The Ancient Power of Textiles: Coping with Loss and Lockdown

Dominique Nightingale

First it was the masks and scrubs for the NHS, back in March 2020, that got the sewing machines working again, as sales exploded across the UK. Then I became a compulsive dressmaker in the summer, and the figure of Penelope – the long-suffering wife of the long-absent Odysseus – came to haunt me. Like her I was locked indoors and bereaved: my brother had died in France without me being able to go and see him. I began to wonder why being attached to my sewing machine – as Penelope was to her loom – helped me cope.

The “Vatican Penelope”: a 1st-century AD copy of a 5th-cent. BC woman in mourning (Vatican Museum).

Yearning for her husband missing at sea and besieged by importunate suitors, Penelope began weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, as a ploy to escape re-marriage and bide herself time to mourn. She will not marry anyone, she claims, until she has finished the shroud: “I dread the shame my countrywomen would heap upon me, yes, if a man of such wealth should lie in state without a shroud for cover” (Odyssey 19.146-7). The young men of Ithaca who were so intolerant of her mourning could not challenge her right to honour her father-in-law. She was as justified in doing so, as I was in sewing scrubs.

Penelope unravelling her web by lamp light, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1785 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA).

Just like Penelope, I had discovered that others’ tolerance for tears was in limited supply. We are not very good at dealing with expressions of grief, even though, and perhaps because, we care for the grieving person. Silence, or a desire for solitude, is often met with suspicion, if not disapproval. But producing a tangible useful object is an act that finds instant validation. Penelope’s suitors were silenced. Likewise, there was no more questioning about the solitary hours spent in my sewing room the moment I started making scrubs. I was ‘doing something’ – but how could this particular ‘thing’ comfort me? 

The author wearing one of her home-made medical scrubs.

One answer, I suspect, lies in Penelope’s control of time. Her famous trick – unravelling at night the work she has done during the day, thereby holding off her suitors (Od. 19.137–58) – keeps time stuck in the present. There is a bit of this trick in all textile work. The mind may be wandering through past and future as you sew (or weave or knit or crochet), but it is constantly driven back to the present by what your fingers are doing. If not, you will soon know: a dropped stitch, a seam on the wrong side. As in meditation, the recall to here and now helps regain emotional balance. Spinning past, present and future together, you are elevated to the Moerae’s power.[1]

Women weaving wool: detail of an Attic terracotta oil flask (lekythos) attributed to the “Amasis Painter”, 550-530 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

You are also doing what stories do. What object you decide to make is your plot. I often puzzled over Penelope’s choice of a shroud for Laertes until I bought a tartan material to make a dress. I realized what I was saying: I could make my mother live again by sewing a similar garment to one she had worn. Was Penelope suggesting that Odysseus’ father cannot die if his shroud remains unfinished? As with the muted Philomela, who described her rape in her tapestry, we are all in some way weaving an untold story in our garment-making.[2]

A grave stele commemorating Hegeso (r.), attributed to Callimachus, 410–400 BC (National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece).

Storytelling reveals more of ourselves, though, than anything else. And so it is with the homemade clothes we create. They are unique and proclaim who we are or want to be. Penelope identifies Odysseus – a man of multiple disguises – by the cloak she has woven for him (Od. 19.225–34). My children were thrilled at my power to transform them into astronauts or superheroes with the magic of my overlocker. I have yet to wear a wool suit I made as the promise of a new ‘me’. In times of woe, dressmaking gives us the freedom to reinvent ourselves.

The astronauts (costumes by the author).
Robin Hood (costume by the author).

And then there is the touch. Lying right next to the skin, fabric protects us from the outside world, it restores us to dignity and beauty, and crucially it caresses and hugs us – the only physical contact we may experience at a time of social distancing. Penelope, when overwhelmed by grief, is advised to have a bath and put on a new robe (Od. 4.721–66). No man can ever have been more relieved than naked Odysseus being given Nausicaa’s laundry to wear (Od. 6.198–250). After her dad’s death, my niece wore his T-shirts, the closest she got to hold him and be soothed.

Ulysses and Nausicaa, Michele Desubleo, 1654 (Capodimonte Palace and National Gallery, Naples, Italy).

Finally, beware gifts made of fabric and their special pull. Ino’s magic scarf saved Odysseus from drowning[3] but Clytemnestra’s red carpet led Agamemnon to his doom:

Agamemnon, step down from your chariot.

But this bare earth is too poor

For the foot that trod on the neck of Troy.

Hurry – the long carpet of crimson.

Unroll the embroidery

Of vermilion and purple.

The richest silks of Argos are prostrated

To honour the King’s tread at his homecoming,

and cushion every footfall of his triumph.

Justice herself shall kiss his instep

And lead him step by step into the home

He never hoped to see. (Ag. 905–11, trans. Ted Hughes)

Clytemnestra invites Agamemnon to take the crucial step in Ellen McLaughlin’s Oresteia (Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington DC, USA, May 2019; photo by Scott Suchman).

And with this extravagant red-carpet treatment, it is Clytemnestra in fact, who is leading her hubristic husband step by step into thinking himself a god. Agamemnon cannot resist it, even against his better judgment. His transgressive path to the palace will end in the bath where Clytemnestra murders him.

The intensely personal quality of textiles makes it almost impossible to refuse them. Hate it or love it, we shall wear the Christmas jumper we are given. My mother knitted a red-hooded jacket for me when I was 15. At 72 I still wear my red riding hood outfit and who cares? After all, it is my ‘magic scarf’.

A Sorbonne graduate in the Classics, Dominique Nightingale is a lecturer in French and Ancient Greek literature at the Ipswich Institute in Suffolk, UK. When the Institute closed during lockdown, she, like many others, joined a sewing team (the Felixstowe Scrubbers) to make scrubs for the staff of Ipswich Hospital and local care homes.


1 The three Moerae (Fates), the daughters of Erebus (Darkness) and Night, were called Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. As Robert Graves memorably put it, “Zeus, who weighs the lives of men and informs the Fates of his decisions can, it is said, change his mind and intervene to save whom he pleases, when the thread of life, spun on Clotho’s spindle, and measured by the rod of Lachesis, is about to be snipped by Atropos’s shears.” The Greek Myths (Penguin, London, 1955) Vol. 1, 48. See also Odyssey, 7.196–8, which can be explored in Greek and English here.
2 For the most detailed telling of this harrowing story, see Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6.571–619, which can be read in Latin here and English here.
3 Mortal Ino became the goddess Leucothea: see Odyssey 5.313–87, which is most conveniently accessible here.