Worldbuilding: Golden Tides

If you dig into the past, you can herd the flocks of the sea, or spin straw into gold.

The second is the easiest to demonstrate in the modern era. Gather some fresh nettles, ret them in water just as you would linen, and spin the resulting fibers. Nettle fiber retted in dew tends to come out silver; in running water, golden. Which should help you clear up not just the whole “spinning straw into gold” element of fairytales, but also the “gathering nettles to make shirts” in the Seven Swans.

(Check out Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber for more details.)

Gathering nettles isn’t nearly as painful as fairytales might have you believe, by the way. The fine needle-hairs only discharge their nasty load of histamines and other chemicals if you brush against them. Grasp them firmly, the needles can’t take the pressure, and you’re good.

Or you could just use gloves. Take the easy way out.

I haven’t retted nettles myself, but I have taken them apart to see the fiber, and gathered them – either bare-handed or gloved. Sometimes to clear ground for gardening, and sometimes to eat them. Though you only want to eat the young ones or tender tips, and only after they’re boiled. Personally I prefer goosefoot, but nettles are decent on the plate. And they indicate good garden soil, in case you’re wondering why the pesky things keep coming back.

“Mermaid fleece” (chiao-hsiao in ancient Chinese records) is harder to come by these days. As of 1992 the Mediterranean fan shell Pinna nobilis is a protected species. Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that it’s been harvested not only for food but for its byssus – fine protein fibers secreted to anchor it in sandy seabeds – since the Bronze Age. Called sea silk, they come in colors from dark green to golden brown, made brighter and more golden by a wash of acid. Archaeologists haven’t come up with any known sea silk remnants that date to earlier than about the 14th century AD, but there are references in the historical literature, including documents of Hittite-Aegean gift exchanges, and digs in Chalkis on the coast of Aetolia between 1995-2001 seem to have uncovered a specialized weaving workshop that may have added purple-dyed and gold-threaded borders to already finished cloth. And recently Anne Sicken published the microscopic characteristics of sea silk that distinguish it from mulberry silk (an elliptical cross-section, instead of a rounded triangular one) so hopefully researchers will now be able to poke samples with nondestructive tests to see if there’s sea silk hiding in the artifacts.

There are a few people who still know the craft of preparing and working sea silk, but they can only use what fishermen have brought up as bycatch. Given the pinna species produce not only sea silk but nacre that can be used for inlay, and sometimes golden pearls, I think this would be a great candidate for someone to try growing by aquaculture.

To me, this doesn’t make fairytales any less magical. It makes them even more awesome, knowing fragments of the past have been gifted to us in disguise, if we only know where to look.

Pick up a folktale, Think of what might have inspired part of the story. How could you translate that into fantastic reality – or even another planet?


26 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Golden Tides

  1. The straw into gold is amazing! What kind of cloth does that produce? If it’s anything like linen that would actually be pretty valuable. And actually, this is where I get on my fiber horse for a bit: once upon a time all the complaints people have about linen, the creasing, delicate, needs special care? All things said about cotton. And the reason linen wrinkles and is so much more delicate is that it’s not being woven on the correct looks anymore. It’s why cotton has become the go-to fabric, because the looms are set up to weave cotton, and when you try and use linen on them… You need the right tools for the job.

    I’m going to check out that book, because I love the history of textiles, but it’s hard as a layperson to know where to start.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Supposedly it’s like linen in fabric characteristics, but even longer-lasting. I also recc’ the same author’s “When they Severed Earth from Sky” – has great stuff tying myths to volcanos!


      1. Once upon a time, I got interested in nettle cloth. I stuck strictly to online sources like YouTube videos, one spinner’s blog, news articles about people and companies trying to commercialize it or at least yarn, and I concluded that it only exhibits enough strength to be used on its own if processed by hand. How? Everybody turning it into cordage or yarn on YouTube successfully most definitely didn’t whiten it to the color of polyfill. The one moron who did wound up leaving it curly like polyfill and incapable of being spun.

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      1. I can’t find any good direct answers, but it looks like cotton is noted for being more flexible, while linen can break and/or catch while you’re working with it and is a bit fragile until woven (protecting the much longer fibers).

        From that, and playing with some of the kid type looms. I would GUESS that the settup for a cotton loom takes the up and down strings (warp) bend waaaaay up and down in a small area, making it a lot easier to go faster. Support: some of the “how to not screw up weaving with linen” sites suggest either a pure cotton or cotton blend warp, and only use pure linen for weft.

        Look at this linen loom (pics at bottom) for a contrast:

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  2. Hence, too, the phrase “grasp the nettle” — but if there are enough of them that grabbing one howsoever firmly might lead to brushing the next, I think I would prefer to have gloves.

    I knew nettle cloth was a thing; I had no idea it was related to the straw into gold thing.

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  3. I love fairy tales, and it’s really cool thinking about how some of the things that happened in them could have actually come about. Even if some of it is probably an exaggeration or a later addition to make it more interesting. (I sincerely hope they were exaggerating parts of, say, the goose girl. Zombie horse head was a bit creepy if you ask me.)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. “A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking.” Nice, light novel, wherein one of the secondary characters’ Magical Ability is to “revive” dead horses as zombies. Which she controls. So there’s that problem solved. 🙂

        The main character’s talent is controlling bread, and her familiar is a carnivorous sourdough starter that *may* have watched one too many reruns of The Blob.

        Getting back to folklore with real roots: the Golden Fleece:

        Liked by 2 people

    1. In the Tom Clancy book ‘The Bear and The Dragon’ an old Silberian WWII vet lived by a river that had gold dust as run-off from a massive undiscovered deposit. Since he liked living in the woods and didn’t need money he did not tell anyone about the gold but he would take the pelts of wolves he shot and leave them in the stream for a couple weeks. After pulling them out they were encrusted with gold dust, looking like the Golden Fleece of legend. He had at least a dozen golden pelts hanging from trees when the deposit was discovered at the start of the story.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Cobweb/spiderweb has been gathered for wound dressings in a number of cultures. If s fantasy world has large/huge species, spiderweb would be potentially more accessible, as long as the web itself is not poisonous… Hmm, certainly intelligent spiders and/or drider/humanoid-hybrid spiders able to live and/or trade with other races, are bound to use their own silk for crafting…

    Hemp fiber has a lot of potential, even for finely woven cloth. Bamboo fiber is also quite useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, spider silk is amazing. There was that one dress made from golden silk orb weaver silk, that was auctioned for a philanthropic cause iirc.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Oooh, and IRL spiders don’t have to make EVERYTHING sticky, too– if someone wants a crash course in spiders to get basic details right, the Wild Krats videos from PBS kids do a decent job of info-dumping and making the animals sympathetic without distorting the facts.

      … Blast it, TG, I don’t want a Jorogumo drider with those big spindly orb-weaver spider parts, spiders scare me…..

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Manoppello. They’ve got a <A HREF=""good article on byssus.

    The Holy Face is apparently very weird to look at, because the human eye sees a better picture than a camera does (at least, with cameras so far), and because different light levels make the byssus look very different. It’s kind of annoying, because by all accounts, it’s one of those things you really have to see in person.

    But if you are in Italy, you can go visit, and you can also go to the byssus-making place on the island.

    Liked by 1 person

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