The plant in the cloth

I volunteered at the Winona Flax Scutching Festival in 1985, dressed as an Ohio frontiersman in cotton trousers, 18th-century style cotton peasant shirt, knee-high fringe moccasins and coonskin cap. My cousins helped too but changed from their peasant shirts the minute they had completed their duties, whereas I enjoyed my historical clothing and stayed in it all day.
The festival celebrated the early pioneer craft of turning flax into linen, an ancient process that converts a plant with a rough stalk into a soft woven fabric. This picture shows a bookmark with a wisp of flax fiber for a tassel. My uncle Galen was one of the revivers and organizers of the festival, following in the footsteps of his father, who helped run the festival before World War II. The next photo shows unbroken flax on the left and flax fiber after scutching on the right. This cane and the flax and knife dated 1935 are from the original Winona Flax Scutching. As we demonstrated on antique equipment, Uncle Galen explained the scutching process, whereby the inner fiber is removed from the plants, which he had grown, harvested, soaked and dried earlier in the year. My aunt Mickey and others demonstrated spinning of the fiber into thread using a wheel similar to that used for spinning wool and weaving of the thread into linen, the name for both the thread and the woven fabric. These photos show a piece of linen dedicated to the state of New Hampshire, and you can easily see the woven threads in the close-up.
My interest in the festival arose from my love of living history and a growing awareness of natural fabrics. As a child I noticed scraps of fabric history but gave it little thought. Uncle Galen and Aunt Mickey kept a flax wheel in their living room from my earliest memory, and my mother has worked with fabric practically her entire life. When I became interested in reenacting I began paying more attention to materials. I started with leather and soon came to appreciate wool, linen and cotton. Where before I chose clothes based only on looks, I began reading labels and turning with scorn from anything containing polyester. I was forced to wear polyester uniforms at an old warehouse job, and they were torture. They didn’t breathe, they were hot in summer and cold in winter, and they were stiff and scratchy. I assume the company bought them because they were durable, and the heck with employee comfort.
Spinning and weaving are home crafts. You can raise and shear sheep; card, comb and clean the wool; spin the fiber into thread; and transform the thread into fabric on a loom all on your own property. The same goes for converting flax to linen. You can’t make polyester or acrylic at home; both are plastic, although inordinately clever scientists have made them look and feel convincingly like wool and cotton.
Another use for wool is felting, starting with either unspun fiber or knitted or woven yarn. The wool is transformed by heat and chemicals into a closely packed fiber that is warm and dense but that still breathes and dries quickly. Felt hats are most often made from wool, although some are made from animal fur, which is much more expensive. The beaver hats that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries were made from felted beaver fur and were incredibly soft, and many cowboy hats are made from felted wool. My mother has made felt slippers, first knitting oversized slippers and shrinking and compacting them. She had to figure out how big to make them so they would shrink to the correct fit.
For those who complain that wool makes their skin itch, the answer is alpaca wool, a luxuriously soft fabric that caresses your skin. Wool from the angora goat is called mohair. A delightful book called “The Goat in the Rug,” written for children but informative and charming for any age reader, tells the story, narrated by Geraldine the goat, of a Navajo woman who shears Geraldine and makes a traditional Navajo rug. The book explains dyes and weaving on a loom using many illustrations that complement Geraldine’s story.
Because I’ve grown to love wool and linen, I am drawn to booths at festivals that in the past I would have passed by. Playing music at Pine Tree Barn’s Williamsburg Festival one October, my friend Dennis and I moved from a cold, windy spot to a sheltered corner beside the woolen goods vendors’ tent, and I enjoyed simply exploring their wares. The woolen vendors loaned me a sheepskin to sit on and Dennis a blanket to wrap in because the day was so cold, and they taught me how to fold a wool blanket into a triangle and wrap it around myself into a cloak, using a clan pin to fasten the front. I also notice clothing more in movies. While watching the Clint Eastwood western “Two Mules For Sister Sara,” I paused the movie a few times to study the jauristas’ serapes and Clint Eastwood’s Mexican blanket and hat.
I make an occasional exception to my natural fabric rule. I bought an acrylic Mexican blanket at Don Pancho’s restaurant last year, and it is comfortable, but I am always aware that it is plastic. But in most cases, I prefer wool, linen, cotton and leather. Despite all the adroit tricks scientists devise, the natural fabrics are still the best.

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