Or, Notions of Magic.
We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.
Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!
We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).
A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:
- To find a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
- To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
- To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
- To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
- To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
- To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)
Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:
- Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!).
- You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
- Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).
One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:
“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”
This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).
Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.
One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.
Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.
Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson).
And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.
There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!).
That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.
Thanks for reading!
- Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
- Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
- Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
- Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
- Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).