Forum: Research Questions

Discussing: Flax


From she who can barely sew a button back on without stabbing herself:

Ok, I know flax was used as a material for clothing. I know this involved a lot of water, soaking, and some other procedure. But I'm not really clear on the details here.

Anyone know how you would go about processing flax? How long would it take? How much would you need to make one shirt? Advantages compared to wool?

Any other common garment-making plants out there that I don't know about that might be available?



Re: Flax

The basic process of flax-making:
1. Retting, soaking the stems until the outer layer rots away and the pithy inner stem is exposed. You can leave the stems lying in the field for this part (dew retting) or pick them and submerge them in water.
2. Beating/breaking/hackling to separate the waste fibres, remove the flax seed, and line up the fibres.
3. Spinning. This is the most time-consuming process in hand-making any textile. The general rule of thumb, IIRC, is that spinning a given amt. of thread takes 7x as long as weaving it (even longer with a spindle instead of a wheel).

> Advantages compared to wool

Umm... no need to feed/shear the sheep?

Other differences b/w the two: Wool takes dye very well. Linen doesn't (why it's usually white).

> Any other common garment-making plants out there that I don't know about that might be available?

Nettles. :-) Seriously, if you soak them and treat them like flax, you can spin thread from them.

Cotton is a fairly recent introduction to the textile industry (requires lots of processing) so I'm not sure how prevalent it would be in a non-industrial society.



Re: Flax

Cotton was certainly used in pre-industrial India. But it grows in warmer climates than flax.

Flax has the advantage that the seed is also edible and can furthermore be pressed for oil. On the other hand, sheep are also edible and produce dung which can be used for fuel or fertilizer.

Linen doesn't shrink in washing nearly to the extent that wool can - this can be good or bad, depending on the purpose. Makes good undergarments - more easily washable. Also some people *raises hand* are allergic to wool.

Linen makes a lighter weight fabric - good in warmer climates or in summer. It'd be hard to get through a deep winter if all your clothing was just made of linen.

There are also animals besides sheep to get fiber from - goats, for instance - the Kashmir goats for cashmere. I think camel hair has been used for fabric - I know it's used for rope. Llama and alpaca and vicuna in the Americas.




Re: Flax

Actually, linen can be, like most things that are woven, made in many different wieghts of fabric, from transparent handkerchief linen to what is known as "Egyptian Silk" which is a VERY heavy fabric made of either klinen or cotton. It was used for heavy caftans and coats. And it was made from the two fabrics all the way back in the very early Byzantine empire. And linen was the prefered fabric of the prechristian Celts, so we know it was used in cold climates.

As for preferences over wool, one that was missed was that linen is much, much stronger a fiber. We still make ropes out of it. This is partially because the fiber content is longer. Short hairs or fibers make weaker thread, which make fabric that wears less well. Now there IS very strong, long shank wool fabric, but it is less strong than linen of similar fiber length because linen fibers are much tougher than any comparable weight of animal hair.

And don't forget the bunnies.....Angora rabbit fur is woven into VERY expensive wool. And any animal that sheds can supply weaving material. I know someone who used dog hair. It is soft, it washes well, and in the beginning, before processing, it doesn't stink half as bad as sheep wool.




Re: Flax

There are some ancient cotton textiles that made it to Europe, even, but they were Byzantine imports, like silk. (Silk is not a plant product per se, but is linked to horticulture, so here's some slightly ot info: Silk can be grown outside Asia, but the moths were highly guarded in Imperial China and it was iirc treason to ship them out to anyone.)

In Arda -- lacking convenient trade setups it seems unlikely that Haradic cotton would make it to the Shire except as an extreme luxury item. All silk needs is mulberry trees, since that's what the moth larvae eat. It's very labor intensive to produce, though, so still and always a luxury material. Wild silk is somewhat lumpy since the pupae aren't protected from weather and are allowed to eat their way out; cultivated silk requires killing off the pupae before they emerge as moths so they don't chew holes in the silk (not all, obviously) .

Anyway. Back on topic:

Linen has another advantage besides minimal shrinkage -- it's very sturdy and doesn't deteriorate quickly. This is why it's preferred for high quality artist canvas. Wool is comparatively fragile, and yummy to little moths, who can really do a number on anything not kept in a cedar chest. It lasts through many more washings without getting worn out than cotton.

The sturdyness of linen can be a pain - quite literally - to the worker: you can cut your fingers spinning linen a lot faster than wool, and you can cut your hands if you forget and try to break the thread (cotton will break; linen won't easily.) Linen thread is harder to tie a knot in -- the fibers are smoother and keep trying to straighten out. Beeswaxed linen thread is used for sewing leather, because of its sturdiness (the wax enhances that, makes it slide through easier, and waterproofs it. *Never* try to break waxed linen with your hands.)

Raw linen is a variety of medium browns - white linen has been bleached. You can see some nice natural linen at most craft stores in the cross-stitch section, where it's sold in squares for embroidery projects. This is not the sheer, snowy "nieves" linen, which is almost transparent, which is what was used for those almost see-through blouses that were so popular in the early Renaissance for a variety of reasons, comfort being only one of them. That would have been a far more expensive material, because the smaller the thread, the longer it takes to weave it. Flax can also be dyed, but it doesn't dye as well as it bleaches, because of the density of the fibres, even with a mordant, so you usually see dyed flax in pale colors. Wool dyes pretty easily and takes dark color.

Good quality linen *feels* nice because it's so smooth, and has a funny crisp smell. A popular old dcoration technique for linen is called "hardanger work" or pulled thread -- because it's fairly stiff, you can pull several strands out of the weave and then do lacings through them without it collapsing down. You can also use different colors to make the lacing patterns more visible.

Flax is grown today as an ornamental wildflower as well -- it is tall, low maintainance and has pretty sky-blue flowers. You could rett and spin ornamental wild flax, though, if you had the patience. ("Retting" is iirc etymologicaly related to "rotting" - you let the soft tissues wash away and what is left is the stringy stuff like in celery.)

Hemp would be another contemporary fabric material -- it's used for rope, but it can also be used to make a coarse burlap-like material.

Here's an interesting aside - not all ancient designs on fabric were embroidery. I've seen a few that were actually painted on, which would have been a much quicker process.

Oh, and the nettle-weaving comes into one of the old Celtic fairy-tales -- the one about the seven brothers who were changed into swans by their stepmother, and to break the curse their sister had to weave shirts made of nettle fabric and speak no word for the duration of the project.



Re: Flax

Thanks for the wealth of information. The city slicker salutes you all!



Re: Flax

Dog hair has been used by a number of cultures, but is no where near as easy to spin as other animal fibers.

Many spinners today do like to use a mix of dog hair and wool, and I have owned several items (hats, gloves, scarves) made from 100% Great Pyrenees hair.

One big problem with spinning dog hair is that the dogs with good spinning coat tend to be dry-skinned, and the lack of natural oils makes it difficult to spin - the fibers don't cling. OTOH, depending on the breed of dog used, people with wool allergies can often use dog hair garments. Great Pyrenees coat, for example, when the yarn is prepared by an expert spinner, produces a yarn that has the feel of Angora, is 1/3 the weight of wool, is warmer than wool, and is non-allergenic to most wearers. It does not take dye very well, but is a lovely ivory white color. I have seen sweaters and jackets made of it that are simply stunning.




Re: Flax

The one big advantage to wool that I don't think anyone's mentioned yet is that it keeps you warm even when it's sopping wet, which is why the navy put up with it during the Age of the Fighting Sail.



Re: Wool

The one big advantage to wool that I don't think anyone's mentioned yet is that it keeps you warm even when it's sopping wet,

Curiosity here. I've heard this; luckily I have never had to test it in real life!! "How can it do that?"



Re: Wool

It's hair insulates by keeping your own body heat next to your body, even when it is wet. other fabrics don't keep your body heat insulated next to you nearly so well.....

Hey....speaking of wool, I had a friend email me when I was feeling kind of sick last week and she sent me a list of cute know...brain teasers that really didn't have answers...

My favorite was, "why don't sheep shrink when they get rained on?"
Just somthin' to think about....ROTFLMAO!




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