I’m back in the 21st century today, having breakfast with Steve’s mother, doing laundry at the laundromat, that kind of thing. My heart is still somewhere in the world of 150 years ago. The deep connection with the land is something that I miss in this century. I learned about the process of making linen from flax. It is a very complex procedure, actually. The fibers of the flax plant are like the phloem and xylem in a maple tree. They run from root to branch tips, and they are beneath the green outer husk and outside of the hard woody core. That corresponds to the sapwood in a tree that lies under the bark and around the heartwood. The flax is pulled up from the roots so as not to shorten those fibers. Then, it’s placed in running water or on dewy ground to rot away the green outer husk.This can take a month. Next, you take it to the threshing floor of the barn to break up the woody chaff. There are a few different machines that aid in that step. Combing the strands through a nail board leaves long hanks of golden fibers and short curly bits that are stuck in the spikes, which is called tow. That’s where we get expressions about flaxen hair and towheads. The fibers are wound on a distaff for spinning; tow can be spun like wool. I’d never tried spinning before. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks at first!
Thatched roof barn
Linen making is extremely labor intensive. The retting process where microorganisms dissolve the outer husk is the prohibitive part for Old World Wisconsin, apparently, so they buy their flax at about $40 pound ready to break and spin. Which finally gets you around to having skeins of linen. But then, just setting up the loom seems like it would take forever! Imagine setting up a loom for a 400-count cotton sheet…that’s 400 threads per inch. Of course, that’s all done on industrial machines now. Factory-made cotton cloth was available and cheaper by the mid-19th century, but linen was sometimes useful as a back-up during the Civil War. Factory made shoes were available as well.
We’re off to have breakfast with Steve’s mom. I’m imagining eating in the ladies’ parlor at 4-Mile Inn….