Die drei Männlein im Walde/The Three Little Men in the Woods

Grimm2A professor of German language and literature at a well-known U.S. university recently contacted me with some fiber-related questions.

Preparing reading selections for a class, the professor read through stories by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.  Her specific questions arose from the story “Die drei Männlein im Walde” / “The Three Little Men in the Woods” (1812).

The professor asked why yarn would be boiled and why might it then be rinsed in a cold river.  The part of the story her questions came from is this:

In GermanEndlichGrimm3 nahm sie [die Hexe] einen Kessel, setzte ihn zum Feuer und sott Garn darin. Als es gesotten war, hing sie es dem armen Mädchen auf die Schulter und gab ihm eine Axt dazu, damit sollte es auf den gefrornen Fluß gehen, ein Eisloch hauen und das Garn schlittern.

In English:  So at last she [the witch] took a kettle, set it on the fire, and scalded some yarn in it. When it was ready she hung it over the poor girl’s shoulder, and gave her an axe, and she was to go to the frozen river and break a hole in the ice, and there to rinse the yarn.

My first step was to determine whether Garn schlichtern/schlittern might have a  meaning other than physically “sliding the yarn” into the river.   The professor knew of no other meaning.  After searching through my textile-related books and several German commercial textile sites, I found no textile/fiber-specific meaning.

Why was the yarn sott or scalded ?  The yarn might have been scalded for one or any combination of these reasons:

  1. The yarn might have been in a dye pot where the water is brought to boil (though there’s no mention of dyeing in this story) so the fiber will absorb the dye.
  2. The yarn might well have been spun in the grease so a good roiling boil was needed to clean it.
  3. The witch might have boiled the yarn as a way to align the fibers in the yarn thus making it stronger and smoother.

Why schlichtern or slide the yarn into an icy river? 

  1. Moving water will quickly rinse away dye stuff not absorbed by the yarn.
  2. The cold river water would further tighten the fibers in the yarn (especially if kept under tension) thus making it harder wearing (desirable for, e.g., rugs or sole liners).

Grimm1I also suggested it could be that the witch was simply being mean.  Earlier in the story the witch sent the girl out in the dead of winter, wearing only a paper dress, to find strawberries!

What’s your best guess?!

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30 Responses to Die drei Männlein im Walde/The Three Little Men in the Woods

  1. mkhoshuei says:

    Actually the nettles into shirts is the least weird thing in that story. Nettle fibre is lovely and silky soft, but to make, spin and weave enough for 6 shirts would have taken one person a very long time, so also explains why she didn’t (in most versions) manage to finish them all in time.


  2. Excellent point!


  3. djdfr says:

    One of such. 🙂


  4. I was never a step mother, but my daughter had/has one. Thirty years later the stepmother is still, ummm, not nice! 😦


  5. Ouch – required by a witch or evil stepmother?!


  6. Yes, I agree – on both counts. This post elicited some interesting thoughts!



  7. Betty says:

    Do we know that the yarn is wool? What if it was linen or some other bast fiber, like nettle, that is boiled to finish?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My first thought was felting the yarn for tougher wear. These comments are fascinating though!


  9. djdfr says:

    I find myself thinking of the story where the girl had to make shirts out of nettles.


  10. Julia says:

    You are welcome – it was fun to look it up and learn something new! I have come across this expression often, but never payed much mind to it. The discussion, by the way, can be found here: http://de.etc.sprache.deutsch.narkive.com/n9os2QDn/schlittern-durchspuelen#post9 there is also some discussion going on about the boiling.

    Oh, by the way- I just looked up my version of the fairy tale, and for me, it isn’t the witch who sends the poor girl seeking strawberries and going on the ice, but the (you guessed it) wicked stepmother. 😉


  11. I imagine the yarn would cool rather quickly … especially if it was a bit of a hike to the river. 🙂


  12. Or at least got close. 🙂 Some bloggers have left very thoughtful comments that I forwarded to the professor.


  13. A big mess indeed. 🙂


  14. So true … I never saw strawberries growing in the Norwegian winters. Germany isn’t that far south so their winters couldn’t be much warmer. 🙂


  15. No doubt … anything to make a task more difficult … those pesky witches! 🙂


  16. Thank you for your thoughtful comment; I forwarded them to the professor. The shift of meaning depending on not just time but regional dialects is interesting.


  17. Thank you for your thoughtful comments; I forwarded them to the professor. You reminded me that Cinderella did more than jut sit in the ashes. 🙂 I remember when I first read the original, unHollywoodized tales written down by Bros. Grimm and Asbjørnsen & Moe. They were so, well, almost dark and morbid compared to their Hollywood counterparts.


  18. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. It was a fun post to write. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  19. brooke says:

    What an interesting post! I really enjoyed reading it.


  20. Very interesting, I didn’t even know that particular story.
    Anyway, as a German native speaker I would like to add my opinion.
    My initial thought was that the witch boils the wool to felt it. I would suppose that was a very normal way of doing it.
    I found the expression of “das Garn schlittern” very strange. I only know schlittern in a meaning of sliding, like children sliding over an icy patch for fun, or sliding accidentally. You would not normally use it as a schlitter “sth”. And if you do, then you would expect at least something like “where” (to slide the yarn over the ice for example). From the structure it sounds very much like a term that had a particular meaning in the process of felting which got lost over time.
    As I was so intrigued, I actually called my sister who happens to be a German teacher. She also only knows the common meaning of it but pointed out that there is actually a Grimms dictionary, written (well, started at least) by the Grimm brothers.
    And there http://woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB/call_wbgui_py_from_form?sigle=DWB&mode=Volltextsuche&firsthit=0&textpattern=schlittern&lemmapattern=&patternlist=T:schlittern&lemid=GS11941&hitlist=27278583
    (sorry don’t know how to put a link in here)
    I found that schlittern used as a transitive verb can have the meaning of probably (!) rinsing. It is rarely used and only in connection with yarn. And they quote exactly your example 🙂
    So to cut the long story short, I think the times were hard, boiling yarn and then rinse it in very cold water was the common way of handling it (I would assume rather for felting than dying – I wonder if people bothered to dye wool), it happened to be winter so it was particularly hard and unpleasant.
    I guess, a witch is supposed to do mean things (in old fairy tales at least) but I don’t think it was a treatment that was especially hard or made up by the witch just to torture the girl. She “just” made her work very hard. I think it is a task that someone had to do, it is not as unnecessary as sorting peas and lentils from ashes like Cinderella had to, if you see what I mean.
    I guess it would be really interesting to read the whole fairy tale, I will see if I can find it somewhere.


  21. Julia says:

    I did a quick search on German websites, and it seems that the tale derives from the “Badischen” (that’s a German dialect spoken in the south) Apparently, in that area, sliding on the ice (which is what “schlittern” means) is also called “schluudere”, which also connects to “schleudern” (throwing or skidding). So it may be that the girl is supposed to throw the yarn around to dry it – which would also be mean and fit with the paper dress and the strawberry-search. 😉


  22. I think indeed it is a mean way of the witch to make the hard work of felting the yarn even harder! But what an interesting project!! xo Johanna


  23. Rebecca says:

    I would be thinking fulling the yarn. But it does depend rather on whether the strawberry collection is a real task as depicted in the illustration or an impossible task like ‘ploughing an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand’.


  24. Grey Dove says:

    Sorry but I really disagree about sitting the yarn in the snow. Doubtless a pot of melted snow not allowed to get too warm might have had a similar effect, but dropping hot yarn, likely with a coating of now melted grease into the snow would have created an unholy mess!


  25. Susan says:

    Hey, sounds like you nailed it 🙂


  26. CrazedPurls says:

    I would have to say she was being mean. Taking the hot yarn out and putting it on her shoulder was bad enough but making her dig a hole in the ice was just as bad. The moment she would have ventured outside the yarn would have cooled so the entire journey was not about the yarn. Sitting it out in the snow would have yielded the same effect.


  27. Grey Dove says:

    I agree with the first comment, as well as your descriptions of the aligning and tightening aspects of the yarn preparation. Considering the period when the story was written I would suggest that all these things would make a yarn better suited to outer garments and perhaps blankets, rather than today’s rugs and insoles.

    I’d expect the cruelty was just a side benefit. And for personal reasons I dislike the way the Grimm Brothers assisted in furthering the myths and inaccurate beliefs perpetuated about witches by the political and religious institutions of the day.

    Thanks for discussing this, in the years when I longed to work more with fibre I always took note of these small references, it would be interesting to collect similar references in books from the 1800s (and earlier) and attempt a comparison with what other fields (such as archaeology) have collected on the subject. Historical methods of fibre preparation and construction have always fascinated me. I remember hearing once of a native American tribe who wove clothing in a combination of goat hair and cedar bark. Apparently it produced a fabric that effectively repelled water.

    Grey Dove

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Yes indeed, though the effect will depend on the time lapsed between removing it from the boiling water to immersing it in cold river water. How far away was the river not to mention breaking through the ice. 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

  29. lissymail says:

    Wouldn’t hot to cold also felt the fiber a bit and full it so that (if it were a single) the twist would be set in a more permanent way? For example: http://www.jobodesigns.com/post/2010/05/05/Fulling-and-Whacking-Using-Felting-to-Your-Advantage.aspx

    Just another guess–this is a fun post and question 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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