Preparing reading selections for a class, the professor read through stories by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Her specific questions arose from the story “Die drei Männlein im Walde” / “The Three Little Men in the Woods” (1812).
The professor asked why yarn would be boiled and why might it then be rinsed in a cold river. The part of the story her questions came from is this:
In German: Endlich nahm sie [die Hexe] einen Kessel, setzte ihn zum Feuer und sott Garn darin. Als es gesotten war, hing sie es dem armen Mädchen auf die Schulter und gab ihm eine Axt dazu, damit sollte es auf den gefrornen Fluß gehen, ein Eisloch hauen und das Garn schlittern.
In English: So at last she [the witch] took a kettle, set it on the fire, and scalded some yarn in it. When it was ready she hung it over the poor girl’s shoulder, and gave her an axe, and she was to go to the frozen river and break a hole in the ice, and there to rinse the yarn.
My first step was to determine whether Garn schlichtern/schlittern might have a meaning other than physically “sliding the yarn” into the river. The professor knew of no other meaning. After searching through my textile-related books and several German commercial textile sites, I found no textile/fiber-specific meaning.
Why was the yarn sott or scalded ? The yarn might have been scalded for one or any combination of these reasons:
- The yarn might have been in a dye pot where the water is brought to boil (though there’s no mention of dyeing in this story) so the fiber will absorb the dye.
- The yarn might well have been spun in the grease so a good roiling boil was needed to clean it.
- The witch might have boiled the yarn as a way to align the fibers in the yarn thus making it stronger and smoother.
Why schlichtern or slide the yarn into an icy river?
- Moving water will quickly rinse away dye stuff not absorbed by the yarn.
- The cold river water would further tighten the fibers in the yarn (especially if kept under tension) thus making it harder wearing (desirable for, e.g., rugs or sole liners).
What’s your best guess?!