Tuesday, October 2, 2018

underwear circa 1700s

A simple linen shift or chemise a woman wore next to her skin as underclothing in the late 1700s. (Pic taken in the storeroom at the McCord Museum in Montreal where I was doing research.) It looks simple enough, but what was involved in the making?

Linen is produced from the inner fibres of flax, a tough plant that looks like hay. To get the longest possible fibres, the plant is cut at or pulled up by the roots. Bundles of flax are soaked in ponds or vats to soften the outer stalk. That can take up to two weeks and it stinks--in the same way flower stems smell when they get sludgy in a vase. Multiply that to the size of pond, a field's worth of flax.

Next step is to roll, crush, or beat the stalks to release the inner fibres.

I took this picture in the Alpine village of Maria Luggau in Austria. We happened upon an open shed and I wanted a picture of how light shone on the flax, reminding me of fairy tales where flax was spun to gold.

I've only now noticed--in the bottom left corner--the tool like a pair of wooden scissors that would be used for repeatedly crushing the stalks. The process is called scutching.

Next step is combing or hackling the strands of fibre that will be spun to make yarn. It's called yarn even though it isn't always wool.

All this work, only to make yarn! It still needs to be woven on a loom to make cloth. The cloth has to be either bleached or dyed (long possible discussion here on how various dyes are made). The cloth then gets sewn by hand to make a garment--in this case, nothing fancier than underwear. 

Decoration optional.

I'm not really talking about clothes here, but about the work that was done through the ages mostly by women and children. Clothing as a document of social history.

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