Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book review: Irish People, Irish Linen

Author: Kathleen Curtis Wilson
Published by Ohio University Press, 2011

I made a note to get this book when I read the prepublication review in Library Journal . It came in two weeks ago and I have had a grand time reading it.  
Flax and linen culture are found in many countries, but in the English-speaking world "linen" and "Ireland" are interwoven (pun intended).  There are several reasons.  Northern Ireland was an ideal place to raise flax and convert it to linen, a process that requires a lot of fresh water.   The Irish adapted new technologies, going back to the 18th century home-work system and modernising to mills (for spinning) and factories (for weaving).  They were astute marketers, finding uses for their products in grand and humble households, with transportation (ocean liners and train travel), and even in the air (shellacked linen was the 'skin' of early aircraft).   And Irish emigration, which from the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries spread Irish culture (and with it, linen) to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa.

Wilson describes all the steps in getting from flax to cloth, starting with the processes in pre-industrials times.  It is a complex process. The outer bark is "retted" (rotted) to get at the inner fiber. The fiber is "scutched" (beaten to get all the bark off).  Then the fibers are "hackled" or combed to untangle the fibers. Finally the fiber is spun into yarn and then thread.  Woven linen must be bleached and beetled -- the first process makes it white and the second gives it a characteristic sheen. 

Thousands of Irish home-workers made lace: Carrickmacross, Clones, drawn-thread, and cutwork.  Wilson emphasizes that for most families the income from home-work put food on the table.  She adds that we think of embroidery as a traditional craft, but in the 19th century these women worked "for the marketplace according to the dictates of fashion; they were not creating heirlooms [for their families]."

The book includes sidebars that explain textile terms that are still part of our vocabulary.  We use the word "linen" not only for the fabric but also to describe household textiles ("linen closet" to store sheets and towels") and personal garments ("air your dirty linen") because underclothing was made out of linen whereas outer garments were made out of wool or silk.
"Knocking off work" originated in the 19th century when looms were connected by belts to the steam engine that powered them all.  "If a weaver wanted to stop she reched up and knocked the belt off the pulley; her loom stopped but the others kept running."  A "slop" was a one-size-fits-all men's shirt.  The term eventually was applied to baggy pants and other loose-fitting clothing and "slops" was a shirt that was not custom-made. The term "sloppy" now refers to oversized and rumpled clothing and from there to unkempt habits. 

I see the words "Irish linen" every day because we use souvenir linen towels as our dish towels. My vintage textile stash has many such towels.  Now that I've read Kathleen Curtis Wilson's excellent book I will appreciate the history and heritage behind them.


Kren said...

I love learning the genesis of common phrases. This posting made me smarter about a book I now want to read and about the English language! Thanks.

Paul & Carla said...

Very interesting article. Now I want to read the book!