The novel begins with the death of Katrina, the mother of a girl named Kira. Kira lives in a village where the sick and weak are dragged off to die in the Field of the Living; after they die, someone is required to watch the spirit leave the dead body for the next four days. Katrina dies in her cott, or cottage, where she lived with Kira. Kira drags her dead mother to the Field and spends four days watching her spirit leave. Kira has a lame leg; when she was born, the villagers wanted to leave her in the Field to die, but Katrina insisted that she keep Kira, because she recognizes that her daughter is bright and good with her hands. Kira’s father, Christopher, was supposed to serve on the Council of Guardians, the group that controls the village, but wild beasts killed him in a hunting accident before Kira was born.
When she returns from the Field, Kira meets her friend Matt, a young, rambunctious child who lives in the Fen, a nearby area where the people are poorer and dirtier. Matt tells Kira that Vandara, a fearsome woman, wants to take the site of Kira’s cott and use it to build a pen for young children, known as “tykes.” When Kira returns to her cott, the women of the village, led by Vandara, confront her, carrying rocks and stones. Kira saves her own life by reminding them that the penalty for taking a life without the Council’s approval is death. Vandara drops her rock, but tells Kira that she will bring her to court tomorrow. Kira wonders how she can convince the Council to let her stay in the village. She can’t do much work, due to her lame leg, but she is an excellent weaver.
The next day, a messenger summons Kira to the Council Edifice, where the Council of Elders holds a trial for Kira and Vandara. Kira has been to the Edifice before for the Gathering, an annual ceremony that every villager must attend. During the Gathering, the Singer sings a long Ruin Song, about the rise and fall of all the civilizations in history. At the trial, Vandara accuses Kira of being lazy and incapable of doing any work, and argues that she should be left to die in the Field of the Living. The chief guardian of the Council appoints Jamison, one of the younger guardians, to defend Kira. Jamison argues that Kira should be allowed to stay, both because she is the granddaughter of a former chief guardian and because she is an accomplished weaver. As Kira listens to Jamison, she clutches a cloth that she carries with her wherever she goes. Kira carries the cloth both because it reminds her that she is an excellent weaver and because it sometimes seems to speak to her—now, for instance, the cloth tells her that she need not worry.
The Council decides that Kira will be taken to live in the Council Edifice and work as a weaver, a decision that infuriates Vandara. With Matt’s help, Kira gathers her remaining possessions from her cott and moves into the Council Edifice. Matt brings her a pendant that belonged to her mother; Kira decides to wear it. In the Edifice, she meets a boy, Thomas the Carver, who carves the Singer’s staff. Kira will repair the Singer’s robe. Thomas explains that Kira can do whatever she likes, provided that she completes her work. At first, Kira dislikes her new home, since its running water and indoor plumbing are new to her, but gradually she comes to feel comfortable in the Edifice.
In order to master the art of weaving completely, Kira will go to the cott of an old woman named Annabella, who also taught Katrina how to weave. With Matt, Kira goes to Annabella’s house, where she begins to learn the names of the plants that can be used to dye threads. Annabella tells Kira that plants that produce the color blue can be found “yonder.” Although the Council forbids women to learn how to read, Thomas helps Kira by writing down the names of the plants and their corresponding colors, and reading this information to Kira whenever she needs it. He also mentions that he’s heard a child crying in the night, though neither he nor Kira know what to make of this.
Kira studies the robe, and sees that it depicts an endless pattern of peace and destruction. Cities flourish, but then collapse in flames. She prefers the peaceful sections, woven in green and gold, to the violent sections, mostly woven in red and orange. She also wants to add blue to the robe, and wonders where she can find it.
Thomas and Kira work on their projects, eating lunch together and gradually becoming friends. Thomas is also an orphan. His parents died mysteriously when he was a child, and he was taken to live in the Edifice. Like Kira, Thomas keeps a small object he made as a tyke: a beautiful wooden carving. Much like Kira’s cloth, Thomas’s carving tells him if he should expect danger or peace. Unlike Kira, however, Thomas views his carving as a symbol of knowledge and creativity that he’s long since lost—Kira, by contrast, feels that her creativity and knowledge of weaving is still growing.
On one of her visits to Annabella’s cott, Annabella tells Kira that there actually aren’t any wild beasts. Shortly thereafter, Kira and Thomas hear a child crying again; they decide to investigate where the noise is coming from, enlisting Matt and his dog, Branch, for help. On a lower floor of the Edifice, the four of them hear Jamison talking to a small child in an angry tone. Matt says that he recognizes the child, Jo, from the Fen—Jo is a highly gifted singer who mysteriously vanished. Shortly after this, Kira tells Jamison that Annabella told her there were no beasts; Jamison insists that Annabella is losing her wisdom. The next day, Kira learns that Annabella has died. She begins to grow suspicious of Jamison.
Kira returns to the floor where she heard Jamison scold Jo. From behind a door, she talks to Jo and learns that Jo is being held in the Edifice against her will. When Kira explains this to Thomas, he’s initially dismissive, but gradually, they both come to realize that the Council has taken them from their homes and forced them to use their artistic abilities for the Gathering. Thomas and Kira visit Jo, and Thomas uses a special key he carved to open Jo’s door. Kira comforts Jo, and shows her how to tap on the ceiling if she’s in any danger, thereby alerting Kira and Thomas. Kira also discovers that Matt has gone on a quest; when she and Thomas visit the Fen, they learn from Matt’s brother that he’s gone in search of blue for Kira.
As the Gathering approaches, Jamison praises Kira for the repairs she’s made to the Singer’s robe. He shows her a blank area on the robe, and tells her that she will weave “the future” into this area, according to the Council’s supervision.
On the day of the Gathering, all the villagers enter the hall of the Council Edifice. Kira, Thomas, and Jo sit in special chairs. The Singer, wearing the robe Kira has repaired and holding the staff Thomas has been carving, begins to sing the lengthy Ruin Song. As he sings, Kira notices Matt crawling among the villagers. She also hears a metallic “clank,” and sees something about the Singer that shocks her.
After the end of the Gathering, Kira reunites with Matt, who tells her that he’s brought her two gifts: one little, one big. The little gift is a small blue cloth, and the big gift turns out to be a blind, scarred man, wearing a blue shirt. The man reveals a pendant that matches the one Kira’s mother wore, and explains that he is Christopher, Kira’s father. During one hunt, Christopher explains, a rival clubbed Christopher in the head (making him permanently blind), stabbed him, and left him to die in the Field of the Living. A mysterious group of people carried Christopher away from the Field, took him to a new community, and nursed him back to health. In this new community, Christopher explains, almost everyone is disabled or wounded in some way; as a result, everyone is kind and gentle. Christopher decided not to return to his village because he assumed that his life would still be in danger. However, when Matt found him, he quickly deduced that Matt’s friend, a weaver, must be Christopher’s own daughter. Kira assures Christopher that his life is safe, since she has a friend, Jamison, on the Council of Guardians. Christopher reveals that it was Jamison who tried to kill him.
Christopher makes plans to take Kira back to the new community he’s joined, and then goes with Matt to rest in a safe place. That night, Kira remembers what she saw at the Gathering: a heavy chain around the Singer’s leg. Kira realizes that she is a prisoner of the Council: the Council has kidnapped three artists—Kira, Jo, and Thomas—and killed the artists’ parents, so that they can put the artists to work. By controlling what Kira, Jo, and Thomas create, the guardians effectively control the future: they control how villagers see the rest of the world, and thus how the villagers behave.
At dawn, Christopher arrives at the Council Edifice, prepared to leave with Kira. Kira tells him that she’s can’t go with him—she must stay and weave the robe according to her own creative vision, instead of the Council’s. Christopher is surprised, but accepts her decision, and says that Matt will lead him back instead. Before he leaves, he gives Kira woad, the plant that produces the color blue, and a handful of blue threads he pulled from his shirt. Kira returns to the Edifice, prepared to weave blue into the robe and certain that the future is in her hands.