Category Archives: About Wicca

Essays, articles, and interviews on the topic of Wicca by or involving Deb Snavely.

Brothers and Sisters of the Art

In the context of initiation, as one encounters for the first time the phrase, brothers and sisters of the Art, one experiences the sense of kinfolk, of being reunited with one’s people. The feeling warms one, and produces a sense of the larger connected tribe, often evoking that sense of coming home that many of us feel. And down the road, depending on the preferences of your elders, as well as your own, you may come to wish to participate in the larger family.

Certainly brothers and sisters of the Art are, indeed, a family, far-flung, widespread, and funky. Alas, they also act the same as does any other family. They support, they bitch, they hug, they gossip, they wound, they heal, they backstab, and sometimes, they reconcile.

They hold reunions for family…but limit the guest lists.

Some may create lines of communication specific to a particular part of the family—email lists or Facebook groups—for Gardnerians, or Alexandrians, or members of other traditions of British Traditional Wicca, or sub-groups of the same, for Johnsonites or Olwenites or Chthonoi or LI line or Kentucky line or Dogpatch line. It is likely that any given such list will exclude a sizable portion of the family you know to be Wicca.

The concept that any single guest list or elist or roster is both open to all of a particular British tradition of Witchcraft while being firmly closed to any not of the Wicca? Delusional.

To use a Potteresque term, anyone holding the belief that they are purebloods to the Nth degree…is like to to find a mudblood in every closet. Some less than more, some much more than not. Humans have been as like themselves as they continue to be.

Coven autonomy is an idea that we’re taught is true. Respect for coven autonomy, however, lasts only about as long as it takes any one of the Wicca to become infected with the fundamentalist* principle that there is only one true Wicca.

*Dictionaries will tell you that the very term “fundamentalist” is  a Christian concept.

In the midst of life…

Once upon a time, I studied core shamanic practice, as a means of adding possible additional skills to my witchy toolkit. It happened that the place where I attended the course sessions was a lovely Pagan shop located in Roseburg, Oregon. And during that course, we partnered with another student several times in order to perform various exercises in shamanic journeying. It was towards the end of that course that I partnered with a lovely woman of my age and musical British accent in an exercise in soul retrieval.

The journey I took evaporated from my memory when it was no longer needed. Our exchange after the retrieval, however, remains vivid in my recall. When we roused and sat up, I sang her a familiar ditty I’d learned as a tot at my mother’s knee:

“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green;
When I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.”
“Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?”
” ‘Twas my own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so!”

I sang the whole thing; she flooded with tears by the second “dilly dilly”, and I offered embrace, and shoulder, which she accepted while I completed the song. In our debriefing after the little cloudburst, she told me that her father had sung the first couplet to her when she was small (five or thereabouts). And she asked me what the rest of the words were, and I sang them again, and then we sung them together. Because she’d never known more than the first two lines, and the second couplet moved her, and completed some old unfinished emotional business for her. She thanked me profoundly…and that was the last time I saw her. I could not have told you her name, after several years, but I recall clearly her generous spirit, her loving aura, her sweetness of countenance, and the music of her speech.

I took away from that course a confidence in my own witchy skills, and a very precious memory of that connection between us.  And still I could not have told you her name.

Today I learned that the Umpqua Community College shooter took her life with his sociopathic actions. Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, whose static image flashed briefly on my TV screen less than 24 hours ago, giving me a nervous tummy and a search to try to confirm or deny my momentary quease. The Wild Hunt‘s Heather Greene has answered my uncertainty for me with her post of October 3, 2015 and its photo that connects her spirit to her image…

Another addition to my western altar of beloved dead.
Another unspeakable insanity bred of our hate-filled airwaves and fear-filled fundamentalists.
Another instance of rage against the system (the “establishment,” the “powers that be,”…)

The purpose of the system is to perpetuate the system. 

I wrote that in my collection of insights during my sophomore year of high school. It seems self-explanatory, but I will explain. I was frustrated (as are all children of any intelligence subjected to the drone of lock-step schooling) by the means and methods and mundanities of public high school. (I’d attended private school through fourth grade, and spent the next few years learning to keep my head down in public ones). I don’t remember the immediate cause of my anger and frustration, merely that whatever it was, the rules and regimens seemed absolutely contradictory to the stated purpose of high school, or any school, to provide its students with an education. And then, hey, presto!, I had my insight, and realized that nothing about the public high school system was truly about education, it was about maintaining its own continuity. Even a system has a survival instinct!

If I seem, in this post, to have turned a very dramatic corner, no, I haven’t. The Umpqua Community College attack reminds me all too forcibly of the Kip Kinkel murders, that 15-year-old spree killer who, a year before Columbine, murdered his parents, then went to the school that expelled him (Thurston High, Springfield, Oregon) and shot 27 people, two of whom died. My mother went to church with a psychiatrist who had treated the boy, and who had attempted to give his parents appropriate warning…

“In the midst of life, we are in death.”
translated from the Latin original, by Anonymous, ~750 CE, France
“No one here gets out alive.”
lyrics from the song “Five to One” by The Doors, 1969 CE
“Life is a death sentence.  Death is a life sentence.
paired epigrams by Deborah Snavely, ~1972

No one at all is “safe.” The price of life is death, whether you’re a single-celled organism, a giant blue star,  or the complex and multifarious hierarchy of ecosystems that make up a single mammal. It so happens I believe there is more, much more. That is not why I’m a witch, it’s one of the simple facts that tie into my practice. In a universe where every physical thing (matter) transforms into other physical or energetic things, and energy similarly transforms into matter, the spirit (or soul or mind or consciousness) that is each and every one of those things including humans and cats and redwoods and cacti does not simply dissolve into vacuum when the associated organism with which it is linked, or imbued, begins the transformation from what we call life to what we call death…

So, Kim, wherever your soul now rests and recovers from the shock of sudden death,
I sing you one last chorus…

“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green;
When I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.”
“Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?”
” ‘Twas my own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so!”

I ask of my deities, that you be aided in your crossing by the Hornéd Lord of Death & Rebirth, and in His care, that of the Comforter, the Consoler, may you rest in the Summerlands until, by the grace of the Great Mother, you are born again into a new body. And may that be at the same time and same place as your loved ones, and may you meet, and know, and remember, and love them again…

Hallows

The eve of the feast of All Hallows. All Hallows Evening, Hallows Even, Hallows E’en, Hallow’e’en, Halloween. Traced through from the old long method of specifying a day, all the way up to the current term, as the equinox tips the balance from light half to dark half, looming Hallows begins to nudge the mind.

OK, back up a second here. Do I really know what a hallow is? (I seem to be chatting between chunks of my mind in this post. <shrug>)

The first several dictionaries only give the word hallow as a verb, meaning to make holy, to sanctify. I kept looking. Aha! An etymological dictionary also gives hallow as a noun, specifically obsolete with a single exception, “Halloween.” What does the noun hallow mean? Dictionary says, “a holy person, a saint.”

<I sing a song of the saints of god…>

Sheesh, ghost of my Episcopal childhood. That maybe applies! Looking at it from a Witch’s viewpoint, a hallow is someone deceased who is venerated—ancestors, or as we say at this season every year, our “beloved dead.”

So, Hallows. All Hallows. What do Witches do, think, celebrate at All Hallows?

<cue hokey redition of song Memories> “No, really, what?”

Memories

My grandmother died in 1979, close to the age of 83, and on the opposite side of the continent, a distance that was bridged but occasionally over the decades I knew her. A couple of trips back East as a child, a teen summer on the other coast, Grammy’s own travel to California—driving cross-country one summer in the 1950s, a month’s stay during high school, one last trip the summer after I graduated college. Still, it was years before I shed more than the odd tear over the loss. Literally. I turned right off one of the Valley’s monster thoroughfares on my drive home, and an attractive little old lady crossing the side street hustled as the Walk light changed to Wait, and tossed a smile at me in my Beetle driver’s seat. And I waved her across with a gesture of patience and return smile, but something of her look and cheerful eyes rang a memory bell, and for a couple of blocks I shed tears for the Grammy who bustled about, knitting and cooking, and sometimes teaching me both skills.

My “Uncle Daddy” died in 1996. It was a nickname he acquired during the summer my sister and I spent as part of his family, when “Uncle Donny” from us two and “Daddy” from his three merged into the accidental but elegant moniker. (Sis and I knew from a young age, ’cause we asked, if Mom died, we’d go live with him and Aunt Marian, so it seemed to fit.) Him, I was closer to. We got along, and especially after my college grad trip (a month in Connecticut in their house on the Sound that faced the island residence of Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley, and a later week’s visit.)  Still, when he died, I was astonished to find myself needing bereavement leave. Fortunately, my boss got it when I came in and couldn’t even explain about the Daddy part of the Uncle Daddy without a flood, and did not quibble that aunts and uncles were not covered under corporate leave policy.

I don’t remember exactly when I called the New Haven City Clerk to get a certified copy of my birth certificate, in pursuit of a passort. But that call taught me,  viscerally, that there is such a thing as a New Haven accent. The woman who answered one layer of questions was indistinguishable in voice from my Grammy; and the call finished me off when the second human mirrored the tones of my Uncle Daddy. It was all I could to speak through the surprise tearburst.

So why all this melancholy? Because I’ve seen them since then.

Whoops, say what?

One way and another. Shaddup, you might learn something.

My uncle, the ever-exploratory people person, was his 200-plus year old Episcopalian parish’s lector (he read the lessons during services). However, I had occasion to know his curiosity came in all flavors. Y’see, on that college grad visit, when he collected me at the airport, he asked me a favor. There had been a bar in town (New Haven) that used be a known meat market, “The Snow Chicken.” And it had closed, been sold, and when it reopened under gay management, was now called “The Neuter Rooster.” He wanted to check it out, but was leery of going alone lest he be hit on and not know how to respond politely. I told him I was game, though he’d only be buying me sodas, and away we went. Not being a drinker, and being violently allergic to tobacco smoke, my ventures inside any bars were damned rare (it was the 1970s, tobacco companies were still testifying with straight faces to Congress that smoking was harmless and tobacco was not addictive).

My goodness, what a joint. Decor ran to early ice cave, with white-foamed sparkling stuff flowing like snow to form dividers behind and between booths and on the cavernous low ceiling, with the occasional line of tinsel “icicles” emphasizing the visual separation between booths. Populated sparsely with pristine white unclothed manikins of genderless features, the waitstaff uniform was similarly white. From the top down, French-cut t-shirts, tighty whities, crew socks, and white lace-up low-tops. I mean white! (In hindsight, I feel sure there was a touch of UV to the lighting that made all the white pop.) But the entry was actually the weirdest, with a small foyer that featured a floodlight, dais-placed, six-foot tall full color rooster…with a pair of outsize human breasts that might have equally well graced San Fran’s historic stripper “Carol Doty and her twin 45s”. One was confronted with that as soon as you got fully indoors, and then a right-angle turn and into the ice cave (which featured a pocket hanky dance floor with fully mirrored sphere above it.) No, this nice straight uncle didn’t run screaming for the exit. We made our way in, I took a barstool next to a manikin (to prevent anyone else using it, I’d had my share of eye-openers in my college years) and Uncle Don took the next, and we got a really good look at the uniform as the bartender served us. (I forgot to mention that the staff were also quite buff. Facial looks OK, but bodies that benefitted from the form-fitting uniforms. Of course, anyone today who knows the gay universe will say, “of course!” But I was a novice in those waters.) Had a couple of drinks, a little stray conversation with “Joanne,” who brought up the subject of how well her cross-dressing allowed her to “pass.” And a little more, businessman to businessman, between Uncle and the barkeep cause it was early afternoon and slow, slow, slow. We left after maybe half an hour, Uncle’s curiosity satisfied.

After Don’s death, which occurred in August a couple of decades after that visit, I recovered fairly briskly from the first shock of loss, and went about my life. September rolled along, and next thing I know, it’s Samhain, Hallows, and my coven is circling, with a special place at the west side of circle for individual remembrances of our beloved dead. I don’t recall what token I brought for him, but it was a fresh loss still. Never gonna challenge him over a Scrabble board again. He’s never gonna nuke a table full of us in a game of Hearts, laying down his hand after one trick or none, and announcing “the rest are mine.” (I’ll bet he killed at bridge.) He’s never gonna find a way to rib me gently, in his quiet way. And I don’t know how much he knew of Witchcraft, or Wicca, or occult matters generally, but he was invited to that circle. During, I thought he was there,  after his name was called—but I rarely *see* things. (There’s a reason I call it my sniffer or my antennæ.) Until I all but heard him say out loud, in an ear I don’t have on my body, “Huh. Nice. Don’t know what all the [negativity] fuss is about.” And I perceived, don’t ask me how, that his curiosity about my spiritual practice had been satisfied. Just as he felt no need to return to the Neuter Rooster once scoped, he has never attended another of our Hallows circles—I guess he learned what he wished.

You heard something? That’s it?

Bah. And likewise humbug to you. You hadda be there.

Right. Listen, you said you’ve seen both of them since then. So, tell!

OK. I actually saw Grammy a few years before Uncle Daddy died. Did I mention that I don’t perceive psi phenomena on my visual circuits?

Yeah, you said that, in different words. Get on with it.

It’s quite simple. I was practicing as a solitary, so I took myself to a favorite regional park, and went for a long, meditative Samhain hike. Trails wove through bronzed oaks and berried madrones, alongside rivulet creeks into pockets of redwoods, and across the ridges between the creeks. A couple of hours in, as I was wending my way downhill again, the trail I followed forded a larger creek just below where it bubbled and pooled over the baby boulders that winter torrents had tumbled thence over the years. A windfall Doug fir lay along the trail, with a seat worn smooth by countless backsides inviting me to take a breather. I did, rapidly losing time gazing into the living cascade before me, where the subtly irregular flow of water over one boulder seemed to shimmer. And then, between heartbeat and heartbeat, I was looking at a lovely, striking, bicolored face just above the churning water—stern of line, gently smiling of countenance, midnight black on one side and shimmering white on the other. Completely unexpected, Hel, Norse goddess of the dead, chose to visit. It seemed entirely á propos for Her to do so, at the season when, as the traditional phrase has it, the veil between the worlds is thin. She had no words for me, and departed soon enough. And I continued on my waning hike, returning along a different loop of trail, and then, as I glanced over the open air before descending a last slope, I halted, looking at a full color vision that I recognized—and almost didn’t. In life, I never saw my grandmother in ’20s headband and flapper’s fringed sheath dress (I knew her always as an overweight woman clad in the inevitable rayon dresses that the “half sizes” of the 1960s condemned her to). But…that fading October afternoon, there she stood with air beneath her feet: plump though much thinner than my memory, happy and smiling, my grandmother’s face smoothed and blushing, her inner clock turned back to the age of 25. In fleeting thoughts, she greeted me, pleased to visit, joyous with her current intangible existence, and shared her blessing of the spiritual path I’d chosen. And then her attention was drawn over her shoulder where I saw naught, and my heart beat once more and she was gone.

There. I’ve told you. No smart remarks? No snarking?

No.

That’s all. Just “no”?

No…and thank you for sharing.

Weaving a Web

Fabric Correspondences

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. warpOn 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.) weft

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.

Air

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.
  • eyelet-lace-fabricModern 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.

Fire

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. twillweaveTwill 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 southervelvet_corduroyn 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.

Water

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. satin-weaveCotton 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. moire

Earth

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. tabby-weaveUsed 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.woolmark-logo 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. felted-wool-blanket
    • 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.)

monks-cloth

  • 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.

Related post: Spinning a Spell

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!

Spinning a Spell

Fiber Correspondences

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.

Earth

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

irish-linen-process

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.

Water

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.half-shornsheep
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.

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.

cotton-bollCaption: 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.

Air

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).

Caption: A handful of cocoons ready to unreel.silkcocoonshand

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.

Related post: Weaving a Web

©Deborah Snavely, 2006, 2015, all rights reserved.