The Three Weavers, part II: How the Story Begins

So with her father’s blessing light upon her, she rode away beside the prince; and ever after, all her life was crowned with happiness as it had been written for her in the stars.

In the introduction to this short series, I offered some background on Annie Fellows Johnston’s purity morality tale, The Three Weavers. This short story had a big impact on me as a teen, and it has only been gaining in popularity in patriarchal circles in the years since then. In this post I will provide the first part of Johnston’s story, followed by some commentary.

Once upon a time (the same time that the Lady of Shalott wove her magic web, and near the four gray towers from which she watched the road running down to Camelot), there lived three weavers. Their houses stood side by side, and such had been their equal fortunes that whatever happened under the roof of one had always happened under the roofs of the others. They wove the same patterns in their looms, and they received the same number of shillings for their webs. They sang the same songs, told the same tales, ate the same kind of broth from the same kind of bowls, and dressed in the same coarse goods of hodden gray.

But they were unlike as three weavers could possibly be. The first insisted on weaving all his webs a certain length, regardless of the size of the man who must wear the mantle. (Each web was supposed to be just long enough to make one mantle.) The second carelessly wove his any length that happened to be convenient, and stretched or cut it afterward to fit whomsoever would take it. But the third, with great painstaking and care, measured first the man and then the web by the inches and ells of his carefully notched yardstick.

Now to each weaver was born a daughter, all on the same day, and they named them Hertha, Huberta, and Hildegarde. On the night after the christening, as the three men sat smoking their pipes on the same stoop, the father of Hertha said, ‘Do not think me puffed up with unseemly pride, good neighbours, but wonderful fortune hath befallen me and mine this day. Clotho, the good fairy of all the weavers, was present at my Hertha’s christening, and left beside her cradle a gift: a tiny loom that from beam to shuttle is of purest gold. And she whispered to me in passing, “Good fortune, Herthold. It is written in the stars that a royal prince shall seek to wed thy child.”‘

But Herthold’s news caused no astonishment to his neighbours. What had happened under the roof of one had happened under the roofs of all, and the same good fortune was written in the stars for each, and the same gift had been left by each child’s cradle. So the three friends rejoiced together, and boasted jestingly among themselves of the three kings’ sons who should some day sit down at their tables.

But presently Hildgardmar, the father of Hildegarde, said, ‘But there may be a slip twixt cup and lip. Mayhap our daughters cannot fulfil the required condition.’ At that they looked grave for a moment, for Clotho had added in passing, ‘One thing is necessary. She must weave upon this loom I leave a royal mantle for the prince’s wearing. It must be ample and fair to look upon, rich cloth of gold, of princely size and texture. Many will come to claim it, but if it is woven rightly the destined prince alone can wear it, and him it will fit in all faultlessness, as the falcon’s feathers fit the falcon. But if it should not be ample and fine, meet for royal wearing, the prince will not deign to don it, and the maiden’s heart shall break, as broke the shattered mirror of the Lady of Shalott.’

‘Oh, well,’ said Herthold, when the three had smoked in silence a little space. ‘I’ll guard against that. I shall hide all knowledge of the magic loom from my daughter until she be grown. Then, under mine own eye, by mine own measurements that I always use, shall she weave the goodly garment. In the meantime she shall learn all the arts which become a princess to know—broidery and fair needlework, and songs upon a lute. But of the weaving she shall know naught until she be grown. That I am determined upon. ‘Tis sorry work her childish hands would make of it, if left to throw the shuttle at a maiden’s fickle fancy.’

But Hubert shook his head. ‘Why stew about a trifle!’ he exclaimed. ‘Forsooth, on such a tiny loom no web of any kind can well be woven. ‘Tis but a toy that Clotho left the child to play with, and she shall weave her dreams and fancies on it at her own sweet will. I shall not interfere. What’s written in the stars is written, and naught that I can do will change it. Away, friend Hildgardmar, with thy forebodings!’

Hildgardmar said nothing in reply, but he thought much. He followed the example of the others, and early and late might have been heard the pounding of the three looms, for there was need to work harder than ever now, that the little maidens might have teachers for all the arts becoming a princess—broidery and fair needlework and songs upon the lute.

While the looms pounded in the dwellings the little maidens grew apace. They played together in the same garden and learned from the same skilled teachers their daily lessons, and in their fondness for each other were as three sisters.

Okay, so to recap, there were three weavers—Herthold, Hubert, and Hildgardmar—who were neighbors and friends. To each was born a daughter—Hertha, Huberta, and Hildegarde. Clotho, the good fairy of the weavers, appeared at the christening of each infant, foretold that she would marry a prince, and left each a magic loom, explaining that each girl must weave a mantle fit for a prince or she will be spurned by the prince come for her hand.

In case you haven’t already guessed, weaving mantles for their princes is meant to serve as an analogy for keeping oneself sexually pure. And not just sexually, but emotionally as well. It’s not just that the girls must not give away the mantle to anyone else, but also that she must weave it the right size for a prince—and if she starts weaving it to fit someone else, even if she doesn’t give it away, the prince will nevertheless not fit it. Further, as we shall see, each girl must guard against mistaking anyone for her prince and thus giving away the mantle she has woven too soon.

So, some quick criticism. There is no mention here whatsoever of anything the princes must do to be worthy of the girls whose hands they will seek—it all goes one way. And when you consider that this story is an analogy for sexual purity, well, the double standard becomes obvious. The princes won’t be weaving mantles for Hertha, Huberta, and Hildegarde, after all. Further, consider the utter passiveness of the girls’ role. They must sit and wait for their princes to come to them. The idea of them going out and meeting princes themselves is out of the question. And beyond just that, the girls aren’t really given any choice here. A prince (singular) will come for each of them, and they are expected to marry those princes. There is no question of whether a given girl might want a different prince, or perhaps a knight or troubadour instead.

I also think it’s worth mentioning here that no mention is ever made of the girls’ mothers. In fact, notice the first sentence of this passage: “To each weaver was born a daughter.” The mothers are entirely absent, and they continue to be absent throughout the entire story. The whole thing as about fathers and daughters. And this is no coincidence—thing of father/daughter purity balls, after all. Have you ever heard of mother/daughter purity balls? I sure haven’t! The entire setup, then, is extremely patriarchal.

Any predictions on how the story will turn out? No fair reading ahead to find out! And once you’ve made your prediction, continue on to Part III.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Nathaniel

    Given this is based on a purity agenda, the fairy will turn out to be a big fat liar for the two daughters who don’t measure up. No prince will come for them ever. Because impurity ruins you for life.

    • The_L

      Or…the prince will seek them, and reject them.

      Frankly, I’d want to know what the prince was like before marrying my daughter off–it’s all well and good to say “Your daughter will become royalty, and have wealth unimaginable,” but if the prince is abusive, I’m not sure the jewels and high status are worth it.

  • jemand

    Well, I predict that the daughters fortunes, good or bad, are going to have a great deal to do with their father’s attitudes. I.e., hiding the loom, letting her play with it without instruction, etc. Patriarchy seems to be all about “inherently good” women getting lucky with good fathers and husbands for their lives, or “inherently bad” women getting punished with bad fathers and husbands for their lives.

    And no real agency for a girl to overcome the results of poor fathering on her own. Anymore than an ability to leave a terrible marriage to try again or live alone etc.

  • Carys Birch

    There’s the message there being one right way to do everything too. I remember that strongly from my evangelical years. Not only do I need to do a, b, c; I need to do them cheerfully and I need to do them perfectly, according to the method I’ve been taught. There’s no “good enough” and there’s no “my way”.

    Adulthood and freedom have taught me there IS good enough – not every cleaning is deep cleaning, sometimes I’m tired and all that really needs to get done is the basics. And I’ve learned that finding my own methods that make sense for me actually makes Mr more

  • Carys Birch

    Bah, posting from my phone is an inexact science. As I was trying to say, doing things by my own methods actually makes me more efficient than trying to cram myself into habits made for sometime else.

    So I predict Hildegarde with the very meticulous father will do the best, because she’ll be taught to do everything The Right Way (TM).

  • John Small Berries

    Any predictions on how the story will turn out?

    The first girl will weave her mantle too large, the second will make hers too small, but the third girl’s mantle will be woven just right?

    • Crabapple

      That sounds just like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

  • Yvonne

    In my version, the three girls will be visited by the lesbian fairy, who will help them to work together to outwit the princely suitors and the conniving fathers and find true love with each other — in a polyamorous threesome.

    • Kellen

      I would so write that with you.

    • Keane Sanders

      Please let this beautiful thing come into existence.

  • Kellen

    I’m guessing that since the first daughter won’t be allowed to weave until she’s an adult and the second daughter will be playing with her loom like it’s a toy, their mantles will be crap. Only the third daughter, who is carefully micro-managed by her all-wise and all-knowing Manly Dad throughout her entire life, will be able to manage this whole weaving thing.

  • ako

    I’d never heard of this story before reading about it here, and I went and looked it up. And then, after I read it in the original context, I went and reread the poem The Lady of Shallot. It was kind of a weird contrast.

    Some advice for anyone wanting to write dogmatic little purity parables: be careful what other works you connect it with. Otherwise, some girls might read about a young woman cursed to stay home, denied the chance to experience life, and “half-sick of shadows”, and how even with the dire fate, the story still treated her with sympathy in the end, and get some ideas of their own.

  • Niemand

    In my version of the story, the first daughter spends so little time weaving that she isn’t very good at it at all. OTOH, her lute playing is splendid and she enjoys it very much. She joins a troop of traveling musicians and lives long and happy life as a respected troop member. She finds love and/or pleasure with various troop and audience members of her own choice.
    The second daughter grows up playing with the loom but receiving little instruction in the “right” way to do it. She invents a whole new style of weaving that is easier than the standard and produces a particularly strong and beautiful cloth. She meets and falls in love with a dashing accountant and together they set up a business producing cloth made by her method. The business grows throughout her life and she is known long after her death as the mother of modern textile manufacturing.
    The third daughter dutifully learns from her father the “right” way to do things and succeeds in making the proper garment for her prince and marrying him. Unfortunately, as one might expect from a man who would demand that the mantel be made just for him, he’s an abusive jerk. Fortunately, her friends have not forgotten her. They rescue her and the first woman takes her to a far away land where she can rest, contemplate, and reclaim her life. She does so and becomes a famous philosopher and, people later said, the country’s leading feminist thinker.
    What? Too unrealistic?

    • ako

      I was just thinking that Hubert’s daughter really should be the best at weaving, because she’s got the most practice, and Herthold’s daughter wouldn’t have any aptitude for weaving because she was never allowed to try. (Another tip for people making dogmatic little stories about purity – don’t use skills people learn, or anything created through learned skills, because experience makes you better at those, and undermines the whole “never having done anything is the best!” message.) So your version makes a lot more sense than the original.

    • Caramello

      Niemand, that is an absolutely wonderful story :-). That one I would read over and over.

    • The_L

      I like your version better.

    • The_L

      I like your version better. I’m typing this one up to be as close in flavor to the original as possible.

  • Alex

    What I want to know is, who pays the same amount of money for a one-size-fits-all mantle and a custom-made-to-order mantle?

    What kind of economy supports three weavers living right next to each other, all getting the same amount of money, when two of the weavers basically do whatever the hell they want and the third does all this custom work? Like, obviously I’ll get the made-to-order mantle if it costs the same!

    Also if the fairy is like, prince shows up, mantle fits, marriage happens, then why worry about “princess lessons”? I mean the only thing the girls have to do is weave a wicked awesome mantle, right? So who cares if they can play the lute? Prince is only marrying them for their weaving skills, right?

    Also SERIOUSLY the same amount of money for “I made this just for you” vs “Yeah here’s the size I felt like making.” I cannot get over that.

    • Jayn

      Me either. Especially the second guy. I can see wanting to always make the same size–it’s not ideal but keeps you from having to figure out the adjustments every time–but not making random sizes, especially since this sounds like they all work on commission, rather than producing stock for a storefront. And then cutting it if it’s too big? He’s just giving himself extra work for no damn reason.

      • sylvia

        Not to mention that he’s wasting fabric. Fabric is expensive, yo.

      • machintelligence

        Well… Those who are of average size and in a hurry would frequent the first weaver. Those who are significantly larger or smaller than average would shop at the second since he is so skilled at alterations (which could presumably be done rather quickly.) Those who were willing to wait for a custom fit would patronize the third.

      • Alex

        machintelligence – your setup makes sense, IF they all charge DIFFERENT prices! More people are probably in a hurry, so the first would probably sell more but at a lower price. Same for the second. Waiting for a custom-made mantle would be more time and also more money, since it takes longer to weave. But the story states that they all charge the same amount of money! This makes the custom-made cloth the obvious best deal, and the other two clear rip-offs.

    • Rachel

      This completely undermines the Gospel of the Free Market. Two of those weavers should be smooshed by the Invisible Hand, and their daughters turned to prostitution. (Not sure which.)

  • Gwynnyd

    dressed in the same coarse goods of hodden gray.

    Why would these master weavers dress themselves in crappy cloth? I’m surprised they had any business at all. Even if they are just good, godly men, they can wear nice things to advertise how well they work.

  • MNb

    “Have you ever heard of mother/daughter purity balls?”
    Actually I have. Suriname, where I live, has about 30% hindu inhabitants. To my amazement the mothers I spoke are much more fanatical about purity of their daughters than the fathers.

  • ArachneS

    Is it just me, or is it just weird that all the girls have names nearly identical to their fathers? It seems more likely that the daughters would be named after their mothers, unless we are talking old Roman Empire tradition.

    I get the same wierd feeling when watching the old Charlie and the Chocolate factory and his grandparents are Joe and Josephina and George and Georgina. Even when I was 10 or 11 and saw it, I wondered how it was really possible to find someone with versions of the same name and like them enough to marry them, and it happens twice, and those two couples kids just happen to get married.

    • Alice

      I also found that weird, but wasn’t too surprised. It just goes to show the patriarchal belief that woman are only property and extensions of the men, and have no separate identity.

  • Kate Monster

    I feel like the combined lessons of “one size actually doesn’t fit all” and “it is important to practice in order to be good at something” both directly contradict the purity culture narrative.

    Wait…Does Hildegarde “measure” the prince when he shows up?

    • Kate Monster


      If we’re being honest, Herthold’s solution is exactly what the purity culture narrative requires of its daughters. Look what happens when we replace weaving with dirty, dirty, mommy-daddy-fun-time:

      ‘I’ll guard against that. I shall hide all knowledge of the magic SEX from my daughter until she be grown. Then, under mine own eye, by mine own measurements that I always use, shall she weave the goodly MARRIAGE. In the meantime she shall learn all the arts which become a CHRISTIAN WIFE to know—TAKING CARE OF KIDS and COOKING, and PRAYER. But of the SEX she shall know naught until she be grown. That I am determined upon. ‘Tis sorry work her FEMALE hands would make of it, if left to throw the shuttle at a maiden’s fickle fancy.’

      If this doesn’t end with Herthold’s daughter waltzing away with the prince’s eternal babymaking duties, then the story is just lying to itself.

    • Christine

      Actually, I can see the parallel. The daughter who isn’t told about the loom will fail from ignorance, the daughter who gets to play with it will fail from not taking it seriously enough. But the last daughter will succeed, because she was taught. This is the excuse for telling girls that everything is their fault, that they have to be sexless, they need to not get raped, etc. She’s not getting to use the loom (have any sort of sexuality) but she will be told about it.

    • Joy

      Maybe she weaves him a codpiece that fits perfectly, a huge scandal erupts, and one of the other girls get the prince in marriage?

  • Schaden Freud

    I have to tell you, the symbolism of the mantles was totally lost on me. I thought this requirement to produce luxury goods symbolized the girls’ ability to generate income for their future family! It’s amazing how different cultural backgrounds colours a person’s perception. And yes, I am familiar with weaving as a euphemism for sex.

    Also, I object to the author calling Clotho a fairy. She is one of the Fates.

  • Bugmaster

    Wait, what ? Isn’t Clotho one of the Fates, the grim goddesses of Fate from Greek mythology ? And aren’t the Greek gods pagan, and therefore evil and Satanic and stuff (just like Harry Potter but even worse) ?

    Even if we assume that the authors really didn’t know who Clotho was, and therefore made a mistake, isn’t the Clotho in their story still a fairy, and therefore basically a minor demon from the pit of Hell (assuming I understand the modern Christian mythology correctly) ? I do declare, what kind of a morality tale is this ?

    • Joy

      Perhaps the idea of having Cloth-o be the weaving fairy was too much for the author to resist, regardless of allusion. But the Fates were textile workers of sorts, spinning, measuring, and snipping the thread of human life (Clotho, incidentally, was the spinner), so I think the allusion might actually be kind of clever.

      • Bugmaster

        Yes, perhaps, seeing as the Fates are not benevolent, friendly, or even remotely approachable entities by any means. As such, they work perfectly well as stand-ins for the relentless march of time, which will activate certain functionalities that are pre-installed in your body, whether you want it or not. But still, I find it somewhat amusing that a Christian morality uses pagan deities as plot devices. What’s the matter, the Christian God was too frightening for young children, hmmm ?

  • Monimonika

    Given that the same exact fate apparently befalls all three households no matter what the occupants do, wouldn’t the results for all three (whether success with the prince(s) or heartbreak) be the same no matter how the daughters are taught to interact with their looms? This is the logic of these three weavers’ world, and even the fathers expect this result. Maybe the first two fathers are banking on father #3 guaranteeing (perfectionist that he is) a good result by raising the perfect daughter that gets a prince.

    • machintelligence

      If the same fate befalls all three households: all three daughters get to marry princes, each with a different personality, perhaps.

  • Anon

    They don’t mention the fourth weaver.

    Who nodded and smiled when Clotho gave him the golden loom and then took it apart and sold it for a ridiculous amount of money, moved himself, his wife and his daughter to a nice house and left all the money to her.

    • Bugmaster

      Or the fifth weaver (named Hredison) who reverse-engineered the loom’s magical C&C technology, and used it to establish his own rapid manufacturing business. Before long, he became so rich that he bought a neighbouring kingdom. Once his daughter (who was now a foreign princess) married the prince of the original kingdom (as her fate as appointed by Clotho), he was able to merge the two kingdoms. After a few more iterations of this strategy, he owned the entire world.

      Of course, the weaver had his share of enemies, but they could not stand against his army of rapidly-manufactured combat dr0nes.

  • Dream

    The writer of this story doesn’t really seem to have a particularly good idea of how weaving and tailoring work. If the finished garment, in this case a mantle which I am given to understand is a cloak like outer garment (which is not something that is going to be closely fitting), is supposed to be fitted that is work that is done by cutting and sewing. You simply do not produce fitted garments straight off a loom. Looms produce rectangles (or if it is a specific type of frame loom, triangles). Seriously the writer of this story didn’t really put much thought into building the metaphor because it falls to pieces incredibly easily.

  • ospalh

    The dispatch clerk, Mr Pfeiffer, aka the prince, points out flaws in the work of two of the weavers to lower the price. To his chagrin, he can’t find any flaws in the work of the third. She joins the other two in solidarity, they sing the weaver song. (Maybe both weaver songs, the one cursing god, cursing the king and cursing the home country and the one about the fatory owners being the hangmen.) They start the weaver’s insurgence. The army comes and suppresses the insurgency. Everybody dies.

    Oh, sorry. Wrong weavers.