tapestry…  

Catherine followed Polly down a drab corridor to yet another dilapidated room. This contained a vast loom upon which hung a tapestry as big as a carpet, hand knotted in scrumptious colours that seemed to trap the light and reflect it back in a glorious rainbow.

There were shades of crimson, carmine, vermilion, scarlet and cerise; blues from sky to sea; greens dark as swamp cypress at midnight, bright as a spring morning. Yellows of liquid sunshine bled into tawny amber and sunset orange. Royal purple, mauve, puce and fuchsia jostled russet, sepia and sombre ochre. Veins of copper, bronze, silver and gold marbled voluptuous violets, inky indigos and whites, pale as moonshine. Such polychromic splendour left Catherine giddy, breathless, and a little overwhelmed.

“Beautiful,” she sighed, mesmerised by the shifting hues washing over the weave like skeins of mist.

“I saw London once,” Polly confided. “But it ran from my eyes.”

“I see it too!” Catherine faltered as ghosts of shimmering buildings, iridescent, pearlescent, lustrous, melted into the chaotic maelstrom of the tapestry.

“Where is it?” Polly demanded.

“There!” Catherine answered, stabbing the cloth with a finger and falling down as if dead.

*  *  *

The boys found the tapestry by following Polly’s screams.

“What’s wrong?” they cried.

Catherine lay unmoving on the floor.

“Is she dead?” gulped Ken, struggling for breath.

Jack was too horrified to say anything at all.

Stooping, Ken felt Catherine’s forehead; listened to her breathe through clenched teeth. “She’s still alive! What happened?”

Polly was crying hysterically into her apron. “I never thought she would,” she wailed.

“Would what?” he demanded, looking up at her from down beside Catherine.

“Touch the tapestry,” she bawled, dabbing at her eyes with the hem of her pinafore.

“What do you mean?” Jack was instantly suspicious. Catherine looked pale, broken. As if some part of her was stolen away. Rosie was right, nothing good ever came from the fairies.

“Only a queen, or a queen to be, may touch the thread of memory,” Polly dully quoted.

They looked at the huge glowing tapestry filling the room. It seemed woven from light, a living thing. Shifting images suggested buildings, even entire streets, thronged with haunted, hollow-eyed frantic souls. Crowds lost before ever fully formed, nothing more than recollections, regurgitated on a whim or a word, to be reabsorbed, stillborn, into the boiling vaporous colours. Tearing their eyes from the mayhem of the weave, they bent down to gently pick up their friend; wanting to get her far away as possible from its fevered threads.

“Where can we take her?” Ken demanded.

“To Bess.”

“I thought we couldn’t go in there,” Jack protested, suspecting a trick.

Polly was honest. “You can’t. It is dangerous. Especially now the tapestry wakes. You may be snatched into the dream to never return. Yet her only hope is with my mistress. Catherine must go to her.”

“I’ll take her,” Ken announced. “My mum’s in there. If she doesn’t come out I haven’t got anyone else.

Jack thought about what Ken said. It was the opposite for him. His parents had already lost one son. What would it be like if they lost another?

Opening the door to the reception room, Polly assured Jack she and Ken could manage. He shrugged her off.

“Don’t do it, Jack!” Ken was adamant, knowing what his friend was thinking.

Jack smiled, trying to look braver than he felt. Then it came to him. Something Catherine once said when they were exploring the ley lines. “It’s supposed to be all for one isn’t it?”

“And one for all!” Ken sheepishly grinned. “What happens if we don’t come back?”

Jack looked hard at him. “We’ll have to make sure we do.”

The instant they took Catherine in, the tapestry came alive. It was as if it had been waiting for them to step into Bess’ presence. Erupting like a volcano, or a solar flare from the face of the sun, it spat streams of pure colour, which stained the floor and walls for an instant before fizzing into the ether. The eruption became stronger, bolder; then just as quick, died away.

It was not over. The tapestry had only paused, gathering its strength for one last push that came in a brilliant explosion of living light. A crazy rainbow bouncing from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, sparking and spluttering white hot with every collision as it went ricocheting down the hall towards Catherine and the boys.

*  *  *

         Catherine woke on a piece of embroidery stretching for miles in every direction. Turning her head, she saw the whole world move. It was so weird she sat up for a better look. When everything moved again, as if adjusting to her new viewpoint, she realised she was not so much lying on the cloth as woven into its very warp and weft…


Related Posts:

Women’s Work (Part 1)

The Old Woman & Dan

Happy Thoughts

Still a Nightmare


14 thoughts on “Fevered Threads

  1. Reply Aquileana Aug 31,2017 1:47 pm

    Great post… Penelope. Arachne… and let me also make reference to The Moirae. All weaving women… The moirae have always fascinated me. They were three white-robed personifications of Destiny. And they assigned to every person his/her fate.
    Their names were: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Clotho spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Lachesis measured the thread of life allotted to each person. And finally, Atropos was the cutter of the thread of life (death).
    I love this post. And your blog is so interesting Paul. A pleasure to drop in and connect with you… Love & best wishes 😉

  2. Reply dgkaye Aug 2,2017 11:33 pm

    This was fascinating Paul. 200 hours to spin and weave one garment, wow, can we only imagine those times compared to the mass production of garments today. Your history and mythology research is astounding! 🙂 x

    • Reply Paul Aug 3,2017 12:13 am

      Thanks Debby. I can believe it because with my internet speed in the Welsh Valleys it takes me that long to shop on line for one garment! And they say things have changed! Thrilled you enjoyed the post! Luv Px

  3. Reply Shehanne Moore Aug 2,2017 9:47 am

    I was quite tempted to touch the tapestry and when I read on I am glad I didn’t because that is one scary tapestry. great extract and great post Paul. Liked the way you ‘tied’ it all together.

    • Reply Paul Aug 3,2017 12:38 am

      Deear Shey, so thrilled you liked it. It is a kid’s book so everything works out but it was just the excuse I needed to indulge in the history and mythology of London! And Catherine and the boys, who follow her in, do see some weird and comical stuff!

  4. Reply Robbie Cheadle Jul 30,2017 6:49 pm

    Another great post, Paul. I really enjoyed the Greek mythology woven into this post [no pun intended]. I have only heard the version of the tale where Arachne gets turned into a spider so to learn that there are other versions were most interesting.

    • Reply Paul Jul 31,2017 1:05 am

      You Know Robbie I like athena I really do but she could be a bit mean… like a head girl in a boarding school! In one story she turned Medusa into the snake haired gorgon for having the temerity to be raped within her temple precincts…talk about always blame the woman!!! Athena you should be ashamed of your self!

  5. Reply BRIGID GALLAGHER Jul 30,2017 4:46 pm

    Goodness. You have been very busy. I love all your illustrations and your video. The quipu are fascinatingly beautiful. You obviously have a great fondness of colour. I wonder what happens to Catherine in the tapestry?

    • Reply Paul Jul 31,2017 1:14 am

      Thanks Brigid, they took some time.. Each illustration takes almost a month and the animation (based on an earlier version) took about 2. They are a few years old now. Catherine does experience some amazing things in the tapestry involving simultaneous time streams, as do the boys when they go in to fetch her. Download the book and just read the bits that appeal… ‘Time seemed confused in London. As if caught in swirling eddies or trapped in silted pools. Until the city itself looked no more than a loose weave of different ages.’

  6. Reply sally cronin Jul 30,2017 9:28 am

    Fascinating of course Paul and have shared around the usual haunts today and will reblog on Wednesday. I began to sew tapistries when I gave up smoking 25 years ago. I decided to recreate some of the masters such as Van Gogh Sunflowers. I have eight on my walls.. some are just nature scenes but I have two lions and a tiger.. They took months to complete but it gave me something to do with my hands when sat watching telly etc. I do appreciate how long they take and that fading eyesight does not help. hugs xxx

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