Clothos—the Original Fate
The Greeks loved their triads, every bit as much as the Celts (the oldest proto-Celtic & Celtic sites, in the Austrian mountains, are several hundred miles northwest of modern Greece). Mythologies will tell you there are three Fates, one to spin the metaphorical threads of life, one to measure its length, and one to cut it to that length. However, any weaver knows one person does all three…and that one deity is Clothos (or Klotho). From Her name we derive the words cloth, clothes, clothing, and so on. Here are my collected blog posts on the subject of natural fibers, fabrics, and more.
Historical clothing is a major interest of mine: not the elaborate costumes of court, cathedral, and carnival that are badly redesigned in Cecil B. deMille epics, or even well-represented in the better theater and film efforts of more recent years; no, my interest is in the everyday clothing of the ordinary person, such as I might have been if I lived a dozen centuries ago. As I became involved in the Craft, I found that there are correspondence lists for almost every class of substance I could dream up—herb, color, and musical pitch, rocks, crystals, and precious stones, planets, stars, and constellations—but nothing I’ve read treats at all with the everyday take-it-for-granted magic of fiber, clothing, and garments. In the course of developing some classes that apply textile and costume history to pagan clothing, I’ve developed the following fiber correspondences.
There are four major natural fibers used now and historically in Western clothing manufacture: linen, wool, cotton, and silk. Among these four, I find several polarities. Linen and cotton are vegetable fibers and generally cooler to wear, while wool and silk are animal fibers and insulate the wearer, so that in Northern climes they are used to warm, while in the tropics they serve to cool. I associate the vegetable fibers with Mother Gaia and the Green Man, while the animal fibers evoke Herne the Hunter and Clothos. The sturdier fibers, linen and wool, correspond to the feminine, while the more ephemeral cotton and silk correspond to the masculine.
Linen is the natural bast fiber prepared from the long, pointed leaves of the flax plant, family Linaceae. Flax seed and linseed oil are all flax products. Linen fiber is tough, downright rugged. It requires extensive treatments from the leaf to a fiber that one can spin. There’s drying and beating and soaking and rotting (retting is the industry term) and beating and combing…the minimal prcess takes 13 steps, commercially it takes at least 29 steps. The resulting
long, sturdy fibers explain the folk tale descriptions of women spinning until their fingers bled. Such fiber naturally makes a strong thread and stronger fabric which softens only slowly with wear. Linen has been historically used for rope before hemp was available. Linen sheets require ironing to smooth them into a surface comfortable for sleep. The newest steam-iron still gives “linen” for its hottest temperature setting—and even so, most linen needs to be ironed damp in order to relax the fibers and smooth the surface. Like the element of Earth, linen is tough stuff.
Caption: This composite photo illustrates many steps of making Irish linen.
Linen goods, like all household fabric goods, were valued highly over the past millenia. Victorian households inventoried them, sent them for laundering with a laundry list to prevent theft, and repaired them regularly. Long before that, in medieval households, linens were inventoried, itemized, valued, and specifically distributed to heirs in wills. Household linens spun or woven, decorated or collected by young girls formed a substantial part of their dowries among working and professional classes. Between linen fiber’s toughness to prepare, resistance to change, longevity in use, and value to owners, it becomes evident that the element of Earth is its native home.
Wool is the long hair of sheep and other hairy mammals—cashmere is the hair of the cashmere goat, angora the hair of angora rabbits and goats, and camel’s hair is just that. Almost any long-haired domesticated animal around the world has been shorn or combed for its wool: musk ox, llama, dog, rabbit. Just as these coats and fleeces insulate and protect the animals from cold or wet, strong sunlight or high winds, so do those shorn fleeces and clipped hair provide humans with fibers able to lend us those same protections.
Wool has the significant virtue of keeping one warm even when wet. Lanolin, the natural fat present in sheep’s wool (unless scoured out), is water-repellent, for one thing. Moreover, the microscopically kinked and scaled fiber surfaces maintain trapped air pockets throughout the fiber, which act as insulation regardless of how wet it is. Such insulation effects historically have served inhabitants of Saharan regions against the desert heat and chill, as well as inhabitants of the sea-faring peoples of the British Isles and Europe.
Caption: A half-shorn sheep demonstrates the amount of wool produced by one sheep in a single year.
Wool is also naturally fire-resistant. Wool fiber and fabric is difficult to light on fire and tends to self-extinguish, lending extra effectiveness to the historical fire-fighting technique of smothering or beating out small blazes with a wool blanket or rug. In similar fashion, the historic hearth-rug is a sheepskin fleece or heavy wool rug, on which hearth-fire sparks smolder quickly out. (Unfortunately, the synthetic fibers often used instead of wool are the very opposite of fire-safe, taking a spark or flame easily. Even those that resist the first heat, often do worse, flaring when they catch, and melting into goo that adheres to flesh in a fashion nastily reminiscent of napalm. Ask any burn-unit nurse about debriding a polyester burn and watch them shudder.)
Thus, a defining quality of wool is its antipathy to fire and flame and ability to retain or protect against heat. Taken together with its ability to insulate human and animal against the chill of wet weather, Water is its innate element. Remember, Water is the polar opposite of Fire.
The cotton boll is the fibrous outer coating of the seed pod of a genus of tropical mallow plants, Gossypium, requiring tropical climates, or hot subtropical, to flourish. Its light, open structure burns easily, cleanly, and quickly.
Caption: Cotton ready for harvest.
The fine, light cellulose fibers of the cotton boll form the means of wind-distribution to spread those seeds. That same fineness enables the spinning of extremely fine threads. Such fine threads in turn allow such closely woven lightweight fabrics. Such finely woven cloth makes up into cool, breathable clothing and bed-clothes. Modern cotton sheets often specify the thread-count per square inch on their packaging. Egyptian cotton, an extra long staple (natural fiber length) cotton, was used in clothing from at least as early as 3600 BCE. Our very word gauze is believed to originate with an Arabic word, and physically, gauze weaves of cotton resemble the “mist linen” worn by Pharoahnic Egyptian nobles, as depicted in a goodly number of tomb paintings there.
Similar quality long-staple Pima cotton was grown for clothing and decoration among the pre-Columbian peoples in south America—surviving examples of Pima cotton textiles there date to as early as 4400 BCE.
Today, hot- and warm-weather garments are almost exclusively made of cotton fabrics. Absorbent cotton has allowed humans to work in tropically hot and humid conditions, such as the British Raj in India, exhibiting almost a magical affinity to both use heat and protect one from heat. And candle and lamp wicks are now made of cotton almost exclusively. This affinity for Fire defines the native elemental correspondence of cotton.
Commercial silk is the fiber spun by the larvae of an Asian moth, Bombyx mori, when it becomes a pupa, spinning as much as a mile in a single cocoon. The fineness of the silk fiber when unravelled is so great that a single filament of silk was used to create one standard (a denier, used to measure linear mass density) for comparing fibers. An airborne creature for the element of air—seems obvious, no?
Most sericultured (the technical term for raising Bombyx for silk) silk is made from killed cocoons, though silk noil or raw silk is made from hatched cocoons, as is wild silk. Those intact cocoons allow the thinnest of fibers, sometimes as fine as a mere three filaments to a single thread (before spinning or plying).
If you’ve ever handled the type of silk fabric called habotai, or the silk kerchiefs used by jugglers, you’ll have a sense. And those kerchiefs seem to defy gravity as they take their time when novice jugglers learn how to snap their wrists with each toss upwards, allowing the kerchief to expand in its own breeze and thus drift, not drop, earthward again.
The silk fiber consists of a continuous protein chain, making it extremely strong for its weight. Spider silk, at about one-tenth the denier and one-fourth the diameter of silk, is considered to be the world’s strongest natural substance, based on materials standards of tensile strength-to-weight ratios. This extreme light weight and equally extreme strength of silk made it the fiber (and thus fabric) of choice when early experiments with lighter-than-air craft took place in the early 19th century.
L. Frank Baum’s 1904 description of the Wizard’s vari-colored green balloon in the first Oz novel specifies panels of fine silk fabric. The term “parachute silk” is still used in some circles, although nylon supplanted silk in parachutes and similar applications during the Second World War.
Silk fabrics can be extremely lightweight and compressible. So much so that a 19th-century test for lingerie quality was to pass a woman’s full-skirted, many-tiered silk petticoat completely through a wedding ring. At the same time, silk woven into heavier fabrics (noil, dupioni, etc.) such as are used in suiting or upholstery resembles wool in its ability to insulate against warmth or cool.
Just as young spiders disperse from their hatch sites by spinning a bit of gossamer to the breeze and riding the flying filament(s) to their new homes, a living bit of thistledown, so does the silk gossamer of the Bombyx moth enable it to fly to its native element of Air.
In a previous post, I discussed the elemental correspondences I find in individual natural fibers. In this one, I’ll continue with correspondences I’ve found to various weaves, covering commonly available fabrics in the U.S.A.
The weaver’s terminology is woven into the very fabric of the English language. Entire trades and family names remind us of the processes used in the making of fabric: weaver, walker, fuller, dyer, draper, napier, tailor… Our language is full of fiber references: we have close-knit families, prize our heirlooms, find ourselfs at loose ends, spend time woolgathering, and find our good temper wearing thin. We can be fleeced by a dyed-in-the-wool con man, strung out on coffee, shuttled back and forth between two places, and find ourselves in a run-of-the-mill day job.
Many use the phrase “warp and woof” but would look sheeish if asked what exactly it meant. On even the simplest loom, long threads are strung on a frame and held taut to provide the strength of a fabric—collectively called the warp. Filler threads weave (threaded under and over in a regular pattern) tightly or loosely across the warp at right angles—collectively called the weft, or woof (both words originate in Anglo-Saxon.)
Any fiber may be spun to a fine or thick thread, a coarse or smooth finish. The weaver’s choice of threads combines with the weave pattern and closeness (thread count) to create a huge variety of fabrics. Most often silk and cotton are used in the lighter, finer threads and fabrics, while linen and wool are used for the sturdier, heavier ones. Fabric names from all corners of the world are now English words that describe different fabrics:
- nankeen— from the place name Nanking (Chinese smooth cotton made from an Asian vegetable fiber)
- denim—from the French city “of Nimes”—de Nîmes. Sturdy cotton fiber woven similar to wool serge,
- scarlet—originally meaning a rich woolen cloth. The expensive vivid color that wool scarlet was often dyed became the name of the color itself by the end of the middle ages.
- muslin—named for the Persion city of Mosul. Originally an exceptionally high quality fine-weave cotton, expensive and valued. Now commonly used in inexpensive sheeting, upholstery underining, and in drafting garment patterns.
- calico—first imported c. 1600 CE from the Indian city of Calicut. A fine even-weave cotton, commonly printed with patterned decoration. In the USA, calico today refers solely to the printed fabric.
- gauze—debatably either from the Arabic gazz (meaning raw silk) or the city of Gaza (where it was made). Originally a transparent open-weave silk. Today cotton gauze is used in many applications, from cheese-making, to medical bandaging, to insect netting that protects sleeping people in malarial regions.
- cambric, from the Flemish city Cambray. First referred specifically to finely woven linen shirting, later imitated in cotton. The now-commonplace chambray fabric originated similarly.
Any weave can employ any fiber, in theory. It may not be all that practical to try weaving velvet out of flax, canvas of silk, or corduroy out of woolens, but it is at least possible to attempt. Of course, correspondences, as always, vary among individuals. If you’re familiar with fabrics and fibers, use your own sense of what’s true. If not, perhaps you can use this information to enrich your practice.
Magical polarities further enhance the personality of a garment to suit its wearer. Although cold weather may demand a warm robe and cloak for an outdoor circle, any fiber can be used to make them. (Wool is the commonest choice for warmth.) But if allergies or magical properties prevent, then silk or cotton may fill the need. If a midsummer ritual calls for a “watery” fabric—to encourage empathic connections, perhaps—but even wool gauze (challis) seems too hot, cotton velour may answer, using the weave correspondence instead of fiber. As with any magical enterprise, the correspondences that work are those that ring true for you.
The lightest, airy weaves used in clothing include gauzes, laces, chiffons, lawns, batistes, and challis. Such weaves intentially allow air to penetrate the fabric and reach the skin.
- Of these fabrics, modern gauzes, lawns, and batistes are usually cotton fiber, although linen lawn or batiste may still be found.
- Chiffons are most commonly seen in synthetic fibers that imitate the lustrous original (but expensive) silk. Silk chiffon is available from specialty importers.
- Challis is usually made of wool or a wool–silk blend. Wool challis is an instance of a fiber commonly used for warm and heavy fabrics being used to the opposite purpose.
- Other light and sheer fabrics include net, tulle, and mull. Most of these fabrics are transparent or translucent, and many are quite fragile, tearing or snagging easily. Tulle, for instance, is a type of netting (historically silk). Common uses in the twentieth century included veils (both bridal and for hats), as well as the 1950s “new look” use for the tiered petticoats that supported the gathered skirts of the post-war shirtwaist dresses—and are traditional in square-dance circles. Further, tulle has long been used for ballet costumes, from the token skirt called a tutu, to the longer full, floating skirts seen in nearly every production of The Nutcracker.
- Modern lace fabrics are most commonly machine-knit or woven using nylon, acrylic, acetate, rayon or polyester fibers. Some cotton lace fabrics (rather than edgings) have returned to the market in traditional lace patterns, and eyelet cotton never left it. Fortunately, the resurgent interest in natural-fiber clothing has made available a great many more traditional lace trims and fabrics. Readily available as edgings and trims, machine-made cotton eyelet is available as lace trims and full width fabrics. Machine-made cotton bobbin lace is more common as various widths of edging, from tiny picot weaves to several inches wide. Silk machine-embroidered laces are rarely available (as always, at a price). Traditional linen lace trims are also available in a few specialty locales.
The workhorse clothing fabrics today are most often cotton, a fire fiber itself. Work, especially any that requires physical energy, likewise corresponds well with fire. When selecting fabric weaves to correspond with fire, I have selected those both historically worn for energetic occupations, as well as those worn in places and locales with high temperatures. Sturdy yet cool weaves such as broadcloth, corduroy, twill, denim, canvas (duck), seersucker, and serge are all in common use wherever hot conditions prevail: gymnasiums, gardens, kitchens, aboard ships. Twill originally described a weave pattern which produces a strongly diagonal appearance on one side; modern twill is usually that weave used in a single-color cotton. Twill weave is also used to produce both denim and serge. Cotton work shirts, once routinely dyed a paler blue than the indigo of brand-new blue jeans by re-using the same indigo dye bath for the lighter weight chambray fabric, gave rise to the term blue collar as one who worked a in physically laborious profession such as carpenter, factory worker, longshoreman, etc. Caption [right]: the staggered 2-over, 2-under weave creates a strong fabric with a diagonal appearance.
- Denim is commonly cotton (woven of colored warp threads and white weft). US navy dungarees, farmers’ and mechanics’ overalls, and contractors’ jeans are examples of the workaday garments worn where sun or engine heat demands both the breathability of cotton and the ruggedness of denim garments.
Wool is traditionally used in a similar twilled weave known as serge, common in UK constables’ uniforms.
- Broadcloth, corduroy, and seersucker each has its own characteristic weave.
- Broadcloth is smooth, tightly woven tabby, common in workers’ uniforms of many sorts.
- Seersucker is a fabric woven with alternating narrow stripes of loose and taut tension threads that produce a slight puckering in the loose-weave bands, often using white for the loose stripes and colored warp thread for the taut stripes. Heavy seersucker in dark blues was used rail workers’ uniforms in the steam age, and remains traditional there. Lightweight seersucker suits are a common sight among professionals in the southern US, both humid and desert climes, and women’s Armed Forces summer uniforms are made of cotton seersucker.
- Duroy was an English coarse weave sometimes used as a strainer. Cord-duroy added thicker cords in the warp direction, similar to the modern fabric “ribcord,” but with the cords closely laid, and evolved into the pile (napped) fabric we know today. Modern corduroy consists of a woven fabric with rows of pin-width velveteen stripes. This classic corduroy is known as pinwale (wale meaning a raised weal or stripe); wide-wale corduroy having wales up to 1/2 inch have been made at times.
Fabrics with pile have extra threads woven into fabric and cut to stand up at right angles to the flat surface. Such are traditionally luxurious: plush, velvet, velveteen, velour, fur felt. Corduroy is made the same way, and can fall into either category depending on its other qualities. Also, satins with their shining surface and sliding hand evoke water in both appearance and touch. Such sensuous, luxurious surfaces correspond readily with things emotional, intuitive, psychic—the slippery senses.
- Velvet, once made only in silk, is now most commonly synthetic or rayon, with better quality fabric available in cotton. Silk-blend velvet may be found in specialty import shops.
- Velveteen, with its shorter pile and biased lightcatching quality, is routinely cotton. Unlike velvet, velveteen has a nap, a bias to the direction in which it catches the light, and how it feels to the hand, where one direction glides with the grain but the opposite direction bristles against the grain.
- Plush, like twill, simply describes the weave of the fabric, the deep, soft nap of one surface, and may be made of any fiber.
- Velour, a heavy pile fabric, is made heavier on sturdier backing for use in upholstery or similar applications; most modern velours use machine-knit (jersey) backing instead of woven.
- The formal silk top hat was traditionally made of a silk felt so deeply napped it is called fur felt—reflecting historical use of real fur to make hats. The historical slang word beaver meant a top hat, made originally of beaver pelt sheared to a smooth sheen with a distinct bias.
- Satin, orginally made of fine, smooth silk, makes the satin weave all the more successful at capturing light for a shiny surface. Cotton woven using this satin weave is called sateen. Caption [right]: Satin weave displays longer segments of warp fibers, allowing the smooth silk fibers to catch and reflect more light. One drawback to the satin weave is that these longer runs of fiber are more exposed to potential snags or damage, rendering the fabric less durable.
- Moiré fabric was originally known as watered silk, having a wavy appearance to its surface, as if it were rippled. Unlike satin-weave fabrics, moiré requires a sturdier weave, such as grosgrain or taffeta. Moiré may be woven of silk, cotton, wool, or rayon. Caption [below]: Photo of taffeta moiré fabvic showing characteristic ovals and ripple patterns.
Finally, there are the thick, heavyweight, or structural fabrics: monk’s cloth, canvas, heavy woolens, felts, and hemp or linen weaves.
- Duck cloth (usually called canvas; doek is Dutch for the word canvas) is a simple plain-weave cotton cloth of exceptional sturdiness. Used for sailmaking, uniforms, and workman’s garb, duck remains a workhorse fabric. In the late 19th century, the corporate inventor of “levis,” Levi Strauss & Co. patented the copper-rivet reinforced worker’s pants known worldwide today as blue jeans. (Yet another city name, the workhorse fabric jean was made in Genoa, or Gênes, in French.) Early in the company’s existence, Strauss experimented with brown duck as another fabric to make into dungarees (“bib overalls”) and jeans (“waist overalls”). Duck of various weights (7 ounce up to 18 ounce, measuring the weight of a 36×22-inch piece; heavier duck is made but not numbered) may be used for everything from clothing and laundry bags, to duffle bags and hammocks and sandbags. Historically, canvas met the needs of sails and sacks, sandbags and tents, capable of withstanding long exposure to sun and weather when finished as “oilcloth” with several coats of linseed oil. Caption [right]: Plain or “tabby” weave.
- The term woolens describes the whole range of heavier, bulkier wool fabrics, regardless of weave. The difference between “worsted wool” and “woolen” is the length of the fiber; worsted uses long-staple wool that spins fine and strong, while woolen is short fiber which must be spun thicker and is necessarily much fuzzier from all the short-fiber ends in the thread. Wool is the fiber, woolen and worsted are the types of wool. Wool fiber has been re-used in the past. The word “shoddy,” specifically meaning wool fiber re-used in new wool fabric which quickly breaks down in use, dates to the U.S. Civil War 150 years ago. Shoddy has come to describe any poorly crafted work. Hence, the wool industry trademark for “virgin wool” (Eurozone “new wool”), which has appeared on Pendleton Woolen Mills labels for decades.
- Woolen, made of carded wool, has a fairly short staple (natural filament length), is likely to felt when laundered; one reason why laundering wool is not a task for the novice.
Caption [left]: A woven woolen blanket that’s been felted, either accidentally, or in manufacturing.
- Worsted, of combed wool, has a longer staple can spin to extremely fine threads, and thus weave to a lightness and fineness used for men’s summerweight suits even in New York City. (If you ever wondered how Middle Eastern nomads could wear wool, this is part of the answer. The other part is that wool insulates, whether against heat or chill.)
- Woolen, made of carded wool, has a fairly short staple (natural filament length), is likely to felt when laundered; one reason why laundering wool is not a task for the novice.
- Monk’s cloth describes a particular heavy, loose-weave fabric that was historically made of wool. Modern cotton monks-cloth is easily recognized—the weave pattern uses a very loose tabby pattern of four threads warp and weft interwoven. The resulting fabric resembles the appearance of a cotton thermal blanket, in which air pockets woven into the fabric act as insulation in hot or cold weather. Monk’s cloth woven of solid color cotton often is available at modern fabric suppliers.
- Felt, although sometimes an entirely non-woven fabric, has also been made by weaving heavy wool yarn and shrinking and napping it to produce an extremely warm fabric with a water-repellant surface. Modern felts are usually synthetic fiber, non-woven, and used solely for non-structural craft work. However, the process of felting wool can be closely reproduced in a modern washer, as many an incautious launderer still learns today. (Hot water, soap, and steady, gentle agitation allow the surface of the wool fibers to ratchet more and more tightly together.) Thus a deliberately felted blanket woolen can produce a fabric similar to a traditional felt, greatly improving the insulation value and adding it to the woven structural strength.
Whether your fiber project requires a careful choice of magical correspondence or just the best fiber and fabric for a purpose, some understanding of the options on today’s market can help modern pagans choose to suit their needs and ends.
Footnote: magical consideration aside, walking lightly on Gaia’s surface is helped by choosing natural fibers over synthetic ones; no one has ever answered one question satisfactorily: what happens to polyester fabric in a landfill? So far as we can tell, xeno-archeologists of the 40th century may find those wrinkle-free knit slacks and polyester leisure suits in near-wearable condition when their humanologists dig our middens!
A Word About Wood—
Natural Fire Management
The first article I ever wrote for a Pagan magazine described my attribution of the four common natural fibers to elemental correspondences, in which I spoke about wool corresponding to elemental Water. There’s good reason for that. When exposed to flame, wool ignites reluctantly, the char spreads slowly, and tends to self-extinguish. These facts were used in early 20th-century quality-control textile testing of wool fabrics, according to the 1942 industrial Encyclopedia of Textiles. Every householder knew those fact before the days of synthetic fiber and central heating.
Historic home traditions in fire-fighting and fire prevention may puzzle the millennial generation. A hearthrug, as its name says, was a rug laid before the hearth or hearthstone. Modern dictionary definitions merely state that their purpose was to protect the floor—if your home had a floor made of wood—a luxury in many cottage households, while earthen floors were commonplace. Back to the wood floor; sparks jumping outward from the hearth fire—a cook-fire & heat source at once, were a commonplace event that marred that cherished wood floor. Hearthrugs were, of course, were made of wool. And wool hates to burn! A hearthrug, whether a whole sheepskin, a patterned wool weaving, or a rag rug that recycled the rags of worn-out wool clothing, lay where the sparks from an open cook-fire might leap, and extinguish any opportunistic flames that tried to take hold.
Blanket Means Wool
Home fire-fighting equipment consisted of a bucket of sand (not water) and old blankets—no one in the 19th century felt any need to specify that blankets were made of wool. During my childhood, Army surplus blankets—those olive-drab green remnants of WWII & Korean War oversupply—were routinely a few layers of the bedrolls mother taught us to make (what’s a sleeping bag?). The family camped with them in Mohave Desert, in Joshua Tree National Park, and in Sequoia National Park we discovered the environment on the western edge of the continent. By the time we lived in northern California in the mid-1960s, I recognized the value of that traditional fire-fighting technique, when dog-day grass fires saw every able-bodied man grabbing a blanket or throw rug as they ran towards the edges of the fire to contain & control it, often accomplished before the local all-volunteer fire department could arrive—who then wetted down the entire site to prevent surprise re-ignition. Wool blankets, wool area rugs, wool horse blankets: emergency equipment on ranches, farms, homesteads, and ordinary households.
Wool has a magic all its own.
IMPORTANT! Don’t try this with just any blanket today—
synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, or fleece will flare,
stick to human skin, and retain heat long after active flame is gone—
more like napalm than fire-suppressant; people have died wearing polar fleece.)
©Deborah Snavely, 2006, 2015, 2019 all rights reserved.