See a pin and pick it up…

see a pin

Pins are such tiny objects and yet so prevalent in superstition, folklore and witchcraft. After re-reading Roszika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch I began to wonder if the little pin’s starring role was due to its association to stitching, making and sewing and therefore something that most women, up until the middle of last century at least, would have had at home and would have used regularly. It’s tiny, but pointed and sharp and can draw blood, so could be seen as an instrument of attack or defence. It can also hold things together, and once removed, make things become separate. It can pierce and catch, both literally and symbolically, and can be easily hidden or carried.


In dressmaking folklore pins can be seen as both lucky and unlucky, or even portentous. It is the black headed pins that are traditionally seen as unlucky, so you should never fit a dress with black pins, or use black pins when trying on a new dress. Equally, never pick a black pin up and certainly don’t put a black pin in a child’s dress as this is seen as a sign of death.

With regards to picking pins up, “See a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck” only applies if you pick the pin up by the head and not the point. Some even say that it’s only lucky if you pick it up just as you get out of bed.

Never stain a wedding dress with blood from a pricked finger and if you are pricked by a pin, keep a sharp eye on your lover or you may lose them. However, breaking a pin on yourself is good luck and breaking a needle while sewing a garment brings good luck to the wearer.


There is particular emphasis in pin folklore on pins and weddings. If you accidentally pin a new garment on to a customer’s own clothes when fitting, a year will pass until their marriage, or two years if two pins are attached and so on. If a person habitually carries a supply of pins on their person they will never marry and if a man uses safety pins to hold his clothes together, he will never marry either. However, a pin taken from a bride’s wedding dress is said to be lucky and Steve Roud, in The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland recounts this tale:

“A dressmaker of her acquaintance always keeps the pins she uses when making a wedding dress and gives them to her friends for use in picking out horses before betting in a horse race”

Unallocated folk-lore 1962


Beware of giving or lending pins, because if you accept a pin from a witch you would be in her power. One might suppose that this links with the idea that if a witch draws your blood she has control over you.

“This very old woman had the reputation of a witch. There was not a maid in the parish that would take a pin of her, though she should offer a bag of money with it”

Spectator, 14 July 1711 (from The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud)

So, if you do give a pin as a present the recipient should prick you with it in order to avoid future quarrels and if someone hands you a pin or a needle you must not say “thank you” or it will hurt the friendship. Finally, always take the pin head first and not point first.


The links between witchcraft and pins are varied and wide-ranging but I found some fascinating examples in Ethel H Rudkin’s book of Lincolnshire folklore, so I will concentrate mainly on those.

Piercing candles with pins is a method of divination. The candle is lit and as the wax melts the diviner waits for the pin or pins to drop. The falling pin can answer questions, give directions, or select a person from a group gathered around. Lincolnshire Folklore gives this example of candle and pin divination from the village of Hemswell:

Charm to see future husband:

“This charm must be worked on All Hallow E’en. Get a candle, set it up, and light it, and stick pins in it – every pin has to have a “ditty” said [for each suitor]. The candle burns down first to one pin and then to another; when it gets to the right man the door will open and he will appear”


Poppets, the figurines or dolls used in spells, are often stuck with pins to use as a curse. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic explains:

The most common form of cursing is with a figure or effigy that represents the victim. Wax effigies have been found in ancient times including India, Egypt, Africa and Europe. These effigies can also be made from clay, wood or cloth and in more recent times include photographs, bought dolls and ‘collected’ items of clothing.

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Poppets, Pins and Power, 2017

The idea of sticking pins into an effigy is probably most well known today in the use of “voodoo dolls”, but the practice has been used in many cultures all over the world and dates back to antiquity. The pins could be stuck through the likeness to inflict pain on the intended human, or sometimes used to “pin down” a dead person’s spirit to prevent it from rising and haunting the living. This is a type of “sympathetic magic” (magic where objects or actions either represent or are symbolic to the target).

Other than using effigies/dolls/poppets, the pins could also be stuck in to animal hearts where witchcraft was suspected. This was seen as a form of counter-magic to halt the spell on said animal. It was thought that the link between witch and victim meant that piercing it with a pin and then slowly roasting the heart would inflict pain on the witch herself. Again, Lincolnshire Folklore, provides an interesting example where villagers tried to stop a curse from “The Witch of Old Crosby”:

“This old woman ‘oo was a witch, was a dour looking’ old dame. She witched a man’s cattle, so a calf deed an’ they cut th’ ‘eart out on it an’ stuck it full o’ pins, an’ boiled it on the fire at midnight. This stopped the disease.”


Pins were also routinely placed in “witch bottles”, another form of sympathetic magic. A witch bottle was made to protect against witchcraft and would usually contain the victim’s urine and maybe hair or nail clippings, some nails or pins and other objects that would be in some way symbolic of victim or curse. It is thought that the pins were added to “catch” the magic or curse and therefore trap it in the bottle out of harm’s way.

“the supposed victim of witchcraft would put some of his urine in a bottle with pins or needles, and bury it, believing that this would inflict acute pain on the witch, who would be unable to pass water until the spell had been removed.”

Ralph Merrifield

With regards to pins and witchcraft, I’ll briefly return to the idea that if a witch drew blood on a victim they would be in her power, as the counter to this is that if you were able to draw a witch’s blood, they would be powerless to harm you. Once again, we’ll return to Lincolnshire Folklore for the tale of Betty W., the witch of Willoughton:

A witch once went to tea with a woman in Willoughton. She was cordially pressed to take the easy chair with cushions on it. She sat in it, and realised that three pins had been carefully placed in it head down, point up [she said] “Drat the bairns, they knows I can’t ‘arm ’em now!”

Lincolnshire Folklore Ethel H Rudkin


For the final part of this post, we’ll leave witchcraft behind and travel to East Anglia where there was a tradition of gifting elaborate lace trimmed pin cushions when a new baby was born. The pin cushions would be decorated with messages such as “Welcome little stranger” or “May God preserve the both from danger” written out with pin heads. The pins were never actually used, as this was considered unlucky, and the cushions were carefully kept to be displayed when the next baby was born. Tradition had it that the youngest child usually received the pin cushion as a permanent gift. Sometimes pins of varying lengths were inserted only by point to create a basket effect – this led to name of “pin basket” being given as a nickname to youngest child as they were the child who would eventually receive it as an heirloom.


These pin cushions link stylistically with “sweetheart pin cushions” which were made by recuperating soldiers, mainly during World War I, to send home to loved ones. Made from scraps of fabric, trimmings and messages were pinned on, or spelled out using pin heads, rather than sewn.

I’m sure I have only scraped the surface of pin folklore, pin magic and pin traditions, so please do share any snippets of pin lore you know of!

PS if you put a pin in your mouth that has been used in a shroud your teeth will decay.


Circe’s Loom

I have just finished reading Circe by Madeline Miller, and I would highly recommend this beautifully written re-telling of the story of the goddess witch Circe. Miller has really brought Circe to life in a brilliantly vivid and intimate way.

One of the things that struck me whilst reading was how Circe’s loom (a gift from Daedalus in this version of events) is an important recurring motif, as a token of love, a means of occupying time during a seemingly endless exile and also common ground and eventual hand of friendship between Circe and Penelope.


In Ancient Greece spinning and weaving were so intertwined in women’s lives that the vast majority of the female population would have been involved in this task in some way. Homespun cloth was the norm and it was women’s work to produce it. However, as the myths and legends show, spinning and weaving was not just a domestic chore, but also the pastime of queens and goddesses.

three fates
Three Fates Tapestry by Pat Taylor (from a drawing by Henry Moore)


Greek mythology tells us of the three fates, who controlled lives through the spinning, measuring and cutting of thread. Once this process was completed nobody, neither God nor mortal, had the power to change it.

Spinners Diego Velazquez
The Spinners, or The Fable of Arachne, Diego Velazquez (Museo del Prado)

Then there is the tale of Athena, goddess of women’s crafts, and Arachne, a mortal weaver. Arachne challenges Athena to a spinning contest, boasting that she could beat the goddess. This she does, but her reward is to be turned in to a spider, to weave for ever more.

Philomene by Edward Burne-Jones

Philomela wove a tapestry telling of the violence done to her, after being rendered speechless from having her tongue cut out. The tapestry was delivered to her sister, Procne, leading to revenge being taken.

Penelope Weaving a Shroud for Laertes, Max Klinger, 1895

Penelope weaves by day, and unravels by night in order to ward off suitors while her husband Odysseus is away. She tells them she will re-marry when the funeral garment she is making for her father-in-law, Laertes, is complete and her clever plan is only foiled when she is betrayed by a maid.

circe loom
Pottery: black-figured skyphos decorated with the loom of Circe, who is shown with Odysseus and one of his sailors, changed to an animal. Inscribed `KIRKA’ (British Museum)

In The Odyssey, Circe is said to be seen working at an enormous loom on her island of Aeaea when Odysseus sends his men to her.

“They stood there in the forecourt of the goddess with the glorious hair, and heard Circe inside singing in a sweet voice as she went up and down a great design on a loom, immortal such as goddesses have, delicate and lovely and glorious their work.”

From The Odyssey (Lattimore translation)

In Miller’s Circe this detail is not included, but Circe is seen at her loom before this moment, enjoying her weaving and making dyes for the threads. It gives her pleasure to complete these tasks.

The loom also plays an important role when Circe’s son, Telegonus, arrives back on the island after unwittingly killing his father, Odysseus (yet another inevitable outcome spun by the three fates). He lands ashore with Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and his half brother, Telemachus. At first unsure of Penelope’s motive for coming to Aeaea, Circe is careful and watchful, but an eventual friendship appears to be cemented when Circe lends Penelope her loom. The two women have the common ground of weaving and it is enough to start both conversation and the beginnings of companionship.

There’s lots more to explore here, which I hope to do in future. In the mean time, I think next on my reading list might be Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, another retelling of ancient myths through the voices of women.

For more on spinning and weaving in Ancient Greece the Women in Antiquity WordPress is a great place to start.



Straw Plaiting in Hitchin

While I was writing my previous post on Corn Dollies I had a niggling feeling that I was missing something about straw work and my home town of Hitchin but it was something just wavering at the back of my head. Then, as luck would have it, when I popped to the library today the concrete mural outside the front door caught my eye. What was that right next to the church and the name Hycchyn…yes, corn dollies.

Corn Dollies on "Hycchyn" mural
From concrete cast mural by Henry and Joyce Collins, originally commissioned by Sainsbury’s for their Hitchin store but later relocated to Hitchin Library.

It was at this point I remembered the straw plait section at the old Hitchin Museum so as I was at the library anyway I went straight to the local history section and there was just what I was looking for, a book titled Hitchin’s Strawplait Industry.


It turns out that what had totally slipped my mind as I struggled to plait my oat stalks was that my home town was one of the centres of the straw plait industry from the very end of the 18th century to around the 1870s.

19th century Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire were, as you might expect, prominently agricultural but what set them apart from their neighbouring counties was their domestic industry of straw plaiting, mostly carried out by the wives and children of agricultural labourers, and its effect on the economy and society of the area.

The hub of the industry was in a fairly small area between Dunstable to the west, Hitchin to the east, St Albans to the south and the Ouse Valley near Bedford to the North and in 1851 67% of female straw plaiters lived in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 18.01.00

It is unknown why this area was so rich in straw plaiters but it is thought that as the textiles and wool trade in Hertfordshire declined straw plaiting took its place, in the absence of any other domestic industry. Straw plaiting also had the advantage in that it was difficult to mechanise and so had more longevity than, for example, weaving which was more quickly industrialised during this period.

The straw plaiting industry grew at the end of the 18th century as the fashions turned towards straw bonnets which had originally been imported from southern France and Italy. As the Napoleonic Wars arrived the home grown industry was able to expand. Throughout the early part of the 19th century the women in Hitchin and its surrounding villages remained straw plaiters, whereas the town of Luton also began making hats, eventually becoming famous for its millinery history.

straw plait
The straw would have the head cut off, then be stripped and possibly bleached before being made into 20 yard plaits to be sold on

The area benefitted from the straw plait industry, and the supplementary income it brought to agricultural families, during the temporary agricultural recession that followed the Napoleonic Wars and during the 1830s when there was much unrest in certain areas, such as neighbouring East Anglia. The industry also benefitted agricultural labourers who were forced to move from the villages into Hitchin itself as their wives and children could continue to supplement their income in the town, actually helped by being able to access the market themselves rather than relying on travelling agents working their way around the villages.

During the 1860s the industry started to face criticism for its use of child labour and the Workshops Regulation Act of 1867 forbade employment of children under 8. However, many employers got round the law by claiming the children were attending “plait schools” and not working in workshops so children continued to work in the industry until its eventual decline in the 1870s and 1880s when pressure from overseas competition and attitudes to education began to change for the better.

But where is the folklore? Well, I admit this post was more of a local history post, but I’ll leave you with a picture of the “Dunstable plait” from the Guild of Straw Craftsmen and its accompanying rhyme.

dunstable plait

“Over one, under two, pull it tight and that will do.”

Lammas and Corn Dollies

For as far back as people have farmed the earth, communities have honoured the cyclical nature of the year. The Celtic Wheel marks eight festivals, including summer and winter solstices and autumn and spring equinoxes. Interspersed between these are Samhain (commonly known as Halloween), Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day eve) and Lammas or Lughnasadh.

wheel year 2
Wheel of the Year

“These festivals, which go back to time immemorial, are part of the deep oneness with Nature that the people of olden days experienced…”

Doreen Valiente, An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present

Lammas is traditionally celebrated on 1st August and is the festival of the first harvests of the year, specifically the grain harvest. The name Lammas is from the Anglo-Saxon meaning Loaf-mass (hlafmaesse).  Lughnasadh is also celebrated at this time and is the festival of Lugh, the Celtic sun god.

There is little evidence of how Lammas was celebrated in pre-Christian times, as records are scarce, but it was certainly adopted into the Christian year with the coming of Christianity to Britain. It is also a festival that is included in the pagan calendar and celebrated as one of the eight witches’ sabbats.

What is clear is that Lammas was the start of the hardest and most important part of the year for communities reliant on their crops and that traditions and superstitions have been passed down through time.

One belief was in that of a Harvest Spirit, who lived in the fields and who retreated ever further as the crops were harvested.

“Rural people believed the Harvest Spirit dwelt in the fields, and that as the reapers cut the corn the spirit was forced to retreat in to the ever-dwindling remainder. No man wished to be the one who destroyed her refuge, so the reapers took their turns to throw their sickles at the last stand of corn. It was then plaited in to a woman’s form – known as the corn-dolly or kern-baby – which represented the Harvest Spirit. This was set in a place of honour at the harvest supper”

The Reader’s Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain

A similar story is told by Dee Dee Chainey in A Treasury of British Folklore but she adds  that in Cornwall and Devon, when the last standing corn was cut, there was a tradition of “crying the neck” where the reaper would shout there times “I ‘ave ‘un” and the other farmworkers reply, “What ‘ave ‘ee?”, with him replying, “the neck” to which everyone would cheer. The outcome for this last piece of crop was the same though – it would be made in to a corn dolly to house the spirit of the fields until she could be returned when planting for the following year.


Although the account above says the corn was plaited into a woman’s form, the word corn would have meant any food grain and dolly is more likely to be from the word idol rather than a doll shape. They were actually called harvest trophies before the term corn dolly was adopted and come in a variety of shapes or forms, only one of which is the human shaped female form. Many of the shapes are regional, such as (left to right) the Suffolk horseshoe, the Yorkshire spiral and the Staffordshire knot.


I looked to see if there was a Hertfordshire speciality before attempting my own corn dollies, but as there wasn’t, I tried a simple loop and a simple female form. Once I had started, I soon became grateful that I wasn’t trying a complex regional version as the plaiting is hard to keep uniform and the stalks soon become tangled in each other.

The grain stalks I used are windblown oat stalks found along a field edge, and on the “doll” the arms are meadow grasses plaited together.


I will display the corn dollies to give harvest thanks and will keep them for luck until, as the tradition goes, I will return them to the fields for the seeds to grow once more and for the Harvest Spirit to return to her home.