What determines if a piece of clothing becomes an heirloom, or ends up in the rag bag? How did the soul of cloth get lost?
In search for some answers, I turn to one of my most loved books about textiles; Cloth and Human Experience, a collection of essays by art historians and anthropologists, edited by Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider. The book takes us across six continents, and through a wide variety of times and political systems, all the while pondering cloth.
Materialistic as well as symbolic perspectives are discussed.
What I learn is that during the period of time when industrialism took over the textile industry, the role of cloth and clothing changed dramatically. The common idea that cloth constituted a binding tie to sacred sources became marginalized.
The new fashion system took over with increasingly rapid trends. Fast turnovers became the dominant focus in a never-ending chase for profit. The result was that a big volume of cloth ended up in the ragbag.
The new ways of manufacturing cloth made it impossible to sustain ideas of benevolent spiritual involvement in the production process.
Even when manufacturing was organized through home industries and involved considerable handwork, market pressures to cheapen and streamline labor prevented textile workers from thinking about, or ritually acknowledging, the transmission of a sacred energy through cloth.
Homeworkers typically experienced low piece rates, the fragmentation of the production process among different categories of operatives and the introduction of labor-saving machinery. Merchant-entrepreneurs divided the stages of manufacture and manipulated textile workers.
Jane Schneider has done extensive research on this development. She speculates on the possible connections between the merchant capitalist intensification of linen production in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, and the transformation of spirit helpers into demons, hostile to women’s fertility and reproduction.
This transformation was the result of the process when cloth manufacturing ceased to be a setting for focusing on the regenerative power of cloth.
As an example to this new tendency for animistic spirits to take on demonic qualities, she mentions The Rumpelstiltskin Tale, in which a poltergeist offers assistance to a poor spinner at the price of her firstborn child. The negative message implicit in such a devil-pact is a sharp contrast to the previously widespread idea that spirits gave protective powers to cloth.
The tale puts the goals of production against the goals of reproduction, suggesting that they are inherently contradictory rather than related.
The young woman eventually manages to break this pact, and save her firstborn, by figuring out his real name, Rumpelstiltskin. This German name literally means "little rattle stilt". A rumpelstilt was a type of goblin that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. The meaning is similar to poltergeist, a mischievous spirit that clatters and moves household objects.
So, why is it important to know his name and what is the deeper message of this story? Seeing things clearly is important. Understanding that Rumpelstiltskin is actually just a nature spirit that has been demonized might help us find our way back to relating to, and interacting with, that world again.
The ”little people” used to be our friends and helpers. By what process did they become so demonized?
Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the witch-hunts that tore up rural Europe. Peasants were subjected to an elite demonology that assimilated earth spirits, as well as the spirits of the dead, to the Christian devil.
In The Rumpelstiltskin Tale the little demon makes gold out of straw and helps the spinner to a ruling position in the world at the cost of her natural fertility. Are we still bound by this devil-pact? And if we are… how long are we going to put up with it? When will we stop chasing material wealth and status?
The soul of cloth is not lost… we are just too caught up in the negative patterns of the textile industry to perceive it. To connect with it. The ties are still there, but without awareness we are oblivious of its healing power.
Maybe goblins like Rumpelstiltskin are important allies?