Weaving Words

I suspect most people never think about the origins of some of the most common metaphors in our language. Take, ‘Strike while the iron is hot’, a concept that predates Shakespeare and comes from blacksmithing (as least according to one theory). Well, weaving and spinning have given common words and phrases to the English language too, and I’ll bet most people never think of their origins or really understand what they mean.

Take ‘tow’ for example, as in tow-headed. After the flax is treated into linen fiber (more about that later) and the long fibers are removed for spinning, the short fibers that are left are known as tow. They are not blond as people think but a light grayish brown. They have to be further processed to make them useable and they were made into sacks and cords and clothing for slaves and the poor.

Flaxen, obviously from the flax plant, refers to light blond hair. Flax is a flowering plant that has been cultivated since the time of the Egyptians and processed into linen. Since that is a multi-step process that involves soaking the flax in water and beating it with specialized equipment before the linen fibers are extracted, I wonder how anyone figured it out.

We are no longer so familiar with the words for the equipment required to process the flax into linen cloth. Loom, of course, and warp (the fibers that form the skeleton of any cloth), weft (usually the crosswise threads) and shuttle we still know. But the break, heckler and scutching knife?

First the flax plants were soaked for several weeks, sometimes in a stream, sometimes in special trough dug for this purpose. When the stalks rotted, they were put into a brake or break and crushed to remove the outside stalks. Although there are some smaller breaks made for women, this process was usually done by men, and skilled men at that, as it was a heavy job. By the late eighteenth century some mills to help with this step had begun to spring up. Once the bark was removed the scutching knife, a long wooden blade, was used to beat the fibers against a board. Then the linen fibers were put through hecklers or hacklers, boards with metal prongs that helped straighten the threads. This step had to be done several times with hecklers of increasing fineness. All of this processing was done largely by men. After that the long linen fibers were ready to be spun by the household’s women

The men who were skilled at ‘dressing’ the fibers considered this a profession and during the winter went from household to household processing the fibers. Most households did not have the equipment, in fact many did not own a loom although all had spinning wheels. And that is plural, some wheels spun wool, some spun linen, some required the woman to walk back and forth with the yarn in her hands. The spinner controlled the tension.

Linen is a fiber with no give, unlike wool which has a little stretch to it. Linsey-woolsey was a cloth made with a wool warp and linen weft and offered some of the advantages of both fibers. And how, asks the practical minded woman, were these clothes laundered?

Well, usually only the underwear was laundered. There was a great controvery over which fiber to use, wool or linen. Linen won and it is a fiber that can stand hot water and ironing and grows softer with both wear and washing. So the practical housewife laundered primarily the underwear, termed ‘body linen’ in those days.


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