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Friday, September 27, 2013

Linsey Woolsey - Before Cotton was King -


Since my junior high days I've been fascinated with the idea of growing your own fabric - cotton, wool and flax--probably since Social Studies class introduced me to the term linsey-woolsey.  A few weeks ago I discussed how plain cotton fabric became printed cotton with the use of hand carved blocks and a lot of patient and underpaid artisans.  Today I want to share a bit on what the common folk wore before cotton was an option.

Linum usitatissimum  -- the FLAX plant

In many areas of Europe and the UK, wool was a cash crop for the benefit of the estate owners (they raised sheep). The poor were allowed to use what wool they found  (caught on bushes or fences when sheep had pastured in that area) or what they could afford -- probably wool that was of the least quality. Obviously this wasn't much to make yarns for knitting and weaving, so it was combined with the fiber from the flax plant. 

I enjoy flax as an ornamental  because I like the lovely blue flowers of this ancient plant. It is grown around the globe in areas with loamy soils (rich brown, not rocky) and is harvested for flax seed, linseed oil and the fiber used to make linen. I imagine a majority of Americans have never seen it growing, unless you are near some of the large farms raising it commercially.

Nothing I could describe will explain the process better than this video (created about Canadian Pioneers).  I find it all fascinating and would love to try the whole process myself, first-hand. Looks like a lot of work; certainly no less work than the production, harvesting and work involved in taking wool from sheep to sweater, or cotton from seed to shirt for the thousands of years everything was a non-mechanical process!


Linsey Woolsey fabrics combined the yarns of both wool and flax in what used to be the fabric for the masses! Note-- the soft fibers of flax and golden color is the source for the term 'flaxen'  describing lustrous light blond hair!  Flax has been used for so long that the term linen began to encompass many other fabrics --the 'linens' department in a store is any collection of home accessories such as sheets and towels.  Today's linen clothing is often 'upscale' rather than for the poor and the majority of clothing quality flax is grown in western Europe.

Have you ever seen a garment made from linsey-woolsey?


Thanks for visiting!
Debra

Debra E. Marvin
Dark Tales Brimming with Light
Winner, 2012 Phoenix Rattler, Semi-finalist, 2013 Genesis
www.inkwellinspirations.blogspot.com/

http://colonialquills.blogspot.com/
www.facebook.com/debra.e.marvin

www.debraemarvin.com    and...twittering @DebraEMarvin 

19 comments:

  1. Hello - here I am with another fabric/clothing related post, and ideas for more.

    I really want to find some modern day linsey-woolsey! I suppose it's now too expensive to purchase. If anyone knows a good source on the actual costs of specific goods during the colonial era in N. America, I'd appreciate it.

    It's interesting that cotton eventually became the common fabric and linen signified a bigger pocketbook!

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  2. Hi Debra! I have actually thought the same thing about the flip-flop of linen and cotton. Very interesting. I didn't know anything about linsey-woolsey until this post. Fabulous! Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. It's not very well known but now that you have... you'll see it in all sorts of places.
      Of course much of the British Empire followed trends that came out of the far east or 'sub continent'. India Muslin became quite the rage- the sheerer the better, even if it fell apart when washed. (silly Regency women!). I'm going to find out more on this and see if I can even purchase linsey woolsey somewhere. Thanks Amber!

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  3. Interesting post, Debra. I learned something today. And the flowers are really pretty. I had no idea.

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  4. Alas, I have one lonely plant but it does have lovely flowers! Thanks for stopping in Susanne!

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  5. Thank you. This was most interesting & enjoyable.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. It was a good chance for me to dig in deeper into something I've always been interested in.

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  6. Thanks for such an interesting post, Debra. In addition to being used for fabric, the flax seed also has health benefits.

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    1. Yes, and multiple types and products from the seed - I have flax seed in two colors. They tend to go bad quickly, so I keep them in the fridge. They say for benefits, we must eat them ground but ground flax meal loses its punch in a few weeks...
      I've learned that if I put the seeds on yogurt in the early morning, they soften and expand by lunch time and I'm able to get the benefits that were once trapped inside that tiny little shell!

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  7. Love these posts, Debra!

    Anything that's handmade and requires a great deal of time to produce costs a lot these days. Mass production changed how we value items. The term "handmade" or "home made" once signified ordinary. Now, it's regarded as a treasure if it's done well.

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    1. That is so true. Anyone who makes handcrafted items and tries to sell them knows it is nearly impossible to get the value of the time and talent put into it. So it has to also be an act of love. (ahhh, this obviously is true with writing as well!) item

      Imagine if I grew my own flax, prepared the fiber, and wove my own linsey-woolsey and then created a simple garment out of it? that used to be for poor people. Now I'd have to ask a significant price on such an item. My daughter is one of those people who create and sell on Etsy. Great stuff on there yet they have to keep the cost low because few people will pay what our skilled 'time' is worth.

      Thanks Susan!

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  8. There is a place to purchase period fabrics in Tennessee: http://periodfabric.com/

    One might check them out for linsey-woolsey. This was a fascinating blog. Thank you.

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  9. Very interesting! Enjoyed the video. What a lot of work! I was trying to explain to my grandchildren about mending clothes, the other day. It was a foreign concept to them. My, how times have changed!

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    1. Oh yes, Kay! So much has changed from what was normal to now - unknown!
      But it all comes around. I actually darned socks when I was first married. Okay, so I like doing odd stuff like that, but we do tend to just toss things out rather than fix them... a throwaway society in so many ways. They make things impossible to fix. I suppose for clothes --- they go out of style long before they wear out! ( not that I'd know about style!)

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  10. No - I have never seen a garment made from linsey-woolsey, & have never seen flax plants. Interesting post! A lot of work was involved in making cloth in previous years.
    Thanks!

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  11. I've only spun linen that was commercially prepared, but I'd love to try it from start to finish. Maybe some year. :)

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    1. Sounds lovely, Pegg! When I see spinners I wonder how they manage to do the pedal work for hours... yet there is something relaxing about it as well. Certainly something soothing in other ways when we create with our hands and take something from its source to a lovely or practical (or both) creation.

      I appreciate your comment!

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  12. I am a docent (guide) in an old woolen mill in Salem, Oregon (1890). A tourist asked me if they made Linsey Woolsey material and I only had heard the term but had no idea what it meant.I went home and googled it. I can now answer with some authority and tell people that they can still purchase this material. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it and hearing about your experience. Thanks also for being one of those who help keep history alive.

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