Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part III

"To know when your Flax is fit to gather," recommended John Wily of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, "you must observe the Leaves turning yellow, and the lower Ones dropping off the Stalks..." (33, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of John Wily's Treatise)

Sure enough, my flax showed signed of being "fit to gather" by early July, just about three months after I planted it and after a good growing season. So out Nicole and I went, on July 11th, to harvest the flax.

"The Method to gather your Flax is to pull it up by the Roots with one hand." (33)

"If the Seed is not full ripe, as it seldom all ripens together, you may let it lie in the Field two or three Days." (33)

Once farmers removed flax from the earth, the first step in harvesting every bit of useful material from the plants was to remove the seeds, which they could sell to special processors who extracted linseed (think linen+seed) oil, used for a variety or purposes including as a paint medium, from the seeds.

Flax Seeds

In order to remove the seeds from my flax plants, I needed a "Rippling Comb," for which Wily provides instructions: "Get a Piece of Plank about eighteen Inches long, three broad, and one thick; then have fourteen or fifteen teeth made of iron or steel, about six Inches long, in the Shape of a flooring Brad; then bore as many Holes lengthwise in the Plank as you have Teeth to put in it, letting the Teeth stand about a Quarter of an Inch apart." (33)

Someday, I'll get a truly authentic Rippling Comb. For now, lacking either a local blacksmith or my own forge, I went to my local hardware store and bought a box of the largest flooring brads I could find (essentially unchanged since 1765), a bit shorter than Wily's recommendation. Wily's directions seem almost foolproof, but I soon discovered two problems. First, my plank was inclined to split down the line of the brads even when I bored holes in advance of driving the brads in. I stopped short of Wily's fifteen teeth to prevent totally cracking my plank.

Rippling Comb

Second problem: teeth with spaces between them of 1/4" allowed my flax seeds to generally pass right through without pulling the seeds off the stalks when I did as Wily recommended: "take a Handful and strike it on the Teeth, and draw it through," (34). Either Wily meant that the teeth should be driven into the plank at 1/4" intervals (leaving only a narrow slit between the actual edges of each tooth) or flax plants in 1765 had slightly larger or more compact seed heads. This seems plausible, given that the flax I grew, marketed for flowers and seeds more than fiber, probably included more of these elements than you'd want if you were growing and breeding plants with an eye towards those that devoted the most energy to stalk (and thus fiber) production.

To counteract this problem, I had placed several of my teeth closer together, which allowed Nicole and I to quickly pull the seeds away from small handfuls of flax.

I'll get back to these seeds later. For now, it was time to ret my flax. Retting involves getting the flax plants wet for an extended period in order to break down the gummy substance that adheres the exterior bark (to be used for fiber) from the woody core of each stalk. You can discern the difference between the two parts when the flax is unretted, but you can't easily separate them.

Broken green flax

Although Wily provided instructions for retting flax by leaving it lying in dewy fields for several days or submerging it in standing water, he favored retting it in "a Stream of fresh running Water" for better cleansing the flax at a cool temperature (reducing the danger of over-retting and thus ruining your crop). Wily said to tie up your flax in "Sheaves, about the Size of a Sheaf of Wheat... with some good strong Bark, or Withe, for fear of its breaking loose in the Water," (35). The total product of my flax patch came out to something like as much as your typical wheat sheaf.

Tying a sheaf of flax with bark

I'm lucky enough to live near a "Stream of fresh running Water" as Wily suggested, and retting flax this way involves only two other tools: strong twine and a weight, in my case some rocks tied up in old stockings.

John Wily wanted to sound authoritative when he wrote his book, enough so that skeptical farmers might adopt flax for the potential cash crop he believed it was. But even Wily had to admit that "it is out of the Power of any Man to tell the exact Number of Days it will take to water or dew-rot Flax," (35). This was the riskiest part of flax production. A few hours too long in the water and you would overdo it, ending up with flax plants that, instead of producing long fibers suitable for spinning into fine and sturdy thread, had deteriorated too much and would produce only inferior, short, coarse fibers. 

Wily offered general instructions for how to tell if your flax had retted enough, and I dutifully walked down to the creek once or twice a day to remove a stalk or two, breaking them to see if they appeared "very rotten and tender" (35), as Wily described the finished goal. 

24 hours after retting began

48 hours after retting began

72 hours after retting began

Sure enough, after 72 hours in the river, the flax seemed to be quite rotten and, even more convincing given the interpretive room within Wily's description, I could see the long bark fibers easily sloughing off from the core of each stalk.

The real test will come later, when I move on to "breaking" the plants as the next step in processing the flax. Stay tuned for me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part II

In 1765, John Wily recommended planting tobacco or another weed-discouraging crop the year before you planted your flax field. Any weeds that "come up with the Flax," he said, "will be very hurtful to it, unless picked out, which is very troublesome," (31). Luckily, after I planted my flax patch in April, I could afford to weed it by hand in lieu of any tobacco crop last year. I weeded my patch every couple weeks or so, but for the most part weeds didn't seem to be a big problem. To mimic eighteenth-century reliance on natural rainfall, I didn't water my patch at all. 

The images below give you a sense of what a flax season might have looked like two hundred years ago. You'll note that, initially, the plants actually didn't end up that thick and that there were a number of disconcerting blank patches of soil. This seemed less of a problem as the plants got taller and appeared crowded enough to encourage thin stems, as Wily recommended.

April 16th, plants 0.5-0.75" tall.

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May 5th, plants 1.5-3" tall.

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May 23rd, majority of plants 11.5-15" tall. I initially thought the plants were bent over because of a heavy storm the day before, but over the next month they seemed to do this regularly. I suspect it has to do with moisture content.

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June 7th, majority of plants 25-30" tall. I noticed the first blooms on the 6th, exactly two months after planting.

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June 9th, now in full bloom.

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June 28th, plants ranging between 26" and 37", with the majority around 35" tall. Notice that those on the edges of the patch, lacking the support of neighboring plants, are inclined to fall over.

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Here's the patch the day we harvested it, July 11th.

A few days before harvesting, I noticed half a dozen inch-long, fuzzy caterpillars in the patch. They seemed to only be eating the leaves. From what I can tell, they're Virginia Tiger Moth caterpillars. They got to my flax late enough that it didn't matter, but I wonder how much damage a large number might do if they hit the plants early in the season.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shoes and Rigs aboard the Charles W. Morgan

One of the first things I noticed about the professional sailors aboard the Charles W. Morgan during my leg of the 38th Voyage last month was the diversity of their clothing. This was nowhere more evident than in two particular parts of their wardrobes, their shoes and their "rigs," the leather holsters in which each sailor carries several tools. 

I suppose I had assumed that there must be some sort of agreed-upon standard for footwear, the best shoe for shipboard work. In fact, there were as many brands and styles as there were sailors aboard the Morgan. Aaron Gralnick told me that he adopted open shoes several years ago because "feet stink downstairs," and that he hates socks because they're just one more thing to put on when you have to get up and go quickly. The soles of these shoes, he finds, wear about about every two years. Nobody goes barefoot. Despite longstanding myths to the contrary, it seems that sailors in earlier periods also almost always wore shoes. You can read more about early U.S. Navy footwear here

Before boarding the Morgan, I'd never heard of a "rig" in the context these sailors use the term. Each crewmember wore a belt and a leather holster, in which they carried a knife and a marlinspike. As Aaron Gralnick told me, "My spike is a hammer, a finger, a spike, and a fid. My knife is for so much more than just cutting." Cassie Sleeper carries knife, a marlinspike, sometimes a flashlight or a spoon, and a whistle. "You don't want to find yourself in the water without a whistle," she said. She also has a pair of DeWalt clippers for cutting line in another leather holster. In the case of all of these tools, they are tethered to the belt or rig with a line long enough to allow easy use but not so long that, if dropped, the tool might hit and damage the deck. 

Rigs show individuality. Some people decorate their rig with embossed designs or elaborate stitching, and some ships have standard patterns new crewmen can use. Aaron had even heard stories of current sailors seeing someone wearing a certain style of rig and knowing which ship they'd come from.

Thanks to the crew of the Morgan for their hard work during our trip and for providing such fine examples of skilled professionals at work. It was great to watch them operate the ship and to see what they chose to wear while they did so. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Aboard the Charles W. Morgan on the 38th Voyage

It's been almost a week since I was aboard the Charles W. Morgan for my leg of the 38th Voyage (due to a weather delay, we ended up sailing on Sunday, the 15th). Some surprise visitors to our house have been preventing me from writing about the trip sooner. Someone abandoned a mother cat and four kittens on our property, but I'm happy to say that they are all now doing just fine and waiting for good homes.

Not 38th Voyagers. They might have potential as a ship's cats some day, though.

Anyway, the Voyage was amazing. We boarded the Morgan on Saturday evening in New London and spent the night at the dock there. About fifteen of us slept in small two-tiered bunks in the fo'c's'le until a wake-up shout at 5 A.M. We spent the rest of the day at sea, partly under tow from a large tug. Around mid-day, though, we cast off the tow rope, the crew set almost every sail, and the Morgan cruised under her own power for two hours. That was what I was waiting for, and it was just as exciting as I expected. 

The Charles W. Morgan under sail.

Aloft on the Morgan.

When I wasn't watching the crew move around the deck and go aloft, talking with the other Voyagers (including an artist, an economist, a dress historian, a literary scholar, a wildlife conservationist, an ethnomusicologist, and maritime historians) or marveling at the dozens of pleasure boats of all sizes that followed us on our journey, I took some time to speak with the crew about what sorts of clothing they pack and choose to wear as professional sailors in 2014.

Aaron Gralnick has been sailing tall ships almost ten years, and he brings five days' worth of clothes on sea voyages, figuring that, in that time, "I'll either get on shore and find a laundry or we'll be at sea and people won't care." 

Aaron Gralnick

Among other things, his wardrobe includes a fleece jacket and foul weather pants and a coat. Aaron told me that he isn't a fan of hoods on raingear because they impede his hearing, but that he does wear a waterproof hat and gloves (the latter only when on deck, not aloft). Sailors have two foul-weather options these days: "Grundens," a brand of completely waterproof clothing, and more breathable options. The former are completely waterproof but not breathable and thus too warm for some weather, while the latter breathe but are not quite as waterproof. For Aaron, as for nineteenth-century sailors, "good foul-weather gear is worth its weight in gold."
Aaron Gralnick

Aaron has found that most of his work clothing lasts two or three seasons, and he usually packs a dress shirt and a tie, wrapped up and buried in his sea bag, as his "schooner bum camouflage" for going ashore. "Stuff has to last," Aaron told me, "because you can't just run to REI in the middle of the season." So, he says, you have to be particular but also realize that you only have so much space for your stuff aboard ship.

Overhearing me talk about the historical preferences of sailors for short jackets, Aaron pointed out that he often wears a vest, but rolls it up in back to better access his knife and marlinspike, part of the "rig" carried by each crewmember (watch for a forthcoming blog post on these).

Cassie Sleeper has been a professional sailor since 2007 (for many such people, that means working aboard ship 9-11 months a year). Because she doesn't go home to Los Angeles during the working season, everything she needs goes into a 55-lb. seabag, a backpack, and a purse. It takes her two days to pack. First, she gathers everything she thinks she needs and lays it all out. The next day, she starts taking stuff out, thinking about what she actually requires for a given voyage in a given season and climate. Sometimes, she tries layering everything on at once to see what she could wear in cold weather. By the end, she usually ends up with two pairs of work pants, two or three pairs of work shorts, three work shirts, a pair of long underwear, her foul weather gear, enough socks and underwear for at least a week ("Your underwear is going to be hanging out to dry on the ship, so you have to consider what kind to bring.") and two dresses or sets of nice clothes ("Sometimes, on a ship, you forget you're a girl, so when you go into port you dress up."). 

Cassie Sleeper

Cassie's foul weather gear includes a $400 raincoar with clear hood side panels. She finds that Grundens are harder to move in but that the linings of breathable coats wear out in patches. She also usually packs a pair of work shoes, foul weather shoes (if her work shoes aren't waterproof, as the ones she was wearing on this voyage were), work sandles, and a pair of nice shoes. "We're all sort of brand-name people," Cassie told me, pointing out the commonality of Carhartts pants as an example.

Cassie Sleeper

"You bring cheap clothes," Cassie says, "because you're going to ruin them." It takes her about a year and a half to go from new jeans to work jeans to ruined jeans. The pants she was wearing on this voyage were new last October.
Cassie Sleeper

Ryan Loftus has been sailing tall ships for three years. Like most of the crew, he wears Carhartts or Dickies pants. He also packs cheap shorts and white tee-shirts for long voyages ("They're durable, and you don't care if they get destroyed"). 
Ryan Loftus

Ryan's foul weather gear includes a Grundens jacket, bib pants, and rubber sea boots. His work pants last him a year or two, depending on the work, and he usually packs three sets of work clothes and three sets of casual, a pair of work shoes, a pair of Chacos sandles, and sea boots. Ryan pointed out that the T-shirt he was wearing was new that day, and the shorts he was wearing were new as of the ship's first sail a few days before.

Ryan Loftus

Watching and talking with the Morgan's professional crew gave me a lot to think about when it comes to how sailors, in 1814 or 2014, weighed choices about fashion and function. And, although part of me hoped it would rain a little so I could see what sort of rain gear they broke out, I was mostly happy to be out on such a historic ship on such a beautiful day. You can follow the ongoing progress of the Morgan here.

Thanks to the staff of Mystic Seaport, particularly Katharine Mead and Erik Ingmundson, and the crew of the Charles W. Morgan, for all their work making the New London-Newport leg such a success.