May 17th, 2013

I taught myself to knot pearls about 7 or 8 years ago, and have indulged from time to time ever since. I’m not good enough, or fast enough, to do it professionally, but it’s a dandy way to make special-occasion gifts. In keeping with my penchant for doing everything the hard way, I’ve so far eschewed all of those “easy-knot” tools and prefer to work with just a pair of tweezers. Blister guards for my fingers might not be a bad idea though…

Illustration of Pearl Oysters
Sarah Cooper, Animal Life: In The Sea and On The Land (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887)
Borrowed from Clip Art Etc.

My current project involves natural colored freshwater pearls and polished green agate beads strung on green silk. I think they’d hang a little more smoothly if I hadn’t decided to double knot, but I love the way the big knot looks. Ah well.

Knotted Pearls in Progress

Ancient Ideas On the Origin and Virtues of Pearls.

Excerpt & illustration from Pearls and Pearling Life, Edwin William Streeter, 1886

“And precious the tear as the rain from the sky,
Which turns into Pearl as it falls in the sea.”

—Thomas Moore.

. . .
The most wide-spread notion respecting the origin of Pearls, as briefly mentioned in our introductory chapter, is that which regards them as formed by dew and rain received into the gaping shell of the Pearl-oyster. This explanation of their origin is well set forth by Pliny, whose passage on the subject is thus quaintly rendered into English by old Dr. Holland:—

“This shell-fish, which is the mother of Pearle, differeth not much in the manner of breeding and generation from the oysters, for when the season of the yeere requireth that they should engender, seeme to yawne and gape, and so doe open wide; and then (by report) they conceive a certaine moist dew as seed, wherewith they swell and grow bigger and when time commeth, labour to be delivered hereof; and the fruit of these shell-fishes are the Pearls, better or worse, great or small, according to the qualitie and quantitie of the dew which they received. For if the dew were pure and cleare which went into them, then are the Pearles white, faire, and orient; if grosse and troubled, the Pearles likewise are dimme, foule and duskish; pale (I say) they are, if the weather were close, darke, and threatning raine in the time of their conception. . . ”

. . .

We can well imagine that so chaste and charming a gem as the Pearl should be deemed worthy of a more sacred birth than that arising from a drop of common rain or dew, and hence arose the highly poetical idea that Pearls were formed from tears wept by angels, or shed by mortals under circumstances of peculiar trial. Thus, in “The Bridal of Triermain,” Sir Walter Scott writes :—

“See the Pearls that long have slept,
These were tears by Naiades wept.”

So Shakespeare finds a similar idea in the

following lines:—

“The liquid drops of tears that you have shed,
Shall come again transformed to Orient Pearl,
Advantaging their loan with interest,
Of ten times double gain of happiness.”

Opening oyster shells on a pearling ship
Opening oyster shells on a pearling ship.

Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidence), I’ve been obsessing on the duet from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. I’m learning to play the baritone part on my cello since no one will sing it with me. I guess it’s just as well, until I learn to hit that high B flat without breaking glass…


January 22nd, 2013

Last spring, the dearest wish of my heart was to own a scythe. You know, one of those old agricultural tools with a long curved handle, and metal blade. They were used to harvest grain before modern farm machinery took over.

Eastman Johnson (American painter, 1824-1906) Man With a Scythe 1868
Man with a Scythe, Eastman Johnson, 1868

Turns out though, scythes were primarily the domain of men. Something about upper body strength and reach, not to mention the possibility of cutting off a leg. Women stuck to the smaller, crescent-shaped sickle. At least in genre paintings (reference my ongoing obsession with Gleaner subjects).

So today, I finally purchased my first sickle. It’s got a wooden handle and a curved metal blade, lined with little teeth on the inside of the crescent.

My new sickle

Coincidentally, our yard is badly in need of a mow. So I had to go outside and give it a try. It’s surprisingly efficient. Especially with long grasses. You have to hold onto a clump with one hand, while you hack and saw at it simultaneously with the sickle, so lots of crouching is involved. But it gets the job done. I estimate it will take the better part of a day to mow our yard using the sickle. By then, I should be an expert.

Oh, and I’m already learning. It’s a good idea to wear heavy gloves while wielding something this sharp, that close to your knuckles…

Ah, Silk

October 29th, 2011

I forgot how delicious it is to sew with real silk. I’ve been banished to cotton for so long, with only an occasional foray into linen. And I don’t know that I’ve ever hand-sewn silk before.

Silk Worms
Silkworms: caterpillar, chrysalis, and moth. Animal Kingdom Illustrated Vol 2, 1859

It’s hard to imagine how something so luscious and lustrous as silk could come from a worm. Silkworms have been cultivated for thousands of years in the east, and in Europe for centuries. The most common strain of silkworm prefers to live on the leaves of the mulberry tree. After they are hatched, the caterpillars feed voraciously on leaves until they are ready to spin their cocoons. Once finished, the cocoons are exposed to sunlight, or heat, or gas, to kill the creatures living within. Then they are submerged in water to soften the silk for “reeling” or unwinding of the delicate strands that make up the case.

Obviously some of the cocoons are allowed to hatch, providing moths for breeding stock. But most are slaughtered.

There were many excellent books and articles on silk culture written in the 19th century. I planned to share one with you, but find that they are all so detailed as to be practically useless for quick quoting. So get thee to Google Books and satisfy your curiosity on your own.

And the next time you put on that slinky silk blouse, think about how many innocent caterpillars had to die so that you could enjoy the luxury of their cocoons.