Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario


Copyright 2006 by the author.


It was another scorching day at the height of the dry season. Masy had come to visit me, bringing her basket of cotton to work. A Tandroy woman’s hands should never be idle. She began pinching out cotton seeds and the gathered girls and I picked up handfuls to join her. At one point, when conversation lagged, Masy held up a piece of cotton fluff and spontaneously began to tell a tale.

Long ago, we did not know woven cloth, but dressed in cotton fluff. Once there was an unhappy senior wife. She was unhappy because her husband loved his junior wife better. One day, she went to the forest to fetch firewood, and met a kokolampo nature spirit who was weaving.

‘Come back tomorrow and I will teach you to weave,’ said the spirit.

Everyday thereafter, the woman went back to learn to spin and dye, and to weave.

‘Oh, where does that woman go every day?’ the other villagers gossiped behind her back.

When the woman had completed the cloth, the spirit said, ‘wear this back to the village, but never say where it came from.’

That very day, her husband was hosting a healing dance in the village. The people were astounded when they saw her new dress, and whispered to each other. They questioned her but she remained silent and refused to say where it came from. The junior wife was filled with jealous rage. The husband had the senior wife stand up before the crowd in her finery, and performed a sacrifice to honor her. Then he sent away the junior wife, and she turned into a crow.

That is the tale of the unhappy senior wife. That is so.

That is what Masy said. This paper is the story of how I came to unravel Masy’s story as a master cultural narrative, with its motifs of women’s rights and honor, the rivalry of co-wives and the duties of husbands and wives. Elsewhere, I have analyzed in some detail Tandroy weaving and costume traditions1. The theme of the 2006 TSA conference, “Narratives,” invited a more personal look at the topics– reflections on how I had come to study and know textiles while living in Tandroy villages in the 1990s, and on the women who had been my patient instructors. I heard Masy’s story early in my stay, but it was only much later, through fits and starts and lived experiences, that I came to appreciate its meanings.