Reading #Stitchwitchery: Sewing & Magic in Fantasy

We take a look at the use of sewing in fantasy novels the Unraveling Kingdom series and Spin the Dawn.

Sewing is a bit arcane for people, like myself, who aren’t particularly good at it. I can sew badges onto a Girl Scout uniform and hem pants if pressed, but create a whole new article of clothing? It’s beyond me. 

There are plenty of wizards in my social circle who have this skillset, and it always strikes me as magic, so when I encountered Torn by Rowenna Miller last year, I thought it was absolutely appropriate to have the main character as a seamstress who casts charms through her stitching. Since then, two more #stitchwitchery books have hit the shelves: Fray, the second in Miller’s “Unraveled Kingdom” series, and Spin the Dawn, an #OwnVoices series launcher by Elizabeth Lim that adds a Mulan flavor to an original fairy tale.

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Rowenna Miller’s “Unraveled Kingdom” series, set in a country loosely reminiscent of revolutionary-era France, depicts a fraught nation in which the common folk feel underrepresented and mistreated, and the out-of-touch nobility appear to lead lives of wealth and leisure.

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Sophie Balstrade, once a street urchin, has pulled herself up by her bootstraps to become the owner of a couture shop that caters to the same nobles her brother, Kristos, despises. She indulges Kristos’s political grumblings, even attending meetings with his friends, but she’s always struck by how the men calling for reform forget the needs of women.

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For Sophie, her hard-earned stability is worth suffering the occasional indignity (such as waiting for hours in line to renew her business license, at the pleasure of the Lord of Coin). When Kristos asks Sophie to make red caps charmed with protection, she relents, making a few, all the time realizing that if her brother and his friends have a symbol, their movement is getting larger and more dangerous.

At the same time, Sophie is creating charmed undergarments for Lady Viola Snowmont, a trendsetting young noble whose salon encourages other young nobles to discuss economics and philosophy. Sophie is quite taken with Viola, and even more taken with Theodor, a duke and prince, who begins to court her, even though Sophie believes it can amount to nothing.

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As Sophie comes to get to know nobles as people, she realizes her own prejudices about the nobility—and helps them to see why the commoners are so dissatisfied (while always remaining neutral herself). When her neutrality is threatened by a nefarious revolutionary who forces her to use her charm magic to cast a curse, she keeps it secret, looking for ways to undermine the coming violence and undo the damage she herself has become responsible for.

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By the end of Torn, Sophie has only barely moved beyond her frustrating neutrality and prioritizing stability. After the events of the novel, she comes to realize that she can’t remain silent against injustice simply because it threatens her own security.

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In Fray, Sophie begins a new chapter of her life as she accepts Theodor’s proposal, the two of them trying to create a symbol for their torn nation: there can be unity between the nobility and the commoners. At the social events Sophie is required to attend as Theodor’s betrothed, she works to bring the voice of the common people, whom she once refused to represent, to the ears of nobles who might be bent toward listening.

In the book, Theodor is presenting a Reform Bill that will address the grievances of the common people, because he believes that the duty of the nobility is to serve the nation and her people. But the nobility are hard to move, and even after the Bill passes—something Theodor believes will keep the nobility in line, because who would break the law?—the nation continues to fracture into violence.

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Sophie’s magic is tantalizing with its potential—something seen by both her allies and her enemies. While early on, she has only ever cast charms, drawing golden positive light along her stitches to embed particular types of goodwill into her creations, over the course of Torn, she learns to cast curses. Presented as a duality in Torn, Sophie learns in Fray that curses and charms aren’t necessarily opposing forces, but two sides of the same energy, existing in balance with each other.

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Sophie is the only person in the narrative who can channel those energies through her sewing, but the way she plays with the magic, weaving it when it is produced by others, drawing it to her as though threading a needle, is always through the lens of her gifts as a seamstress. Even her analogies about the nation are centered around the way that fabric rips, and can be mended. Fray leaves Sophie’s country still unraveling, and the third volume in the series will hopefully chronicle the new cloth emerging from the tattered remnants of an old society.

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Spin the Dawn doesn’t question the hierarchy of the nation in the same way “Unraveling Kingdom” does, but it lingers in commentary on war, and how threading peace through a war-torn nation takes greater priority than the needs of any one of her people.

In Spin the Dawn, the young Emperor and the shansen—a formerly loyal warlord—battled for five years before finally reaching a truce: the Emperor would marry the shansen’s daughter, weaving the two enemies together. But Lady Sarnai has no interest in wedding the Emperor. Her father had once promised her he would never marry her off for politics, and she’s determined to make the betrothal as difficult as possible, putting off the wedding through a contest to choose the court’s next imperial tailor.

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Maia Tamarin has experienced the costs of war. Though her father’s decline as a tailor began with her mother’s death from illness, their family is cut apart further when her two elder brothers are killed in battle. As a girl, she can never officially take over her father’s shop, though she has a natural gift for sewing, and she has been managing her father’s business and completing all the labor for years.

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When her last brother returns from war broken—his legs are damaged, and he can no longer walk without assistance—she wonders if, for the good of the family, she should just accept the vaguely threatening proposals of the neighboring baker’s son. When a representative of the Emperor demands that her father compete for position of imperial tailor, Maia knows her father can’t go—but they can’t say no to the Emperor either. She poses as her brother (who offers her a quick lesson in how to act less demure), and sets off for the palace with a gift from her father: her grandmother’s scissors.

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The scissors, of course, are magic, but not the type just anyone can use. The scissors channel Maia’s natural talent, saving her from the disaster of one of her projects being destroyed by a competitor. At first, she is reluctant to use them, feeling as though using magic is cheating. But, then Lady Sarnai demands she make the three dresses of the goddess Amana: one stitched with the laughter of the sun, one woven with moonlight, and the third sewn with the blood of the stars. With the help of the enigmatic Edan, Lord Enchanter, she journeys to gather the impossible materials.

The structure of the novel has the feel of a fairy tale: gather the three impossible ingredients to complete the impossible task. But the richness of the world, populated with demons and immortal enchanters who sacrifice their freedom in exchange for their powers, floods the novel’s pages. Maia, like Sophie, thinks in terms of her sewing, describing the world in metaphors that involve thread and stitches. Though the novel is young adult, and it is a coming of age story, Maia is nearly an adult at the start, and her coming of age is more a coming into her own power—her willingness to take fate into her own hands—than it is about growing up.

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Spin the Dawn ends at a terrible moment. Maia has begun to face the consequences for saving the man she loves—and the second book is likely to delve farther into her magic as she pays the price for her choices. But the gods of Maia’s world are not silent, and the powers she wrangles with are not only the battles of men vying for power, but gods and demons and the order of the world. Magic is huge and powerful and terrifying in a way that Sophie’s hasn’t yet achieved—though, in Fray, the potential for such great magic becomes clear.

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Both women design their own patterns for a future where the ones they love will be safe. And I’m eager to continue to follow them as they weave those new worlds, no matter what the cost.

Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.