The Three Weavers, Part III: The Fathers’ Advice

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 part I of this series I gave some background to Annie Fellows Johnston’s 1904 short story The Three Weavers. In part II, I posted the first part of the story, in which three weavers—Herthold, Hubert, and Hildgardmar—who live side-by-side and have similar fortunes, had three infant daughters—Hertha, Huberta, and Hildegard. At each girl’s christening, a fairy appeared and declared that the girl would marry a prince—if she could weave him a royal mantle. The three fathers rejoiced over the news before deciding to take three very different courses of action in introducing the magic looms and weaving—here an analogy for love and sex—to their daughters.

And now, the three girls are starting to grow. In this section the girls learn about their looms and are given some initial advice by their fathers.

One day Huberta said to the others, ‘Come with me and I will show you a beautiful toy that Clotho left me at my christening. My father says she gave one to each of us, and that it is written in the stars that we are each to wed a prince if we can weave for him an ample cloak of cloth of gold. Already I have begun to weave mine.”

All silently, for fear of watchful eyes and forbidding voices, they stole into an inner room, and she showed them the loom of gold. But now no longer was it the tiny toy that had been left beside her cradle. It had grown with her growth. For every inch that had been added to her stature an inch had been added to the loom’s. The warp was Clotho’s gift, all thread of gold, and it, too, grew with the maiden’s growth; but the thread the shuttle carried was of her own spinning—rainbow hued and rose-coloured, from the airy dream-fleece of her own sweet fancies.

‘See,’ she whispered, ‘I have begun the mantle for my prince’s wearing.’ Seizing the shuttle as she had seen her father do so many times, she crossed the golden warp with the woof-thread of a rosy day-dream. Hertha and Hildegarde looked on in silent envy, not so much for the loom as for the mirror which hung beside it, wherein, as in the Lady of Shalott’s, moved the shadows of the world. The same pictures that flitted across hers, flitted across Huberta’s.

‘See!’ she cried again, pointing to the mirror, ‘That curly shepherd lad! Does he not look like a prince as he strides by with his head high, and his blue eyes smiling upon all the world? He carries his crook like a royal sceptre, forsooth. Well you may believe I am always at my mirror both at sunrise and sunset to see him pass gaily by.’

‘Yon long-haired page in crimson clad is more to my liking,’ said Hertha, timidly. ‘Methinks he has a noble mien, as of one brought up in palaces.’

Let me interject here with a bit of background about the mirror, as it wasn’t mentioned in section one. It is here described as being the same as the mirror owned by the Lady of Shalott. The Lady of Shalott was under a curse so that she had to spend her life in a tower weaving the images she saw in her mirror, and the mirror showed the people passing along the road to Camelot. Here is the description:

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

So the mirror basically shows the girls what is passing on the road outside, and they can look in the mirror as the weave. While it wasn’t mentioned before, it appears that the good fairy Clotho gave each girl a mirror of this sort, though for what purpose I have no idea.

‘I wonder why my father has never said aught to me of Clotho’s gift,’ Hertha added timidly. ‘I, too, should be at my weaving, for I am as old as thou, Huberta.’

‘And I also,’ added Hildegarde.

‘Ask him,’ quoth Huberta. ‘Mayhap he hath forgot.’

So when Hertha reached home, she went to her father Herthold, and said, timidly, with downcast eyes and blushes, ‘Father—where is my loom, like Huberta’s? I, too, would be weaving as it is written in the stars.’

But Herthold glowered upon her grimly. ‘Who told thee of aught that is written in the stars?’ he demanded, so sternly that her heart quaked within her. ‘Hear me! Never again must thou listen to such idle tales. When thou art a woman grown, thou mayst come to me, and I may talk to thee then of webs and weaving, but what hast thou to do with such things now? Thou! a silly child! Bah! I am ashamed that ever a daughter of mine should think such foolishness!’

Hertha, shamed and abashed, stole away to weep, that she had incurred her father’s scorn. But next day, when they played in the garden, Huberta said, ‘Thy father is an old tyrant to forbid thee the use of Clotho’s gift. He cannot love thee as mine does me, or he would not deny thee such a pleasure. Come! I will help thee to find it.’

So hand in hand they stole into an inner room by a door that Herthold thought securely bolted, and there stood a loom like Huberta’s, and over it a mirror in which the same shadows of the world were repeated in passing. And as Hertha picked up the shuttle to send the thread of a rosy day-dream through the warp of gold, the long-haired page in crimson clad passed down the street outside, and she saw his image in the mirror.

‘How like a prince he bears himself!’ she murmured. ‘My father is indeed a tyrant to deny me the pleasure of looking out upon the world and weaving sweet fancies about it. Henceforth I shall not obey him, but shall daily steal away in here, to weave in secret what he will not allow me to do openly.’

At the same time, Hildegarde stood before her father, saying, timidly, ‘Is it true, my father, what Huberta says is written in the stars? To-day when I saw Huberta’s loom I pushed back the bolt which has always barred the door leading into an inner room from mine, and there I found the loom of gold and a wonderful mirror. I fain would use them as Huberta does, but I have come to ask thee first, if all be well.’

A very tender smile lighted the face of old Hildgardmar. Taking the hand of the little Hildegarde in his, he led the way into the inner room. ‘I have often looked forward to this day, my little one,’ he exclaimed, ‘although I did not think thou wouldst come quite so soon with thy questions. It is indeed true, what Huberta hast told thee is written in the stars. On the right weaving of this web depends the happiness of all thy future, and not only thine but of those who may come after thee.

”Tis a dangerous gift the good Clotho left thee, for looking in that mirror thou wilt be tempted to weave thy web to fit the shifting figures that flit therein. But listen to thy father who hath never yet deceived thee, and who has only thy good at heart. Keep always by thy side this sterling yardstick which I give thee, for it marks the inches and the ells to which the stature of a prince must measure. Not until the web doth fully equal it can it be safely taken from the loom.

‘Thou art so young, ’tis but a little mantle thou couldst weave this year, at best. Fit but to clothe the shoulders of yon curly shepherd lad.’ He pointed to the bright reflection passing in the mirror. ‘But ’tis a magic loom that lengthens with thy growth, and each year shall the web grow longer, until at last, a woman grown, thou canst hold it up against the yardstick, and find that it doth measure to the last inch and ell the size demanded by a prince’s noble stature.

‘But thou wilt oft be dazzled by the mirror’s sights, and youths will come to thee, one by one, each begging, “Give me the royal mantle, Hildegarde. I am the prince the stars have destined for thee.” And with honeyed words he’ll show thee how the mantle in the loom is just the length to fit his shoulders. But let him not persuade thee to cut it loose and give it him, as thy young fingers will be fain to do. Weave on another year, and yet another, till thou, a woman grown, canst measure out a perfect web, more ample than these stripling youths could carry, but which will fit thy prince in faultlessness, as falcon’s feathers fit the falcon.’

Hildegarde, awed by his solemn words of warning, took the silver yardstick and hung it by the mirror, and standing before old Hildgardmar with bowed head, said, ‘You may trust me, father; I will not cut the golden warp from out the loom until I, a woman grown, have woven such a web as thou thyself shalt say is worthy of a prince’s wearing.’

So Hildgardmar left her with his blessing, and went back to his work.

I haven’t read this story in ages, and rereading it I find that the course of action I plan to take with my own daughter—and with my son as well—actually most closely resembles that of Hildgardmar. I won’t shame them for early blossomings of romance or sexual desire—like Herthold—but I also won’t just laugh and tell them to do as they like—like Hubert. Instead, I’ll talk with each of them about these issues in a serious and respectful way, recognizing that they are no longer babies, but also that they still have much to learn in a complicated world. In other words, Hildgardmar does much right—even own to calling his daughter’s loom and weaving “a dangerous gift,” combining both that it is a good thing (not yucky or gross) but also something that should be approached seriously and carefully.

Now let’s get into some criticism.

Let me set it up like this: If we each knew that a prince would come for us someday, and let’s grant for the sake of this line of reasoning that we also knew that we would love this prince and live blissfully with him (or her), and let’s also imagine that we have a magical silver yardstick that will identify the prince when he comes, then we could take one of two courses of action. We could simply wait for that person, remaining single in the meantime, or we could still date other people, knowing that any relationship formed would be only for a time, but enjoying ourselves in the meantime and forming better relationship skills (and, I would normally say, learning what qualities we want in a long-term partner, but in this case that role of dating around doesn’t really apply). I honestly think either course of action is valid.

But there are two problems with this analysis. First, we’re informed later that each girl is only given a limited supply of magical thread for doing her weaving. In other words, if you form romantic relationships with any of the young men in your life, you’re going to be out of thread before your prince comes. In this story, love is finite (Gee, where have I heard that before?) Let me just say it straight out: The idea that love is finite makes utterly no sense at all. Anyway, second, the princes will not deign to marry any girl who has not woven a mantle fit for a prince—i.e., any girl who has not kept herself physically and emotionally “pure.” And so, once again, I’m going to say it straight out: The princes in this story are jerks.

And now let’s talk about the silver yardstick for a moment. Hildegarde’s father gives her a silver yardstick and tells her to make her web by that measurement, and that only a prince will fit the resulting mantle. I am reminded of all of the lists and lists I made as a teen—lists of all the qualities I was looking for in a husband. If someone fit all of those qualifications, I figured, that is the person I would marry. But notice who it is who created the yardstick—not Hildegarde, but her father. When my children grow, the advice I give them will run along the lines of “respect yourself, be careful, make prudent choices.” This is a far cry from handing my children a list an saying “anyone who doesn’t fit this list isn’t your prince (or princess), so wait until you find someone who fits this list.” And besides, the simple reality is that there is no such think as a fail-safe test that will guarantee that person X is your match and perfect spouse. This story acts as though there is.

But I think you can see why this story so appealed to me as a child growing up with the purity teachings embedded in modern evangelicalism. This story, written a century ago, encapsulated everything I was taught about emotional attachments and sexual purity, and did so in a way that actually appeared pretty healthy compared to much of what I was surrounded by—after all, Hildegarde’s father was approachable for questions and conversations on this issue and treated her like a person capable of understanding and being trusted rather than like a silly child.

For more, continue to Part IV.

The Modesty Rules---Not So Simple, Really
Evangelical Christianity's Patriarchal Alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey
What Courtship Was for Me
The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
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.

  • ako

    They’re drawing some really weird connections with the Lady of Shallot. Same time period, mirrors in both, magical weaving, and both stories about young women whose fates depend on whether or not they obey some externally-imposed commands to wait indefinitely or choose to follow their desires when an appealing man passes by. It’s like a really weird misinterpretation of the curse in the poem.

    The magical golden threads are pretty clearly a contrivance of necessity, to get around the obvious “Skill makes you better at things” problem. The author needs to assert the presence of a finite resource, and claim that there’s just exactly enough for The One if no one else is given anything, or none of the elements of the story make sense. Which is pretty much how purity culture works. You can’t scare a girl with her Dire Fate unless you convince her not only that sex and love are both finite resources, but also that The One requires exactly as much of both as one girl can produce, no more or less. And you need a magical outside force to make it so, or else girls could question that arbitrary assertion.

    • ScottInOH

      Very well said.

      I’m afraid that, rather than seeing it as a “clear contrivance,” many people have seen it as a perfect metaphor.

  • Christine

    There’s also the issue that it’s clearly not the advice that Hildgardmar is giving that’s going to have an effect on the mental health of his daughter, but the fact that he talks to her openly, rather than saying she’s not allowed to question him.

    • The_L

      Personally, I think the Hubert/Huberta section sounds like a strong warning against purity culture and abstinence-only education: If you forbid love and sex, your children will do it behind your back. Whoops!

      • Christine

        Well and that’s why the story seemed less horrible to me at first – it was obvious what was going to happen there, so it seemed like a good metaphor. But that was in Libby’s first installment. I think that they’re trying to say that “oh, wait until I – I mean God – say that you’re ready” is better than not saying anything to your kids at all, because if you don’t teach your children that you are all-knowing then they will be led astray by the lost. (Which has just enough real-life sense in it to be dangerous).

  • machintelligence

    It might not be entirely relevant, but something I saw in the comments section of another blog seems to apply: The Chinese curse (full version).
    May you live in interesting times.
    May you get your heart’s desire.
    May you come to the attention of the powerful.

    This may not end well.

  • Rachel

    So, is this story openly admitting that some fathers are jerks and don’t have their daughters’ best interests at heart?

  • John Small Berries

    I know this is petty and utterly tangential to the point, but I find it exceptionally that the author doesn’t maintain consistency on whether to use modern or archaic verb forms.

    • John Small Berries

      Arrgh. Exceptionally irritating.

    • dj pomegranate

      Right!? Aaauuugh.

  • yvonne

    There were a lot of fake fairy stories written in the nineteenth century by would-be moralists. Some of the ones written by Hans Christian Andersen are appalling, for example.

    Fortunately there are various collections of feminist fairy tales, and the excellent book “Women who run with the wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, which function as a rich and splendid corrective to all that sort of thing.

    • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

      I wonder if they were written to counteract older fairy tales, which frequently featured adolescent girls escaping from hapless and neglectful fathers, or fathers who were trying to marry their own daughters, which was a very common theme. There are tons of stories about girls saving themselves and their younger siblings, or finding their own prince to marry. They weren’t a very good basis for Victorian moralizing.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    “the good fairy Clotho gave each girl a mirror of this sort, though for what purpose I have no idea.”

    Honestly, my guess would be twofold:
    First, it’s a Tree of Life parallel where the object of temptation (i.e. the handsome young man who at least has the bearing of a prince) is placed smack-dab in front of the one to be tested. You can almost read, “Seriously, those apples are delicious” instead of “That curly shepherd lad! Does he not look like a prince[...]?” Like all cautionary tales, you have the foolish to lead the way and show how things are not done, in this case, repeating the “mistakes” of the past of being a woman who gives in to temptation.
    Second, I would posit that it’s a proto-”In but not of the world” kind of thing, tied directly to the first. These girls need a means of eyeballing the hunks of the village, but it’s not like they can just set the looms up on the front porch and cat-call or creepily stare at young passers-by (though that version of the story sounds much more interesting), so they need a “window” through which the “blameless” men can be oogled. It’s not the shepherd’s boy’s fault that he’s got a regal bearing and the silly girl throws herself at him, just like it wasn’t Adam’s fault that Eve decided to try something new.

  • Bugmaster

    I know this is a morality tale and everything, so the story isn’t supposed to make perfect sense, but still: why do the girls need a magic mirror ? Can’t they just look out of the window ? They aren’t stuck in some hermetically sealed windowless tower, are they ?

    Using the mirror would make sense if it was a fine-tunable remote scrying device like a Palanthir, but, as far as I understand, all it does is show you the road directly outside your house, so its usefulness is… questionable.

    • Noadi

      They don’t, it’s just a clumsy way to again associate with the Lady of Shallot which was quite famous at the time (and a much better story). In that tale the mirror had a purpose, she couldn’t look directly out of the window due to the curse.

  • MM

    I’m sorry, but my brain reads the word “vagina” wherever I see “loom of gold.” If my wife and I ever have a daughter, she’s going to have a vagina, not a loom of gold or tender flower or whatever the fuck euphemisms people use because they think vagina is a dirty word. Vagina.

  • Jayn

    I’m getting confused. Here’s this man who is careful about always making mantles to the size of the customer, and he’s going to tell her what size to weave based on a yardstick he made? Not measuring the prince and giving her that measurement, but an arbitrary size that HE decided is right for the man his daughter will marry when he hasn’t even met that man yet.

    I know the idea is to trust your father to decide what kind of man you should marry and let potential suitors be measured against that, but that’s not actually what’s happening. There’s a specific person who will someday woo his daughter, and he somehow knows the measure of this man is his ‘right’ measurement. Either I’m missing something or they’re screwing up their analogy.

    • Kate Monster

      It’s because princes are like Ken dolls. They’re all the same size and shape. But because of proprietary regulations, ONLY princes are that particular shape and size.

  • Cy


    • cy

      oops! sorry, the clitoris comment was supposed to be a comment attached to MM’s comment about the euphemism’s people give for women’s sexual parts. I was trying to say that I would tell my daughter (if I had one) that her “loom of gold” was her clitoris.

  • ArachneS

    The people who collect these stories do seem to be a bit obsessed with the “Lady of Shallot”

  • Joy

    My guess is that they’re glomming onto the Victorian pre-Raphaelite Arthurian craze (which Tennyson inspired at least in part).

  • Alice

    Soooo, if a girl is left to her devices, sexually, she will just so happen to choose rainbow thread? (*cue scary music*) I realize this story was written a long time ago, but I still laughed.

    Secondly, maybe it’s just me but this story sure has a creepy vibe sometimes.

  • Keane Sanders

    Re-reading this, does anyone else notice that Humberta helps Hertha discover her sexuality–er, I mean “find her loom”?

    A bit racy for a christian morality tale.