It seems I am on track with the challenges for the Historical Sew Monthly! Yay time management skills!
This time, on the theme of Foundation, I decided (after deciding to leave my other idea well alone out of the challenges, which you can read about here) to go to an absolute foundation, the basics for all clothes of fabric: the thread. Without spinning thread, there would be no fabrics, and without fabrics, the history of fashion would look significantly different.
Several years ago, at crafts school, my class was asked to help the textile class with the school’s flax and hemp harvests, as there were very few students in the textiles class that year. We also helped with the breaking, scutching and heckling of the retted hemp and flax fibres, and as a result we got some fibres of each to have as our own. I have had mine in a storage box in the basement, and for this challenge, I managed to find one of them. I think it’s the flax, but without comparison with the other, I can’t be sure… I have read somewhere about a twisting test to decide whether a fibre is hemp or linen, but I can’t find it now and I don’t remember which direction meant which fibre, so it’s really no use at all! 😉
The earliest finds of flax are of seeds (my information says it’s in Ali Kosh in Iran and dates to 7500-6700 BCE) but fairly soon there are finds of cloth as well – at Cayönü in Turkey a piece of linen cloth was wrapped around a piece of antler around 7000 BCE. Many of you will of course also think of Egypt, some thousand years later than the earliest find, when you think of pre-historical linen cloth, as amongst other uses the mummies were wrapped in linen. There are also depictions in the tombs showing the stages in linen production, which apparently are not much different from the more recent historical tools and production. For making linen out of flax, you need to sow, grow, harvest, and then there’s the retting, breaking, scutching, heckling, spinning and, if you want cloth and not just thread, weaving. Many more stages than making woollen cloth, where it’s ”only” having/breeding sheep, cutting wool, carding, spinning, weaving, and washing and/or dyeing at different stages as you wish.
Fast forward to the more historical times, where we have more extant examples of the use of linen (or, for that matter hemp) cloth. Linen has been used for undergarments, including shifts, early stays, and I’ve also seen a photo of pocket hoops made from linen. There are also undergarments where the more visible parts are made from finer linen, the hidden parts of coarser linen or hemp, to show off the fine linen even if you couldn’t afford the whole garment to be made from the finer fabric. Linen fabric has also been used as lining in other garments.
For more information (or if you wondered where I got the facts) check out Underkläder by Britta Hammar and Pernilla Rasmussen and From Flax to Linen – Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Centre edited by Bo Ejstrud.
I have tried to spin linen thread exactly twice in my life before this. The first was serveral years back when we got to try spinning in an archaeology field trip. That failed miserably. The second time was a couple of years back, when my skills at spinning wool were quite good and I thought I could try again. This was when some of my friends were making experiments at Ribe Viking Centre, so while they were heckling, I took some of the tow to spin. This time, since I had the basic spinning skills, it went better. So, for this time, I took my spindle I made in crafts school, and got started, and as it went along, I realized two things:
- It’s nigh impossible to take a photo in action while spinning. You need a photographer for that.
- I’d like to have a distaff to keep the flax on. Would have helped heaps to get the linen thread even, I think.
So, I’m still way better at spinning wool than spinning linen, but it worked out pretty well. Though the use I’ll be putting the thread to might be weaving weft rather than sewing thread, which was my first idea…
Inspired by the thread winder at the Nehelenia Patterns site, I also made myself a thread winder for this project. As it turned out though, I didn’t have a wide enough piece of wood, so it got a little small for the amount of linen thread…
Facts of Foundations
The Challenge: Foundations
Fabric: Not yet 🙂
Pattern: None, really
Year: From 7000 BCE forward
How historically accurate is it? Very, apart from the questionable skill of the execution I can’t find any other fault…
Hours to complete: Minus the sowing, harvesting, retting, breaking, scutching and heckling, ca. 3 hrs including making the thread winder.
First worn: Not yet – it needs to be put to use first!
Total cost: None, apart from the school costs several years back.