“The Distaff Side” by Mary Leader

As fans of heredity sites and the history of fabrics will know, the distaff is the female side of humanity. If you want more than that, read this book, because I guaranteed by the end you will know far more than you ever thought possible about weaving, spinning, stitching, women and femininity. And the history of all of them.

The writing is a quintessential blending of forms and styles. Part poetry, part essay, part gossip, with everything else thrown in at seeming random moments as asides. I picture a lady sitting with her needlework, her thoughts half on her hands and half on her rambling speech, her attention flitting between the two. But always informative, whimsical and entertaining.  Even footnotes have comments in them, mostly humorous.

The poems are in various forms, some of them chattily prosaic, some visual, and some beautifully poetic, full of imagery and quiet emotion. One called “School Girls” was particularly evocative, both visually and emotionally.

Many of the images are based on the quite natural conceit that stitches on cloth are a whole lot like letters on a page, and thus a page of letters, punctuation marks and wingdings can resemble a panel of cloth with stitching. This is an imperfect analogy, mostly because of the lack of colour, but when you change from one medium to another, something is bound to get lost. Likewise, some of the form poems thus created are more or less successful, although there was only one where the meaning escaped me completely. Most of the material is in plain English or recognizable images, and quite accessible to the average reader.

In the end, we are left with the life of a woman, a family of women and Woman in the abstract, an Impressionistic series of images, wide and long, but also deep in history and calm maternal feeling. You think to yourself, “I wish I knew these women,” but then you realize that you already do.

Highly recommended to fans of the whimsical of both genders.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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