07 December, 2010

Doukhobor Fiber Tools

In my misspent youth, during my free time at university, I holed up in a carrel with a panoramic view of Georgia Strait and the snow-topped Coast mountains, a carrel within arm's reach of all the library's back issues of Harrowsmith magazine, and there I sat and read every single one.

There was an article about a certain plant, one that I will not name so that this post won't get picked up on search engines for the wrong reasons.  Canada had banned cultivation of this plant decades before.  If I'm not mistaken, you can grow the fiber-producing variety of this plant now in Canada if you have a permit and are prepared for scrutiny from the Mounties (though it's still banned in the U.S.) but at the time the article was published, you couldn't.  The writer investigated the uses of the plant for fiber as well as the impacts and implications of the ban.  One interview was with a Doukhobor woman who had kept for years a very durable set of men's clothing.  If I remember correctly, it was a suit.  Her family or her community had made the clothes from scratch out of the plant material back in the days when cultivation was legal and commonplace.

I was terribly impressed to know that any people group in the twentieth century had once had the skills to make clothes starting with raw materials.  Not only that, but nice clothes.  The article made me see the Doukhobors in a different light than what our high school Social Studies books had presented.

I recently got the book Unlike the Lilies: Doukhobor Textile Traditions in Canada by Dorothy K. Burnham.

I like to see what fiber tools and materials have been used throughout history, especially in folk culture, to meet people's need for clothes, bedding, and so on.  Lets me delude myself into imagining I could make the tools and raise the fiber too.

The book shows a Tartar wool comb, which was new to me.  Normally when I use a set of wool combs I like to clamp one down so I don't have to brace one against the pull of the other.  A tartar wool comb stays stationary without a clamp.  Two rows of tines are set in a block of wood attached to the top of a triangle of wood, the peak of which is made from two boards, and the base of which is a long board that sticks out to one side or to either side depending on the model.  You sit on the board and let gravity hold the comb in place.  Only one comb was used and the wool was pulled through the tines by hand.

I was interested to see retted flax stalks being broken with a pestle in a large mortar made of a log.  They had regular flax brakes too, but no scutching boards: they would whip the stems up and down across a sawhorse instead.  The flax combs were made of thin wooden boards, very different from the metal hackles I usually see in vintage or reproduction flax tools, and these combs had only one row of teeth.  When harvesting the flax, a hammer was used to remove seed heads by beating them; the flax was not pulled through a more usual ripple, which looks like a rake and does the same job as the hammer except by pulling the seed heads off.

Burnham confirms some facts about flax processing I've read before, such as getting the finest flax by sowing thickly, harvesting before the seeds ripen, and using the dew retting method instead of the water method.

ETA: see also another post with photos from a museum visit http://thesojourningspinner.blogspot.com/2011/11/doukhobor-discovery-centre.html

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