This post is also available in audio form, thanks to the efforts of our volunteer narrator.
This is the second part of our four part (I, II, III, IVa, IVb) 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.
55 thoughts on “Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part II: Scouring in the Shire”
“with carding more often used for long-fibered wools and carding for short-fibered wools.”
I assume you intended one of these two instances of carding to be combing.
Is there a practical difference between a tow – hammer and a threshing flail as used for grain, or are they essentially the same implement with different names based on use?
Am I right in thinking that the red-figure painting on the epinetron in the picture means that it’s a fairly high-status good?
That particular example yes, but they weren’t always so well decorated.
That is ugly argument over how high status red figure painted ceramics were (more so toward serving vessels in comparing to silver or gold). But It would at least be more expensive there are plenty of simple black ones so somebody did pay more – how much more is tricky.
High status women also worked wool and probably would have preferred decorated tools.
improper retting or low-quality flax might be more difficult to process. -> improperly retted or low-quality flax might be more difficult to process.
I also note that the color is affected by the retting process. Pools of water produce paler flax, and dew, darker.
I’m confused about one point. You say that combing produces stronger yarn, partly because it doesn’t straighten the fibers out as much. However, the videos (the third one in particular, the comparison video) seem to indicate that it’s combing that straightens the fibers more than carding does, and talks a little bit about the different types of yarn that can produced from each (but doesn’t indicate which is stronger).
And then a question. Would it have been practical to comb wool first, and then card the “waste” from the combing process to recover some of those shorter fibers that combing discards?
As a handspinner and someone who does a lot of her own fiber prep, I’d say you are correct. Combing does straighten the fibers and aligns them neatly for spinning. Combed fibers are typically spun in what is called a “worsted” style, which squeezes the air out of the fibers and produces a smoother, dense yarn. Carding produces fluffier fiber and is typically spun in a “woolen” style, which traps more air, giving a loftier yarn. I am guessing he will cover this in the next installment. I like to think of the prep methods in terms of curly hair. If you comb curls, they are neatened somewhat, whereas if you brush them, you get lots of volume and a tangled mass.
Thank you, Bret, for sharing your research! It’s very thorough and well-explained. It’s fascinating to see how little has changed over the years.
I’m glad you find it interesting! I’m pretty conscious of the limits I have here in writing about this, since I’m not a practitioner and this isn’t a how-to guide. That limits me to reproducing the conclusions of other writers on the topic (thus the long bibliography footnote in the first post). Mostly I’m concerned with the people in the past who did this work and the products they produced (but of course understanding their methods is crucial to understanding them).
I missed the second part before. From my own experience it is possible to card the waste and spin that. The resulting yarn was interesting, but I’m not sure it would necessarily be the best use of the waste. It could be used for other purposes, like making felt or as stuffing or insulation. It could even be used in composting. I know several people who use it in their gardens, as a source of nitrogen and for drainage and water retention. Wool holds a lot of water, so it’s good for wicking water away and for holding onto it when needed. I’m no expert on the historical aspect of this, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that people probably used waste wool in similar ways.
As somebody who combs and spins (but has no specific historical knowledge): yes, it is perfectly possible to comb first and card the remaining “waste”, or even to comb it again and get a second batch of combed wool with a shorter staple. I don’t know whether it was practical to do so when manual wool preparation was a need rather than a hobby like today (and also when the people doing it were probably better at it, because they had way more practice, than many today).
Also, it’s worth considering that the “waste” isn’t really a waste: it can e.g. be used as batting and similar applications.
As for the strength of fiber from the two preparations, combing (worsted preparations) is indeed the one that is supposed to make yarn that is stronger and more resistant to rubbing and wear (it’s the recommended preparation for the warp for weaving), but also less insulating than carding (woolen preparations). To add to the confusion, however, it is possible to get a more woolen effect by spinning combed wool in a different direction (“from the fold”).
Again, this is based on current “common knowledge” among people on the internet who do fiber crafts as a hobby, and I’m sure that there are historical examples that break all currently accepted “rules”.
Waste wool was used for stuffing mattresses. In fact a lot of Canada’s wool from meat breeds goes to China to be made into mattresses. I was told this by an employee of the Wool Co-op in Carleton Pl\ace, Ontario. Dirty skirting wool makes good garden mulch, as does the waste water from the first rinse before washing the wool. I processed a fleece once from a dual purpose breed (Arcott) and about 75% was waste – vegetable material (i.e. bits of straw, hay, burrs), dirt and lanolin. Nice fleeces that win prizes at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto come from sheep that have worn a coat all year. Sheep can get incredibly dirty.
Combed wool has longer fibres than carded wool, which means it it likely to be stronger to start with.
That Afghan “carding comb” looks like a comb, not a carder. There is no such thing (these days at least) as a carding comb. Combs are vicious, St. Blaise was reputed to have been martyred with carding combs, and is the patron saint of wool combers. Pickers are vicious too. Did they not use pickers back in the day?
It is interesting seeing how the tools have changed or stayed the same over the centuries. So many skills were lost when it all became industrialized.
I think there’s some evidence for the second-combing method being known and valued as a sign of diligence and thrift! There’s a German fairy tale called “Die Schickerlinge” (translated variously as “The Hurds,” “The Leftovers,” “The Odds and Ends,” or “The Cast-Off Remnants”) which goes thus: one girl is lazy and gives up easily when her spinning gets knotted and isn’t careful about carding/combing and so makes a lot of waste. Her industrious servant gathers up the thrown-away bits, cards and spins them and uses them to make a dress for herself. When the lazy girl is about to get married, she sees the servant dancing in the dress she made from the scraps and tells her fiancé about it. Her fiancé immediately dumps her for her laziness and proposes to the industrious poor girl. (Personally I would expect the diligent girl to turn away a suitor who’s proven himself to be flighty and instead focus on her lucrative business of spinning, only marrying someone who is equally dedicated, if she marries at all. But that’s just me).
Of course the servant girl jumps at the chance to marry someone from the same class as her boss. Who told you marriage is about love?
I didn’t say anything about love, I said the boyfriend was provably flighty and therefore not a great choice for someone who’s already disregarded taking the easy way out of things. 😀
Of course, in the story he’s the judge and barometer of good female behavior- his dumping one girl and picking another is framed as proof of and reward for the servant girl’s worthiness. In this context, marriage isn’t about love but synonymity of character and value- the richer girl is lazier, and the groom would rather have a poor but industrious wife. There are versions of the “groom dumps bride on wedding day” stories where the narrative judges the groom for doing this (variations on Sweetheart Roland come to mind), though this isn’t one of them.
It should also be noted that other versions of this story have the two girls as sisters, not servant and mistress, so the class element isn’t always there. (It’s Aarne-Thompson type 1451, if you want to compare similar stories.)
Lucrative? While a dress you didn’t have to pay for — but you did have to spin, and weave, and sew — is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not lucrative.
Women’s textile work was economically important but paid badly.
When just about every single woman can do your job, you don’t have much leverage.
I feel like this is missing all the folkloric literary analysis to focus on wording. I was pointing to potential evidence for the second-combing method in European folklore and how in this story textile work is tied with feminine virtue. Not to mention the gender dynamics of a male character’s choice of wife being proof of one female character’s worthiness and the other’s unworthiness. Nitpicking a mostly-facetious use of the word “lucrative” instead of using this as a chance to look at the folkloric and historical figure(s) of the spinster as a woman who relies on her own craft (a job which was undervalued enough that it was almost entirely performed by women, married or not, but also offered a degree of economic freedom) becoming a byword for a woman who never marries is maybe the least interesting response to this odd little tale.
It’s easy to critique how I did and did not interpret folklore via modern values instead of responding to my claims about the narrative framework of “man’s choice is the proof of the worthy woman” or how this specific tale arose out of historical circumstances with regards to the economics and even methods of weaving. I will say that “modern” values like marrying for love, marriage as a pairing of equals and female economic independence *do* have presence in folklore, just not in ways one would expect. While I don’t think love has anything to do with this story, the explicit point of this story is choosing the worthy spouse, and there are a good many similar stories of brides picking the worthiest groom from among their suitors for how they match their values beyond being rich. A tale in this short format likely wouldn’t pull a narrative turnaround where the judged judges the judge (I know I could probably put that more succinctly) but the precedent is there.
I like this servant’s moxie. I wish she got a more satisfying ending than being chosen by a man who would dump his bride on their wedding day, like this is one of those romantic comedies where the leads cheat on their disposable fiancees but it’s totally fine because those exes weren’t The One. But that’s not really why I’m interested in this story.
I get that we’re in logistic thinking mode because of the focus of this blog, and it is correct that spinning was not a lucrative career but it kind feels like asking how much the invisible, silent or animal servants at the Beast’s castle get paid instead of “why in a story about appearances being deceiving are there a host of invisible and voiceless non-entities?” Or in a more historical than folkloric sense, “what social anxiety was this story addressing, and how do the invisible servants play into this?” (as a non-rhetorical answer, I’d argue it was conceived as an element of feeling isolated in a strange environment after marriage with no one of equal status to connect with, but has implications about how servants are narratively reduced to their purest functionality of service, which makes stories like Die Schickerlinge with servant protagonists who are on equal narrative footing with their masters an interesting contrast.) In fairness, Aarne-Thompson type 1451 (Die Schickerlinge) tales are pretty grounded in realism compared with the likes of type 425C (Beauty and the Beast), so the economic discussion is at least more relevant. I’m just saying, for such a stub of a story, I think Die Schickerlinge has more interesting elements to it than how well the servant girl would do if she went into business spinning or even whether she should end up with the rich girl’s bridegroom. Feminine labor, sexuality, worthiness and honesty are all tied up in textile work as a folkloric motif, all so very weighted and gendered because of the real world economics involved. Die Schickerlinge is just one example of that.
Sorry to talk your ear off. TL;DR, I don’t think the servant’s spinning being lucrative or not is nearly as interesting as the gendered economics and narrative framing of the story.
Oops, looks like something slipped through your organizational rework. (Not that I’m criticizing, I’m just trying to find an un-bland way to point out an error.)
Bret, here the first . . .
water up the step > stem
Very fascinating article. I don’t have anything intelligent to add, but I wanted to let you know that I am reading and enjoying this.
In many, many cultures textile work is not only women’s work but a defining aspect of feminity. Even wealthy, powerful queens spun and wove and took pride in their skill. Spartiate women’s contempt for handwork is a rejection of conventional femininity almost as subversive as Amazon’s warlike ways. Heracles being forced to spin and weave by Omphale is downright kinky, especially as the hero doesn’t seem to have resisted.
Now I am wondering about Rumpelstiltskin, then.
Come to think of it there are some interesting sexual undertones to classic fairytales involving spinning.
There are a lot of places to go with this topic (and folklorists have) but I think the 1696 fairy tale “The Discreet Princess” by Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon is one of the more explicit links between spinning and sexuality that I can think of. A king going to war gives each of his three daughters glass distaffs (a stick used for spinning in the pre-spinning wheel era, for those who can’t wait for next week’s post on spinning!) which will break if the princess acts dishonorably. The princesses are then locked in a tower. An evil prince sneaks into the tower twice and seduces the first two princesses (the translation I read notes that they believed him when he said he’d marry them but didn’t wait to formalize it, which caused their distaffs to shatter) but fails with the third one, who eventually turns the prince’s classic horrifyingly-violent fairy tale death trap against him.
Distaffs are used with spinning wheels as well as spindles. It’s just a sharp stick that you can put your fiber on.
From this we have the use of “distaff” to mean “female” as in “distaff counterpart” or “distaff descent.”
A long sharp stick… Look a phallic symbol!!! 😁
These series are always great. They are some of the best things on the internet. I learn real and valuable things from them. Sure, Alexander conquered a bunch of empires and that was cool and all, but how many millions of person-years were spent holding these tools, doing these tasks?
If I want more history like this, where should I go?
There are reenactment museums. In the Netherlands there is Archeon (Alphen aan den Rijn, prehistoric, roman and medieval times), prehistorisch dorp in Eindhoven, openluchtmuseum eindhoven (late 19th early 20th century history) and openluchtmuseum Arnhem (same timespan as enkhuizen, they have more stuff but less people which is a bummer). These reenact museums feature reenactors who are very enthusiastic about how people lived in their time period. They can share lots of knowledge and also show you practically how things were done. They also engage in a lot of experimental history to find out how things could have been done.
I can really recommend looking for such museums in your vicinity. They are great fun. Barring that: local reenactment groups have the same sort of knowledge and may turn up at regular events that can be visited.
Whoops. I meant to type openluchtmuseum Enkhuizen but typed Eindhoven instead.
the stalks of the flax plans.
has turned up frustrating little
I don’t know how far back it goes, but the combings from sheep were used on a large scale as fertilizer in the 19th century, to the extent that there are plants in the UK that are originally native to the antipodes as a result of minimally processed fleeces being transported to the UK for processing, and the wool shoddy including plant seeds then being used for (I think primarily market gardening) fertilizer – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wool_alien
I try not to criticize people for writing a different piece than the one I would have written, but this piece is much more technical in its focus than some of Prof. Devereux’s work, and gives less attention to the social organization of textile production. Also, such description as he gives may be accurate for the ancient world (although I took a lot of ancient history in college, I haven’t paid it much attention since) but a little off for late medieval/early modern England, where textile production in England involved a number of specialists and middlemen in a complicated, integrated system. You can gain some hint of this process from English surnames: men named Walker and Fuller cleaned the wool; men named Webster and Weaver wove it; men named Taylor and Draper were involved in later stages of production and sale, etc. (It seems that spinning was always women’s work, so “spinster” is a female condition, not a male surname.) And the various clothiers, merchants, etc. involved in the process may not have left surnames, but they certainly existed.
“-ster” is the feminine suffix, so a man named Webster gets his name from a female weaver.
During the Old English period, yes, but in Middle English there was a tendency to extend its use to men, especially in Northern England – so some instances of “Webster” might actually originally refer to a man
We’re going to get into more of the social status of spinners, weavers, fullers and dyers in subsequent posts.
For anyone else interested in watching the wool process, I just found https://youtu.be/NnMBazN72zY that shows this process in detail and it’s pretty much the same thing step by step as the article describes. The narration is in Spanish (Castillian) and I think the old ladies are speaking in Aragonese(?) though.
Combed wool is stronger because it is then spun with all the (long) fibres running lengthwise, densely packed together… the yarn is called “worsted”. Carded wool is spun (using shorter fibres) with the fibres in a spiral orientation, in order to retain spaces within the yarn, to make it lighter and softer… and the yarn is called “woolen”. Worsted yarn can be used to cover the seats in trains, woolen yarn for sweaters and lacy shawls— both delightful but not interchangable!
So, not only does “flaxen hair” derive from this, but also “tow-headed”
And in fact I just read a mention of tow-headed as a description of wet blonde hair that was then desribed as flaxen when dried.
is there going to be a side article about how Felt was made from wool, and how it was used in regards to historic clothing and items? i know the greeks used it to make hats and cloaks, for example.
Didn’t we do felt when we were talking about Pastoralists?
Ran across an article that reminded me of this series:
“The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make”
tl;dr: In what is now Bangladesh they used to make a really fine cloth, Dhaka muslin, but the cotton variety and techniques have been lost.
Bret, I finally had time to return to this article, and sure enough, I found a few more typos for you:
completely. The nest step is -> next
through it, through the earliest -> though the earliest
the wool places on one -> placed
different tools) the two methods produce importantly different results in a couple of different ways -> wa-a-ay too many differents for one sentence/?
turned up frustrating little -> frustratingly
Also note that, I believe that your illustration of Woman Carding Wool by Jean-François Millet is his etching by that title, not a painting.
As regards: “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”
The Dutch term is actually “roten” (not “reten”) which makes the connection to ‘rot’ even more clear.