Woolgathering


Last week I went to the John Arbon spinning mill in South Molton, as they were having an open day. John talked us through the surprisingly complex process of turning raw sheep fleece in to thread for knitting and weaving. Most of his machines are rescued or reclaimed and each one is named, which gives the mill a certain atmosphere and the feel of a working museum.

At one point in the tour John had to put a fresh set of bobbins on a machine before he could demonstrate it. Whilst talking us through the process he said “I’ll just doff the thread, that is, undo it or take it off…” then he paused before musing “It’s all ways ‘doff’ when you remove a thread, I don’t know why.” Various suggestions were put forward without any certain knowledge and I made a mental note to look it up when I got home.

Doff is, unsurprisingly, a contraction of “do off”. In much the same way, when you get dressed, you “do on” your clothes, though we rarely use “don” for anything except hats these days.
That this mostly archaic term should be preserved in the textile trade is interesting, well it is to me anyway. This is partly because so much of the terminology for storytelling comes from the textile business.

Further back in history than the invention of Mr Arbon’s assorted combing, cleaning, stretching and twisting devices, back when ordinary people still manufactured their own clothes, everybody could spin wool. When work in the fields was done for the day and the evening meal had been eaten but not yet digested, everyone took out a spindle and some fleece. There they would sit, setting the spindles turning and pulling out the fleece, stretching it and letting the spindle twist the fibres together. It was common for someone to tell a tale, so common in fact that the acts of telling a story and creating thread became synonymous, and so we get both “spinning a story” and “telling a yarn”.

The action of pulling the fleece to make it ready for spinning is known as drafting, which is the same as drawing, from “to draw” which means to drag or pull. If you draft your wool a lot then you get a fine thread and a longer thread from the same amount of fleece. Making finer thread will also take more time so your story might get a bit “long and drawn out”.

Whilst all women, men and children could and did spin, it took a little more skill to operate a loom. Nevertheless, once all the threads had been set up an experienced user could still work one and entertain, so “weaving a tale of wonder” entered the language as well.

Some of the old tales were collected and have come down to us in books such as the famous Grimm’s Household and Children’s Stories. Our lexical connection to cloth does not end here though. Before you commit your words to a page, it pays to draw out your yarn in a “first draft”. To weave in Latin is “texere” and it is from this that we get our name not only for textiles but for the written word: text.

So what you are reading is the final draft of a yarn that has been spun and woven in to a cloth of words. Finally it is worth noting that both the textile and the story process often start in the same place, with a bit of woolgathering.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Woolgathering

  1. Fiona

    What a delightful topic! As a lacemaker and embriderer (you missed ’embroidering the truth!’) I really love this

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