Vermeer's "Lace-maker" is one of my favourite paintings. A young woman is totally absorbed in her domestic task of drawing threads Her focus is on design, cloth, yarn and needles. She seems to look beyond on her nimble fingers as if they inspire a deeper more quiet contemplation behind the gaze. Although lace-making is an historic art and although lace-making activity, its methods and materials fill much of the painting, one is prompted to ask not "What is she doing", but rather "What is she thinking?" and beyond that: What do women think?"
In history activities such as lace-making, embroidery, weaving, knitting and stitching have come to define women. We are the products of our tools and of the activities that come to hand. Marshall McLuhan said in 1964 "We become what we behold. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us."
Never-ending yarn filtered through understanding fingers is a metaphor for the thinking strings of the mind playing to the accompaniment of as sentences spoken from the mouth. The stereoptype of darning socks, sewing on buttons and mending torn garments was once believed to be the catalyst for inspired, measured and delicate thought.
Penelope, an excellent seamstress lived about 1300 B.C. She could sew and weave better than most and had hardly finished work on garments for her own wedding when, as a newlywed she attended the funeral of her father-in-law, Leartes. The news came at a bad time for Leartes's son Odysseus, her husband, because no sooner had they laid Leartes to rest or he led the Greek army on their quest against the city of Troy. Penelope, for her sins, did not know that she had married the man who was to become the main character in Homer's Odyssey and one of the a most famous generals in world history.
Because Penelope was very good at it, the family asked her to weave the special burial shroud so that they may pay their last respect and to conclude the period of mourning. She had hardly spent any time with her new husband when she was left by herself, to look after his home and to entertain the many visitors that had some business at the estate.
As the Moirae, the fates of ancient Greece, would have it, Penelope was of exceptional beauty. And to add to that, the war was to drag on endlessly. The Greek word moira literally means 'part' or 'portion', and by extension one's portion in life or destiny. They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death and beyond.
Among the visitors to the household of Odysseus were young men who had the best interests of the general at heart. When they saw his beautiful, forlorn bride, almost all turned their full intentions to her instead. Homer records the name of every single one of them - 108 names. They are also known the 'suitors' in the Penelope saga. It must be said that some of them landed in serious trouble upon Odysseus's return.
And Penelope, how did she cope with her loneliness, with her sadness and longing. Did she find solace in the arms of any one of the 108 men who proclaimed a deep concern for her well-being and looked for unequivocal ways of repeatedly demonstrating their commitment to her?
Not a chance. Penelope kept the memory of her husband alive by spending many hours weaving the funeral shroud. She did her best and she told all the men that she was unable to grant them any real audience until the shroud had been completed. She would not even speak to them for any amount of time more than was absolutely necessary. She said that she might have time to hear them out once she had fulfilled her period of mourning. They always only had a slight glimpse of this most desirable creature lost in thought, pouring over thread and cloth and it drove them mad.
And Penelope? When she saw that she was getting near the completion of her cloth and that she would have to face her suitors, she would immediately unravel much of the cloth, setting back the completion of it again and again so that the suitors might loose heart.
What do women think when they are alone? I guess it depends on the context of their loneliness. There is a point at which it is wrong to force oneself upon anyone who wishes to be left alone. In PENELOPE'S DISTAFF I made a seat of repose and contemplation for those who do not want to be disturbed. It offers a place where one (men and women) might take the time to come to oneself.
A distaff is an extended spindle, or rod for the winding of yarn to be spun. In time a distaff item or issue became one pertaining women in particular. The extended sense arose because spinning and weaving were traditionally done by women. PENELOPE'S DISTAFF is a 4½ metre long, spindle-like stone with the lines of text from Penelope's story wound round and round it. The texts are from ancient Greek source and deal with spinning and weaving. Some is in the original Greek and relates that part of Penelope's tale that deals with her weaving the shroud. The stone weighs more than three ton and cannot be moved any time soon, even by a large group of persons.