The Red Dress

A stranger to me once planted a seed. It unfurled, drinking in the energy of all life and grew tall, transferring that energy into cotton. In early autumn, its white buds, plucked by dry hands hard with work, mingled together to be cleaned and strapped and spun. 

And from here - a small thread was made. It was dipped and dyed a deep red which glowed in the sunlight that floated in through the high windows and glinted in the dust and steam of the mill. Like the weave of a spiders web, this thread was delicate and strong. Woven together with the others, it was captured for a long time in a wide fabric. A blank canvass, on which meanings would be made. 

This fabric travelled across half of the world, folded up in the dark space of a wooden box. The thread, held fast in the fabric, would reflect the autumn sunlight again only when the box was eventually opened, hundreds of miles from where the green plant had grown. Then, it was worked upon by different hands - young, smooth and quick. The wide fabric was cut into smaller pieces, and upon each the same shape was sewn. Stitch by stitch - an ancient symbol was dutifully replicated. 

The particular pattern of lines which was sewn upon the fabric squares are much older than the origins of this story. They have been different things at various times in human history; a sacred religious symbol, a good luck charm. These same lines were found long ago in the archeological remains of Mesopotamia, as well as in early Christian art. These lines have different names in various languages across the world: Gammadion, Cross Cramponnée, Croix Gammée, Fylfot, Tetraskelion, Manji, Hakenkreuz, Swastika. 

* * * 

It is late afternoon in a small village in central Germany and the streets are mostly empty, apart from two men arguing outside one of the small houses on the main street. Their voices echo loudly down the road but nobody is around to hear them - most of the other villagers are up in the nearby hills, harvesting grapes. It is September 1941. The small fabric sections, adorned with their stitched pattern of ancient lines, now hang heavily, in black and white and red, outside some of the larger houses. 

The younger man is wearing a dark brown uniform and angrily tells his older neighbour that his house too must be decorated, pointing up at the small building, the outside walls and windows un-adorned. The previous winter, the older man’s small house had been the first in the village to get electric lighting. He had chosen to put the precious bulb in the goat shed - where it would be most useful. 

In the same village, a year later, the house on the main road next to the goat shed is dutifully flagged, alongside many of the other houses in the village. There are even fewer voices in the streets - only short and hushed greetings at gates and in doorways can be heard over the gladly ever-present clatter of gossip coming down from the busy grape-vined hills in early autumn. 

By September 1944, even the hills are quiet. 

One early morning in September 1945, the red thread - still held fast but now weathered and fading in colour - is tugged at sharply and, together with the rest of the stitched fabric, is quickly rolled up and locked away in a dark wooden box. 

It is found again a few years later, by the hands of a woman who is my great-grandmother, searching for scraps with which to make clothes. The sight of the roll of dark red fabric makes her flinch - but she knows there is still use in it yet. Her hands wash the cloth thoroughly and, when it is dry, she sets to work removing the stitches which had locked the lines of an ancient symbol into a dark red frame. Carefully cutting and unpicking, she casts the white and black threads into the fire, and spreads the remaining weathered red cloth on the family’s wide kitchen table, measuring it up with expert eyes.

Leave a comment

    Add comment