Textile Production & Finland’s Kalevala

Many years ago, a single parent, employed full-time and in my last semester at UC Berkeley, I carefully searched the catalogue for a course that seemed interesting yet would not assign a lot of reading. I noticed a course in the Scandinavian Department titled “Arctic Literature.” Surely, I thought, there wouldn’t be much reading in that course. After all, I reasoned rather hopefully, areas that had only recently developed written traditions would not have left all that much available reading material. WRONG.

Key among the readings assigned was The Kalevala, Finland’s folk epic. (Other, perhaps better known, folk epics include Beowolf [Anglo-Saxon] and The Mahabharata [Indian].)

Compiled in the early 19th century by Elias Lönnrot (then a student at Finland’s Turku Academy), The Kalevala is a cosmology epic (creation of the world) composed of 50 poems – a collection of oral traditional songs, lyrics and magic. Historically, the poems were passed from generation to generation by singing. That involved two people holding hands, who would pull and push (rock back and forth) as they exchanged lines. (Hence the black and white picture I’ve included!)

Apparently unnoticed by the other experts whose analyses we read, textile production – particularly carding, spinning and weaving – was a common imagery used throughout the poems. Couldn’t this too, I wondered, be another form of creation imagery? Though The Kalevala is suffused with textile imagery, it seemed ignored by experts (including the professor he rather shamefacedly admitted as he graded my research paper). Neither Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. nor Juha Pentikäinen (the scholarly experts on The Kalevala) made reference to the very frequent textile imagery in The Kalevala. Did they see it as “unimportant” and thus ancillary to the cosmology?

By the way, according to the professor, the creator of the old cartoon character “Mr. Magoo” based the character on one of his professors – Professor Magoun!

But I digress.

An area rich with contribution as metaphors in the folklore tradition is the realm traditionally considered a woman’s domain: textile production. For instance, spinning was referred to by the Roman poet Catullus in 54 B.C. and in the 14th century by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales.

By the way, according to Chaucer, god gave women “deceit, weeping, [and] spinning.”

I digress once again.

The very opening and closing poems of The Kalevala use imagery from the world of textile production, the world of women:

These my father formerly sang
while carving an ax handle,
these my mother taught me
while turning her spindle
(Poem 1:3)

I had to learn it at home
under the rooftree of my own storehouse
by my mother’s distaff,
by the chips my brother whittled,
(Poem 50:338)

I believe that textile imagery suffusing The Kalevala is much more than that of mere motifs. I hope one day folklorists and mythologists will research the ideas my suggestions raise. Now, however, to quote from The Kalevala (Poem 50:377): “I will wind up my verses in a clew” [a ball of yarn or thread] and hope they do not “form a tangled mass” in your mind.

By the way, I have thought about rewriting my research paper into an article to submit to Piecework. Any thoughts?




About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Dyeing, Fibers, Spinning, Weaving and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Textile Production & Finland’s Kalevala

  1. Pingback: Versatile Blogger Award « Agujas

  2. Oh yes – knew and probably saw daily! even Sleeping Beauty, I believe, poked her finger on a spindle before she fell into her long sleep. 🙂 If the article is accepted by Piecework (that’s probably a big if 🙂 ) will let everybdy know on my blog. Thanks!


  3. Julia says:

    A lot of fairytales and folklore contain a lot of textiles, because hey, that’s what people knew! I would love to read your article, if and when.


  4. Curls & Q says:

    I’ve had lots of practice editing! 😎


  5. You know I WILL take you up on this … 🙂


  6. Curls & Q says:

    Absolutely! 😎


  7. Great – feel like reading a clean draft of my Kalevala paper?!


  8. Curls & Q says:

    We’d love to have you join us! Neither Barb nor I miss your blog. We LOVE academic “stuff”. Subscribe to academic type magazines as well as our knitting and craft ones. 😎


  9. Thank you! I’ve gotten so much encouragement so I will!


  10. Thank you for reading my blog. I’m glad you enjoy it. I will see what topics Piecework’s planning.


  11. I don’t think we’re alone … and it’s great that there’s always somebody who knows some interesting tidbit of textile history that I can learn from!


  12. Thanks for reading it; I’m glad you enjoy it. I used to go into little digressions when I was lecturing … students used to love it – I think they even tried to get me sidetracked – probably because it got away from the materials at hand. 🙂 And I will take a peek at Piecework to see what upcoming topics they have planned!


  13. I may very well do so … I have a couple of various drafts of it. I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. I am always concerned I sound a bit too academic/professorial. My daughter away at college her first year told me that she was the only person she’d heard of that wrote personal letters with footnotes! I wish I listed in your area … I would love to join you at your “office.” 🙂


  14. Curls & Q says:

    Write it! I think it is the type of article they like. Then I’ll send my Piecework up to you to autograph! I downloaded Kalevala to my Kindle in 2010. Have to admit I have not read all of it! I have the Icelandic Sagas too. 😎 Love the wonderful info on your blog!


  15. Ethel says:

    Yet another informative and enjoyable blog – digressions and all. Should you submit a piece to Piecework? Absolutely!


  16. fiberdazed says:

    That is an excellent idea, people are always interested in fiber arts history. Well, at least I am,


  17. Claire says:

    fascinating – and enjoyable digressions! yes, you should submit to piecework.


  18. jenyjenny says:

    Yes, please do! I look forward to it!


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