A Patchwork Fairy Tale: the one with the veiled seamstress, the cruel nobles, and the jade pendant.
A clever young seamstress goes to work for a lord and lady who have driven six other seamstresses away already, determined to teach them a lesson.
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[Gentle theme music]
Laura: Hi, you can call me Laura, I’m here to tell you a story if you like. If you want to read as well as listen you can find a transcript and mp3 download on patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com. You found one of my Patchwork Fairy Tales. The is the one with the veiled seamstress, the cruel nobles, and the jade pendant.
The Seven Seamstresses
There once lived a nobleman and his wife who had been dealt a fair hand of cards in life. They were both very handsome, but even cleverer than they were handsome and even richer than they were clever. They lived in a mansion that was very nearly a castle, and standing at the highest window, there was nothing to see in any direction that they could not call their property.
Now, with all this good fortune they might have done many great things and been very happy, but sadly this was not the case. Instead of being generous, the two nobles were greedy, and instead of being happy, they were merely extremely bored. It was the kind of boredom too, that delighted in remedying itself with the distress of others, and the longer these two vain, rich people were idle, the more horrible they became.
They played the most awful tricks on people and spent every waking moment dreaming up new schemes together. Because nothing is more terrible than two mean-spirited people who get to encourage one another.
It was no wonder, then, that all the people in the neighbourhood absolutely dreaded seeing the nobles’ carriage coming down the street. One morning, however, the noble couple seemed to be in an uncommonly good mood. They were friendly and cordial to everyone they met and they announced that they wished to hire carpenters and carpet-layers and all sorts of other people, to build something new in their mansion.
Everyone was all curiosity and no matter how mysterious the couple acted, when the work was on the way it was clear soon enough what they were building. It was a sewing room, positioned in one of the lesser used wings of their home, and it became a magnificent workspace. After it was done, the nobles ordered bolts and bolts of the finest fabrics and strings and strings of the most delicate buttons, until there was more finery packed into those rooms than in all the dressmakers and tailor’s shops of the neighbourhood combined.
So soon enough everyone knew about the nobles’ grand plans and when they finally announced their further intentions everyone had been waiting with baited breath. What they announced quickened the heart of every young seamstress in the neighbourhood. The nobleman intended to hire a live-in dressmaker to supply his wife with the finest and most fashionable clothes at all times.
The pay they promised was phenomenal and the terms very reasonable. Whatever seamstress wished to apply for the position would have to come to them and make one single gown to show her skill. If it was deemed good enough she would be hired and would be set for life.
Imagine the stir that caused. There was such hurrying and scurrying of seamstresses left and right that the noble couple were truly spoiled for choice. But there was the thing, they could keep choosing.
Because you see, none of these determined seamstresses were ever hired. Not one of them even finished her first dress.
They were all left behind. Abandoned as girl after girl ran from the mansion without so much as a word to anyone, often in the dead of night, fleeing back to their homes, their families, or simply far, far away.
No one could ever find out what had happened and whenever the nobles were asked about it they simply sighed and answered:
“It is so very hard to find good workers nowadays.”
Everybody thought it was a very strange affair, especially as it happened again and again, exactly according to the same pattern. Another girl was moved into the mansion, the whole neighbourhood held its breath, and then exhaled again in shock when this girl too ran away. This did not deter the nobles in the slightest however. They always chose another girl and even though they both looked very grave and lamented their bad luck, they clearly lost neither appetite nor sleep over the affair.
The fact of the matter was that the noble couple was in better spirits than they had ever been. They seemed downright gleeful every time they went out to hire a new seamstress. It really was most peculiar. But no one dared to question them and soon no less than six seamstresses had tried to gain the position at the mansion and left in disgrace. All the neighbourhood wondered, but no one knew what to think.
Now it happened to be so that in the town nearest the nobleman’s estate lived two women who had a daughter who was a very accomplished seamstress.
They were a large family, because the girl had four little brothers, and since all five children were fair skinned and dark haired like the one mother, but wide-smiled and high-spirited like the other mother, no one could ever doubt that they belonged together, even when the boys were all running in different directions. The daughter was very much the big sister, though, and she was a very observant person too.
She did not believe that all these seamstresses had left without a reason, because they were bad workers, or because they were taciturn. They were young women just like herself, eager to make use of their skills and provide for themselves and their families. The only reason this young seamstress had not applied for the position at the mansion herself, was because she could not bear to be separated from her family so permanently.
But now, with all the town muttering of the latest girl that had come riding red-eyed past the main square and out of sight, the young woman had changed her mind.
“I don’t think they mean to keep a seamstress at all,” she told her mothers one evening. “I think they’ve made a game out hiring them and then chasing them off again. But if they aren’t interested in paying honest wages for honest work, I will give them a taste of their own medicine! I will go over there myself and see to it that when I leave it will be with enough to help us move to wherever we like, and live easy for the rest of our days.”
After all, the brave young seamstress thought, those that dish out bad treatment deserve no better than being treated badly in turn, and she was in no mood to let those obnoxious nobles carry on as they pleased.
Her parents worried, of course, but their daughter was determined to go.
“I will make sure they will not recognise me,” she promised. “And as soon as I get away from them we will go far away, where they’ll never find us.”
So she twisted up her black hair and drew a veil in front of her face, as if to protect her fair skin from the sun, so only her dark eyes were still visible.
Finally, when she was as well prepared as a young woman possibly could be, her parents reluctantly agreed to let her go.
“But you must promise never to take off your pendant,” her mothers urged. “Because if even your cleverness is not enough, that is our gift to you that will keep you safe.”
So the clever seamstress tucked her jade pendant safely out of sight underneath her collar, kissed her mothers and brothers goodbye and set off for the nobles’ mansion.
There she was welcomed very cordially and immediately granted the possibility to try for the position of their dressmaker. Neither of the nobles questioned why she chose to cover her face. On the contrary, the noblewoman, who had grown rather disgruntled at having so many young women pass through the house, was quite pleased to not have her jealousy fanned this time, and the nobleman did not care either way.
The seamstress was brought to the sewing room and immediately the girl began executing her plan. She made an awful show of looking around and inspecting every single piece of material at her disposal.
“Well,” she said. “If that is what you want me to work with, I can certainly try.”
“What do you mean?” the noblewoman asked.
“Oh no, do not worry, fair lady,” the seamstress said. “If this is to your taste I can certainly accommodate.”
Now of course both lord and lady absolutely demanded to know what she was about and the clever seamstress smiled very politely and said:
“Nothing, dear employers, it is only that I had expected materials of rather higher quality for such an assignment as this.”
The nobles turned scarlet with indignation and embarrassment. That such a seamstress, a simple girl like her, could find fault with their taste! It was not to be borne. The nobleman shouted and the noblewoman stamped her foot and as soon as their servants came running there was no end to their orders. The seamstress was to tell them exactly what things she had seen that were more splendid and more noble than what they had here and they would make sure to get them. Because these two nobles could not bear to be outdone by anyone, not even when playing their silly games.
The clever seamstress readily obliged and soon there were scores of servants running to and fro to fetch the most expensive fabrics and embellishments you could dream of. They brought the most shimmering silk and the finest laces. They brought gold braid and silver thread. And finally they brought buttons and clasps set with real pearls and diamonds.
The seamstress had never seen such finery in her life, but she did not show it. Instead she nodded contentedly and said: “With these materials I can make something worthy.”
The nobles returned to their usual smugness, finally calmed by the confirmation that they were once again better than everyone else and they hastily proceeded with their usual procedure of welcoming a new seamstress to the house.
“You may choose a mannequin from the room over there to work on, after we have come back from our daily hunt we shall see how you are getting on!” the nobleman said, full of false generosity, and he indicated a door to the left.
The seamstress did not know what she might find there, but she was prepared for the worst, telling herself that she would soon be out of here anyway, carrying as much of those fine materials as she possibly could.
When she entered the room, however, there was nothing gruesome or ugly to shock her. It was simply a room full of mannequins. Except in the middle of the room six of them stood in a row that were not bare. Each one was dressed in an unfinished dress. Some almost finished, some hardly begun and the seamstress felt such a wave of sadness come over her than she felt her spirits sink into her shoes.
“These must be the gowns that all those poor girls left behind before me,” she thought and to a worker such as herself it was almost unbearable to see all these abandoned masterpieces side by side. All these seamstresses had worked so hard on their creations, meaning to make their fortune, but they had been forced to abandon their work and leave in disgrace.
The clever seamstress’ heart ached for them and as she stepped into the room it was as if she could feel her jade pendant beating against her chest almost anxiously.
“Do not worry,” she whispered. “I will not fall prey to this.”
But as she walked past the first unfinished dress to fetch a mannequin, she could not stop herself from touching the lace collar in sympathy.
As soon as she did so she felt a twisting in her heart and in a flash she saw a young woman before her, sitting by a window. She looked tired and pale and sadness shaped her eyes, her embroidery listless in her lap.
The jade pendant beat like a worried heart against her skin and the seamstress started away from the dress, but she had seen what she had seen. Breathless she stretched out her hand to the second dress and grabbed a fold of silk, only to blink her eyes and see the second seamstress, who was hacking away angrily at a piece of fabric and cutting it up beyond use.
So she went from dress to dress, frantically touching unfinished seams and untied ribbons, and saw the lives of all her predecessors flash before her eyes. All of them looked so unhappy that the clever seamstress could not bear it. Their faces were as sad as the sight of their unfinished dresses.
“Well,” the determined girl grimaced. “That won’t do.” She pressed her hand reassuringly over her pendant for a moment and then promptly rolled up her sleeves. She would not fall prey to self-doubt or sadness or anger. She would show these nobles what she was capable of. And she would do it for her fellow seamstresses as much as for herself.
So when the nobles came back from their hunt they were very surprised to find that instead of choosing an empty mannequin, the new seamstress had dragged the mannequin wearing the first unfinished dress into the middle of her workroom. The seamstress meanwhile, was busy measuring off yards of the same silk that dress had been started in.
The lord and lady gaped.
“What are you doing?” they demanded.
“I can hardly begin a new dress with so many unfinished projects cluttering up my workspace,” the seamstress answered. “It is entirely the wrong energy to create beauty!”
“You lazy girl!” the noblewoman scolded, eager to begin their games. “You think you can get away with using someone else’s design!”
“Not at all, my lady,” the seamstress assured her. “I would never take credit for another’s work. I certainly do not expect you to hire me after completing this dress!” And that was true enough, because she did not expect to be hired at all.
“Suit yourself then,” the nobles said and they left the girl to her work.
The seamstress barely paid them any mind and began digging through the many drawers filled with ribbons and laces, because she needed to find ones that matched exactly. It was a beautiful design, this, and she would do it justice.
The nobles were quite thrown by their new seamstress’ actions, but they decided that what she was sewing shouldn’t derail their plans, so they immediately set out making her life as miserable as possible.
That night they had their servants bring her nothing but bread and water. The seamstress looked up from her work and thanked the servant. The boy hesitated but the seamstress was already getting back to her work. When he did not leave, the seamstress looked at the boy, smiling behind her veil and asked pleasantly:
“Is there anything else?”
The boy answered: “Well, no… I mean…my master and mistress wish you to know you cannot have any more food.”
“I see,” the seamstress said amusedly. “And I suppose they also wish me to ask you why?”
The boy looked relieved, but he looked at his feet to avoid the kind eyes when he said: “They say you haven’t proven your worth and do not deserve any better.”
There was a dreadful silence that was broken by the girl throwing back her head and laughing.
“And so they have given me the poorest food they have to offer. Freshly baked bread and clear water. Happy, happy couple!” She shook her head. “However,” she added. “I hope you eat better, little man.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boy nodded.
“Very good,” she said and with that she let the servant go.
Of course the boy reported back to the nobles, who were just as astonished as he was. Once again they were quite thrown, and they were so surprised that they quite forgot to torment the new seamstress any further for the rest of the week.
With no one to bother her, it did not take the clever seamstress long to finish the first dress and when she did, she placed it back on the mannequin and stepped back to admire her work. The dress was beautiful, finished with loving care and real skill, and as she straightened the lace colour she was certain she could see the first seamstress again, at the very edge of her mind. Except the colour had come back into her face and she was busily embroidering flowers onto the hem of a skirt. The girl sighed in genuine relief and smilingly sent word to the nobles that the first dress was finished.
By this time the nobles had gotten over their initial puzzlement and they promptly hastened to the sewing room to abuse the seamstress’ work as ugly and absolutely unworthy of their attention. The seamstress listened to them with the neutral expression of someone who is not really listening at all and merely said:
“You are very right, very right, it is a good thing I have had this dress to practice on. The next one will be better.”
“The next one!” the nobleman raged.
“Why should we give you another chance?” his wife huffed.
For the first time the seamstress felt a pang of fear, because now she had seen the abandoned dresses she could not simply leave them, but she was very sure the nobles did not actually want to send her away, so she said demurely:
“I can see I need more practice. If you’d let me I’ll finish the second dress and see if I can do any better.”
“Very well,” they huffed. “We shall give you one more chance!” And they left the room thinking very confidently that they would manage to break her sprits yet.
“Just you wait,” the clever seamstress muttered behind their backs. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.” But her work was not done yet, so she quickly went to fetch the second dress and started working on it immediately.
This time around the nobles were determined not to let her strange behaviour deter them. They sent servant after servant to disturb her and keep her from her work. They drove the young woman mad with their disturbances and requests, but she was not sewing for herself, she was sewing for the women that had come before her, and whenever she nearly lost her temper she felt the jade pendant warm and comforting against her skin. So she smiled and nodded at every single servant and sent back whatever answer the nobles wanted to hear.
This way the second and third dress were finished soon enough and even though the lord and lady went above and beyond in abusing them, using language so fowl that the shadows under the cupboards shuddered, the seamstress took their abuse with unseen smiles and polite answers. Whatever they did, it did not seem to make any difference. No matter at what hour they went to the sewing room, they found the seamstress in good humour, hard at work and still hidden behind her veils, with only her shining dark eyes to prove that she was the same woman still.
Dress after dress was completed, and the nobles grew more horrid every day and more bewildered when it did not work. They sent their servants to spy on the girl, but every one of them carried back the same report:
“And?” the nobleman fussed.
“And??” the noblewoman fumed.
“And nothing else,” all the servants said. “She sews.”
The nobles grumbled and gnashed their teeth and went to bed extra early each night to brood on what to do next.
Thus the days went by and soon the seamstress had finished the fifth dress and she had the pleasure of seeing the original maker looking happy again, just like her predecessors. Just as she was about to start on the sixth dress, the door opened and the nobleman appeared.
The seamstress did not look up, but kept her eyes fixed on the delicate satin of the sixth dress. The nobleman came to see her work and pretended to admire the dress.
“The woman who started that dress was a better seamstress than you could ever be,” he said.
The seamstress smiled behind her veils and answered: “I can see that. I am very happy to learn from her work.”
Nevertheless, when the dress was finished the noblewoman declared she had never seen such a ghastly thing in all her life and that she would rather die than wear something like that.
“Dear, oh dear,” the seamstress hummed, lovingly carrying dress away, far too pleased that the vile woman refused even to touch it. “But tomorrow I shall start on my own design and then we shall see.”
That night in bed the two nobles were so angry that they could not sleep.
“There is something wrong with that girl,” the nobleman said.
“She has an advantage over us by hiding her face, that must not be so,” the noblewoman growled.
The seamstress had already been with them longer than any other girl had managed and tomorrow she would start on her own dress. They made themselves angry about it for hours on end and in the small hours of the morning, the nobles could take it no longer.
“She must be asleep by now,” the lady hissed. “You get over there and see what that darn girl is hiding!”
So the nobleman snuck out into the cold dark of the draughty corridors, sneaking all the way to seamstress’ bedroom. Barely had he put his hand on the doorknob however, or the jade pendant, resting on the seamstress’ sleeping chest, began to beat in time with her heart.
And suddenly, clear as day, the nobleman could hear his very own wife’s voice hissing furiously at him from the end of the corridor.
“You blagguard! You scoundrel! You cad! I will scratch out your eyes before I let you look at another woman!”
“But you told me to go see her!” he spluttered, looking around wildly.
“How dare you!” the voice howled. “You liar! You cheat!”
And the nobleman fled away from the door, leaving the seamstress to sleep in peace. No matter how he looked, however, of course he could not find his wife anywhere, and when he finally returned to his chambers, and found his wife sitting up in bed, demanding impatiently what he had been able to learn, he turned as white as a sheet.
“She’s a witch!” he stammered. “The new seamstress is a witch!”
His wife called him a simpleton, but the nobleman was so thoroughly frightened she could not change his mind.
The following day the seamstress took one more stroll through the mannequin room. All six dresses were on display, finished in all their splendour, and the clever seamstress was very sure that each one of their original makers was once again healthy and happy. Free of the sorrow, shame and anger they had carried with them when they fled the nobles’ house.
Now, finally, she could do what she came here for.
So the seamstress dragged an empty mannequin into the middle of her working space and sent a servant to ask the nobles to come see her. The nobleman absolutely refused, shaking like a reed to only think of it, but the lady came. She would show her husband who was the witch around here, she thought, and she paced through the corridors while practicing insults in her head. This time she was determined to insult the girl so badly she would burst out crying on the spot.
When she entered the room, however, she promptly forgot about this. The seamstress had laid out absolutely all of the most gorgeous material. The most beautiful fabrics, the loveliest threads, the sweetest buttons and the glossiest ribbons. The noblewoman hardly knew where to look.
“Now!” the clever seamstress exclaimed. “Finally I can begin on a creation worthy of you, my lady!”
Because the seamstress was not only clever, she understood her craft very well, and she knew exactly what a woman such as the lady would like. So she talked and waved her hands and measured and tutted and held fabric after fabric against the lady’s skin until the noblewoman was so wild to see the dress that was being designed in her imagination that she could barely breathe.
Even more materials had to be brought, because of course nothing was quite good enough and with every word the seamstress spoke the noblewoman grew greedier. But at last there was a design for a gown that might well make the stars come down from the heavens to try it on.
“I shall begin working on it directly,” the seamstress told the noblewoman. “But you may not see it until it is completely finished, it needs to be presented as a finished creation.”
The lady was so overwhelmed that she agreed immediately and as she left the seamstress to her work, her will to plague her had suddenly gone. All she could think about was that she would have this beautiful gown and she instructed the servants to give the girl whatever she asked for and to see to it that she could work uninterrupted.
This suited the seamstress very well, because of course she was not working at all. She was packing up every bit of silk and satin she could find. She was rolling up the ribbons, packing away pearl buttons and gold braid. She was preparing to make off with absolutely everything she could humanly carry. When she had done all that, she carefully took down the six beautiful dresses from their mannequins and wrapped them up safely so they wouldn’t get crushed. She had never planned to leave this place with actual garments, but she absolutely refused to leave these treasured creations behind.
She was busy until very late at night, but then the seamstress told the servants to assure their mistress her gown was coming along beautifully, and pretended to go to bed for the night. There she waited, readying herself for the time that the whole mansion would be asleep, so she could make her escape.
The seamstress was not the only one who did not sleep that night, however. In the master bedroom, lying awake besides her frightened husband, the noblewoman could do nothing but think of her new gown. She was wild to see it and couldn’t bear the thought of not having a single peek of the progress the seamstress had made that day.
So just when the clever seamstress was making her way through the empty hallways, so was the noblewoman. One snuck out as the other snuck in and the seamstress was so preoccupied with her struggle not to drop any of the heavy load she was carrying that she did not feel or hear her jade pendant beating against her chest.
Someone did hear it, though, the noblewoman did. Because just as she crept through the empty sewing room and made it to the room where all the mannequins stood, where she was sure she would find her gorgeous gown, she heard the beating of a heart. It seemed to her, as she hesitated on the threshold, she heard the beating of six hearts, all jumbled together in their rhythm. And as she blinked in the dim light she saw that the six mannequins in the middle of the room were bare now. No rustling silk or glinting buttons to be seen in the moonlight. All she saw were the mannequins, stood side by side in the pale light. As if to lead the masses of them still waiting in the corners.
The lady looked from left to right and back again. The mannequins loomed over here and still there was the sound of beating hearts. And the headless figures seemed to stare at her, as if they remembered every insult levelled against them when they had still been dressed up in finery.
They seemed to be wanting to move towards her and the noblewoman found herself staggering backwards to the door and without even noticing the gaping emptiness of the sewing room, she fled all the way back to her room with her breath fearfully twisted up in her chest.
Outside in the dark, safely tucked away under the seamstress’ clothes, the jade pendant stopped its hurried beating. The clever seamstress did not look back once, she simply disappeared into the night, carrying no less than six beautiful gowns and more fine materials than any one seamstress had ever carried.
It wasn’t until very late the following morning that the servants discovered the seamstress was gone and by that time there was not a trace of the girl to be found. What’s more, they had to go tell their master and mistress that the six dresses were gone and that there wasn’t a scrap of finery left in the whole sewing room. But the nobles hardly heard them, all they heard was that the seamstress had gone, and they both cried with relief because of it. They ordered that the sewing room be boarded shut, they did not even dare to get rid of the mannequins.
For the rest of their livelong days they jumped at shadows and were too busy being afraid of the dark to ever be bored enough to dream up more cruelty.
No one ever knew what became of the clever, veiled seamstress, but there was a family from the neighbourhood that moved away soon after.
And somewhere quite a ways away in a pleasant, bustling town full of curious people, a little dress shop opened across the street from a jeweller and a bakery. In the shop window stood six gorgeous gowns, by way of spectacular opening pieces.
The clever seamstress had brought herself, her mothers and her little brothers to a place where they could all be happy and now she finally had a shop of her own, just like she had always dreamed.
She did not work there alone, however. She hired six other seamstresses, all of whom arrived with the oddest feeling that they had never been told of this shop, but nevertheless needed to visit it.
Imagine their surprise when they found their own dresses there! And imagine their joy when they heard the whole story. They all stayed to work with the clever seamstress, who knew for a fact they were all exceptionally skilful, and who steadfastly refused to call herself their boss and never felt the need to hide her face ever again.
All six dresses sold amazingly fast and every single customer agreed that there was not a shop in town stocked with such finery as this little boutique manned by seven happy seamstresses. Even if there were frequently four young boys running amok in the back room.
So the clever seamstress got everything she wanted, and more too, because while her brothers ran amok, her mothers smilingly made tea for the customers and her six fellow seamstresses laughed and chattered so that the bells above the shop door rang all on their own. And those are things that cannot be wrapped in any length of ribbon.
Laura: And with that last word stitching up the very last sentence, this story has its proper end.
Thank you so much for listening, lovely of you to stop by. You can follow this podcast on podcatchers like Spotify, iTunes, or Stitcher, but for an mp3 download, transcripts, themed tags and summaries, you can check out patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com, where you can also contact me and find out about my other projects. Like my book Coffee and Faerie Cakes and my webcomic The Fisherman’s Favour. You can also find me at laurasimonsdaughter.tumblr.com which is full of folklore and urban fantasy, or you can follow @patchworktale on twitter.
There’s another tale to tell some other Wednesday but until then…
Pick daisies, put out a saucer of milk, and be safe~
Copyright Laura Simons, please do not copy my stories without my permission, lest you insult the fae.