This is the second part of our four part (I, III, IV) look at the production of textiles (particularly in wool and linen) in the pre-modern world. Last time, we took a look at the production of our two fibers, flax bast from the flax plant and raw wool sheared from sheep. This week we are going to process those raw fibers, getting them ready for the spinning and weaving process (next week) which was one of the key background tasks happening in most pre-modern households.
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When we last left our flax, it had been planted, grown and been harvested by being pulled up (by the roots) in roughly handful-sized bundles. That process leaves us with the stalks of the flax plants. The useful part of these is called bast, which must now be separated from the other plant fibers. Moving from the inner-most part of the plant outward, a flax stem is made up of a woody core (the pith), followed by the living cells of the plant which transport nutrients and water up the stem (the phloem and xylem), which are supported by our all important bast fibers, and then outside of the bast is the skin of the plant (the epidermis and cortex). So our task with our freshly harvested flax is to get rid of everything in this stalk that isn’t a bast fiber.
The process for this is called retting and changed relatively little during the pre-modern period. The term ‘retting,’ related to the Dutch reten shares the same root as English ‘rot’ and that is essentially what we are going to do: we are going to rot away every fiber that isn’t the bast fibers themselves. The first step is to dry the stalks out, at least to a certain point. Then in the most common form of retting (called ‘water retting’) the partially dried stalks are submerged in stagnant or slow-moving waters (because you do not want too much water-motion action on the flax washing it away). Pliny (NH 19.17) notes the use of weights to hold the stalks down under the water. The water penetrates into the partially dried stalks, causing the pith to expand and rupture the skin of the stalk, which permits bacteria into the stalk. That bacteria then rots away the chemicals which bind the fibers together (this is pectin, located in the cell walls of the plant cells) allowing the fibers to be separated. This process takes around two to three weeks to complete, but has to be carefully controlled and monitored; over-retting will make the bast fibers themselves too weak, while under-retting will make it more difficult to separate the fibers.
By the Roman period at least, the potential benefits of retting in warm water were already well known (Pliny, NH 19.17). There is some evidence, for instance from Staonia and Saetabis, that at least by the Roman period specially built pools fed by small channels and exposed to the sun (so they would heat up) were sometimes used to speed the process. Very fine flax was in some cases double-retted, where stalks are partially retted, removed early, then retted a second time. Alternately, in water-poor regions, retting might instead be done via ‘dew retting’ where the stalks are instead spread evenly and carefully on either grassy fields or even on the roofs of houses (e.g. Joshua 2:6), where the action of morning dew provides the necessary moisture for bacteria to break down the pectin. Dew retting generally seems to have taken rather longer as a process.
Once retted, the flax must be dried completely. The nest step is breaking, where the pith of the stalks is broken up by being beaten, sometimes with a wooden club (Pliny mentions a particular type of mallet, a stupparius malleus, or a ‘tow-club,’ tow being the term for short broken fibers produced in the processing of flax, for this purpose, Pliny, NH 19.17). In some places (particularly in Northern Europe) it seems that stomping on the flax by foot or having horses do so was used for this purpose. Once broken up, the pith and other fibers may be separated from the bast using a wooden knife in a process called scutching (the knife is called a scutching knife). By the 1800s, this process was assisted through the use of a swingle, essentially a board stood upright with an opening at the top where the flax could be inserted and held, while the scutcher then strikes with the scutching knife downward against the board. Scutching is a fairly rapid process; Sir George Nicholas detailing flax production in the 1800s (in The Flax-Grower (1848), 45-6) reports that a skilled worker could scutch ten to fifteen pounds of flax a day by hand, though improper retting or low-quality flax might be more difficult to process. Scutching, when completed, left a bundle of fibers (sometimes slightly twisted to hold them together), with almost all of the other plant matter removed.
All of these steps, from planting to scutching, seem to have generally been done on the farm where the flax was being cultivated. At least in the early modern period, it was only once the flax had been scutched that the bundles might be sold (Nicholas, op. cit., 47). That said, our flax is not quite ready to spin just yet. The final step is hackling (also spelled heckling), where the bast fibers are combed along a special tool (a hackling board or comb) to remove the last of the extraneous plant matter, leaving just the bast fibers themselves. The hackling board itself is generally a wooden board with several rows of nails (the ‘teeth’) put through it, through the earliest hackles seem to have been made of bone or else a wood board using thorns or thistle as teeth (see Barber (1992), 14 for a reconstruction). The fibers that come out of this process are generally separated into grades; the ‘tow’ fibers are short, loose or broken fibers that come loose from the longer strands of bast during scutching or hackling; these are gathered and spun separately and typically make a lower-quality linen thread when spun. They stand in contrast to the ‘line’ of long bast fiber strands, which after hackling form long wavy coils of fibers called stricks; the small tangles give these fibers coherence and account for part of the strength of high quality linen, once spun. Pliny comments on the roughness of the entire process, quipping that “the more roughly treated [the linen is] the better it is” (Pliny NH 19.18). Nicholas, on this point, is explicit that the two grades ought to be kept separate, so as not to lower the value of the more useful fibers (op. cit., 47).
There was a significant amount of skill in the entire process. Pliny notes that the ratio of flax input to usable fiber output was skill dependent (NH 19.18) and that a good worker could get around fifteen Roman pounds (10.875lbs, 4.93kg) of usable fiber out of fifty Roman pounds (36.25lbs, 16.44kg) of raw flax. Nicholas agrees, noting that hand scutching skill was deemed sufficiently important for experienced scutchers to be sent to train workers elsewhere in the best methods (op. cit. 47). Pliny concludes on this basis that producing flax was a sufficiently skilled job as to befit free men (Nicholas also assumes a male worker, at least with his pronouns; he is explicit that breaking was done by men, though with women or children assisting by placing and retrieving the bundles of flax as they are broken), though it seems that much of this work was also done by women, particularly scutching and hackling. In each case it seems fairly clear that this work was done mostly on the flax farm itself, by many of the same people living and working on that farm.
The final result of all of this processing are bundles of individual flax bast filaments which are now quite smooth, with a yellow, ‘flaxen’ color (though early pulled, very fine flax may be a quite pale yellow, whereas utilitarian late-pulled flax is a deeper near-brown yellow), ready to spin. We’ll deal with color treatment in a later post, but I should note here that linen is notoriously difficult to dye, but can be bleached, for instance by exposing the fibers to the sun during the drying process.
The next step is a big one, spinning, but before we go on to that it is worth getting our wool up to speed as well, so that we may treat the spinning and weaving (next week) of both fibers at the same time.
Now when we left our wool it had just been shorn from our sheep. It is however, raw, oily from being on the sheep, likely still somewhat dirty, of uneven grades and types and also of course contains the other two fibers in the fleece (hair and kemp) which need to be removed before it can be used. The various processes used to get wool ready for spinning (or for sale) were sometimes collectively called ‘dressing’ and involved various methods of sorting, scouring, combing, and washing.
The first step is sorting, dividing the raw wool into grades and types based on any number of factors, including fiber length, color, texture, crimp, strength, ability to take dye and so on. Different parts of the sheep produce wool with somewhat different qualities in this regard, but there are also differences based on the sex of the sheep, their health, age, diet, and for ewes whether they have had lambs. In order to get the best results in spinning (or the best value in selling) it is necessary to separate these grades out, grouping like wool with like. Too much mixing of fiber quality can make the end-product textile patchy in color, texture and its ability to take dye (the last one being quite visible, of course) and is to be avoided. This sorting was generally done by hand.
At this point, with the wool sorted, it could be sold, or further processed. The key question at this point was if the wool was to be washed or scoured (it would be combed or carded in either case, but this decision generally has to be made at this point). Scouring removes the lanolin (an oil secreted by the sheep which effectively waterproofs their wool) and other impurities. Leaving the lanolin in the wool can help with the spinning process and also to preserve the wool, but if the wool is to be dyed before being spun (for instance, if it is to be made into colored yarn rather than dyed as a whole fabric after weaving), it must be washed (or the lanolin will prevent the dye from sticking). Scouring could also be useful for wool that was going to be transported; in some cases the lanolin and other impurities might amount for up to 40% of the total weight of the raw wool (Gleba, op. cit. 98).
Practices in this regard clearly differed. In Greece, wool seems often to have been spun unwashed and women might use an epinetron, a ceramic thigh-protector, to keep the grease of the wool roving off of their clothes. On the flip side, both Varro (Rust 2.2.18) and Columella (De Rust. 11.35) assume that wool is generally to be washed (though they are thinking of wool being sold by large estates for commercial purposes and thus may have dying in mind). J.S. Lee notes that in medieval England wools with longer staples (that is, that forms into longer clusters or locks of fibers) were unscoured while short staple wools (which might be used in knitting) were more likely to be scoured. Scouring might be done on a small scale in the home or on a larger scale by either producers (before sale) or by clothiers and other purchasers (before dyeing).
Pre-modern scouring generally meant bathing the wool in a solution of warm water along with some agent that would remove the lanolin and other greases and impurities. The most common scouring agent was urine, something that pre-modern communities had in abundance; the ammonia content of urine allows it to break up and wash away the greases in the wool. Alternately, in the ancient period, the soapwort was sometimes used, as soaking its leaves in water could create a form of soap. By the early modern period, potash might also be used for this purpose, but even in the 1500s, it seems that urine was the most commons scouring agent in England. The process is smelly but generally fairly simple: the wool is allowed to sit in a solution of the scouring agent (again, generally urine) and warm water. Scoured wool would need to be re-oiled after it was dried to lubricate and protect the wool; typically olive oil was used for this purpose (both during the ancient and early modern periods) although J.S. Lee notes (op. cit. 45) that in the earlier parts of the Middle Ages, butter might be used instead in parts of Europe where olive oil was difficult to obtain in quantity.
Next, the wool has to be carded or combed, to remove any unusable or imperfect fibers or dirt, along with separating the strands by length and getting any tangles out before spinning. Let’s treat combing first, as it is the older of the two methods. Wool combs (in the ancient world, these were generally made of wood, bone or horn, but combs from the medieval period onward seem to generally be made with metal teeth projecting through a wooden handle) were used in pairs with the aid of a lubricant (grease, olive oil; these days there are specialty ‘combing oils’). One comb, the ‘moving comb’ would be worked through the wool while the other comb which held the wool together was kept stationary, sometimes on the combers knee; in some cases it would secured to a fixed post (called a ‘combing stock’). You can see a demonstration of the basic method here.
Carding came later, though I have found no consensus on how much later. Gleba (Textile Production, 98) suggests that carding may have been in use in Italy by the end of the Roman period, while J.S. Lee (op. cit., 45) supposes carding to have been adopted into Europe via borrowing from the Islamic cotton industries of Sicily or Spain in the late 1200s. These suggestions are, of course, not mutually exclusive but I am hesitant to render a verdict between them. In any event, by late Middle Ages, carding is also a reasonably common processing method. Hand carders are generally wider, more paddle-like wooden boards with handles and pierced through by iron teeth; the earliest carders used teasel heads in place of the iron teeth (and the word ‘card’ here actually comes from Latin, carduus, meaning thistle, referring to the use of teasel heads). Like combs they are used in pairs, with the wool places on one, often held on the thigh, and then the other carder is drawn over the first until the wool is ready for spinning. You can see a demonstration here, and a direct comparison of the two kinds of tools here.
Though obviously quite similar methods (albeit with different tools) the two methods produce importantly different results in a couple of different ways. Both methods will remove remaining hair or kemp along with dirt or other particles that aren’t wool. But combed fibers generally produced stronger yarns (as I understand it, this is partly because it doesn’t straighten them out so much, allowing them to better tangle together during spinning), but combing is also a bit more wasteful in material terms, as shorter fibers are discarded in the process. Consequently, once both processes were available, they might both be used (and still are by practicioners of traditional wool-working today, as the video links above show), with combing more often used for long-fibered wools and carding for short-fibered wools.
While we will get to spinning and weaving next week and talk about their status as distinctively female labor in the ancient and medieval worlds, it is worth taking a brief stop to talk about who would be doing the various steps of wool production we’ve outlined so far.
As noted, sorting generally occurred at the point of production, meaning that it was likely to be done by the shepherds or by workers employed (or enslaved) by the sheep owners. While ‘wool classing’ in industrial contexts was typically done by men, hand-sorting in the pre-industrial context seems to have been a task more typically done by women, to the point that a 16th century English act of parliament declared that the experience of the task “consisteth only in women, as clothiers’ wives and their women servants” (J.S. Lee, op. cit., 45), though artwork showing men engaged in sorting is known from the Middle Ages as well (op. cit, pl. 1), so it was not an exclusively female task. Since wool was generally sorted before being sold, the women doing this work generally seem to have been women either in the households of the shepherds or else paid or enslaved workers (in the ancient world, it seems quite clear it must frequently have been the latter; see the previous post‘s note on enslaved shepherds) employed by the sheep-owners. I wish I could say more about them, but my research has turned up frustrating little. Given the seasonality of the shearing, it falls to reason that sorting would have been a seasonal task too and so only one of the many jobs these women would have had (we’ll discuss more of that in a moment), but this is only supposition.
For the work of carding and combing, J.S. Lee (op. cit., 46) also notes that combing required more physical strength and so at least in the later Middle Ages was often done by men who in turn might demand higher wages, though this seems to me to be more an artifact of social assumptions in late Medieval and early modern England. Combing wool seems to have been quite clearly a job for women in the ancient world, as Gleba (op. cit., 173-4) notes, materials related to textile production – including combs and also hooks which may (it is unclear) have been used for carding – are encountered mostly (though not exclusively, but the difference is very large) in female burials, an association that holds even if gender-identification by burial goods is excluded and the data-set is limited to burials where the sex determination has been made on osteological evidence (that is to say, by examining the bones themselves).
In all cases, we should imagine wool production happened at a lot of different scales. As noted last week, in some cases a village engaged in cereal agriculture might also have access to some pasture land and collectively possess some sheep (or pool sheep individually owned) in order to meet their textile needs; in these cases we ought to imagine the entire wool processing chain occurring within the village, likely done by the women of the village at each stage of processing. At the same time, we also hear of large scale operations for the production of wool from the ancient period onward (indeed, there are records from bronze age Mesopotamia of temples, being large landholders, producing large amounts of wool for sale, on this see Breniquet and Michel eds, op cit.); monasteries in pre-reformation England likewise had large landholdings and often sold wool in bulk from them (T.H. Lloyd, The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages (1977)).
Just as frequently, we find what is often called the ‘putting out’ system, whereby a large producer or consumer of wool (such as a large landholder, or a large scale clothier) might outsource the labor to workers (often women) who would do the labor in their household. In essence the larger concern here would provide individual workers with the materials (like raw wool) and then upon the completion of processing (which often meant taking the wool all the way through spinning and weaving) paid the workers on a piece-work (read: per-yard or per-weight) basis. Consequently, a wool worker with time on their hands – or a lack of raw materials – could essentially market their skills, while still working from home (important in societies where women were the wool workers but also expected to be engaged with child-rearing and food production, see E.W. Barber, Women’s Work, 29-41). It was far less common and generally not so practical to actually centralize production, at least of wool. As with pre-modern blacksmithing, it often made more sense, before the industrial revolution, if you needed to make a lot of something, to have a lot of small, local producers rather than one set of big centralized factories. This certainly was the case with textiles.
And at last at the end of this, both of our wool and our linen is ready for the next step, spinning and weaving, where next week our production processes will finally converge.