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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Textile Fibers
Historical Sketch Of The Textiles
Mechanical Devices For Preparation Of Textiles
Cotton Production
Cotton Marketing
Cotton Manufacturing
Geography Of The Cotton Trade
Prices Of Cotton Goods
Classes Of Wool
Production Of Wool
Wool Marketing
Manufacture Of Wool
Geography Of Wool Production
Mohair, Its Nature And Uses
Raw Silk Porduction
Silk Manufacturing
Silk Waste
Imitations Of Silk
Construction, Color, And Finish Of Cloth
Dyeing And Printing
Cloth Finishing
Care Of Textiles
Textile Tests


( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Ancient use of linen.-Linen is probably the textile that has been longest in use. Egypt and China used it thousands of years ago. It was the common textile of the people of Bible times, and was fashionable during the Middle Ages. "Purple and fine linen" represented regal splendor among the ancient orientals. In the Middle Ages linen underwear was thought to be too magnificent save for kings. Wonderful examples of early hand-wrought laces, embroideries, and tapestries in linen hundreds of years old are still to be found in the great museums of Europe.

Source of Linen.-Linen, a fiber obtained from the flax plant, is for the most part produced in central and northern Russia, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, France, Egypt, and northern Italy. Russia produces the most; Belgium, the best. Small amounts are produced in Canada and in Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon. Large quantities of flax are raised only for the seed in other parts of the world, such as the Dakotas, Minnesota, northwestern Canada, India, Argentine, and southern Russia, but no means has yet been discovered for the utilization of both seed and fiber from the same flax, so as to get excellent results from both. If fiber is desired, the plants must be harvested before the seed is fully ripe; if seed is wished the plants must be allowed to grow until the fiber is too coarse, harsh, and woody for fine linens. The straw that comes from the flax in the Northwest is utilized in making very satisfactory binding twine and rope. No doubt it could be used also for coarse fabrics or bagging.

Necessary factors of production.-Linen is a highly serviceable fiber, but the amount of hand labor required for its production is so great and the expenses so high that it is produced only where special advantages are offered in the way of cheap labor, special qualities of flax-producing soils, or unusual facilities for removing the fibers from the stalks. These advantages in some measure exist in each of the above-named countries and states. The growing of flaxseed has been found profitable because of the high prices paid for the seed by manufacturers of linseed oil, as oil especially useful in making paints and varnishes. None other has yet been discovered which better combines with paint pigments or with varnish gums, or which dries so well after applying. It has therefore no competing imitations or adulterants, and no substitute is practicable save possibly corn oil. Linseed oil is utilized to the practical exclusion of other oils in the manufacture of linoleum, oilcloth, oilsilk, patent and enameled leather, and printers' ink. It is also used for the manufacture of waterproof fabrics not made of rubber, for enameling wood-pulp buttons, for making opaque window shades, for a few medicinal purposes, for the making of soap (especially valuable for washing woodwork), and for various minor purposes.

The oil is pressed out of the seed in heavy presses like those used for the cottonseed oil. The cake remaining after pressing is a valuable stock food.

Character of the flax fiber.-The flax fiber is a slender, straight, tube-like thread of from twelve to thirty-six inches long, averaging about twenty inches. The fiber is found in a thin layer running up and down the stalk of the plant immediately under the bark. It is considerably stronger than that of cotton, but is more easily injured by bleaching and chemicals. The linen fiber, like that of cotton, is composed of almost pure cellulose. Hence like cotton it is attacked and burned up when exposed to acids.

Linen fibers range from white to bluish gray in color. The best flax in the world, that grown in or near the city of Courtrai in Belgium, is cream-colored. The coloring of the fiber, however, is probably due rather to the methods of treatment after it is gathered than to the variety of the plant or of the soil upon which it grew.

Flax growing.-The flax intended for linen is grown in the following manner: In northern climates it is sowed in the spring on ground prepared as for wheat or rye, a good deep, well-plowed soil being requisite. No particular care is then needed until harvesting, which comes in the latter part of July or in August. The plants, pulled up, roots and all, by hand, are tied in bundles and left to dry in shocks in the field.

Why flax must be pulled.-The pulling of linen flax by hand, instead of cutting it with a reaper or mower as in the case of farm grains, is necessary because:

1. Pulling the plants permits the full length of the fibers to be saved, whereas if the plants were cut off some inches from the ground, a usable part of every fiber would be cut off.

2. The flax fiber in the plant tapers to a point at both the upper and the lower ends. Cutting the plant would remove this lower taper, leaving a blunt end, which would prevent the fiber from being used in fine threads or fabrics.

3. Furthermore, the flax straw cures better and more evenly when the entire stalk is intact. No stubble is left in the ground and the flax shocks are not kept wet at the base by the ground water which comes out freely from the stubble of cut flax. The curing or drying of the flax is therefore facilitated.

Flax threshing or "rippling."-After the flax is properly dried, it is threshed. The bundles of flax, instead of being fed into a machine like wheat bundles, are simply held up against revolving cylinders that beat off the seed heads; whereupon the bundles are withdrawn and thrown back into a pile. The older hand method, one still common in some parts of the world, is to draw the flax bundles across rakes or boards filled with spikes just far enough apart to let the flax stalks through but too close to let the flax heads follow. In this way the heads containing the seeds are pulled off, a process called "rippling."

Retting.-Next the flax is bound in convenient bundles, in preparation for "retting." Retting breaks down the solid contents of the flax stalks, starting fermentation and rotting. In fact the word to ret comes from, and means the same as, to rot. This process, when successful, causes the solid matter to fall away readily and easily from the fibers; the color of the fibers is then good, and the strength and luster of each fiber unimpaired. However, it is easy to over-ret the flax; hence the process needs careful watching, for over-retting dulls the luster while under-retting leaves some green color in the fiber.

Retting is a bacteriological process. The plant structure is attacked by a certain germ, much as a mass of dough is acted upon by yeast bacteria. Flax when retting must be watched as carefully as rising bread-dough; otherwise it will go too far or else stop too soon. This process is performed either in October and November or during the following spring and summer. There are at least four welldeveloped methods: dew retting, as practiced in Russia; pool retting, a common method in Ireland and also in Russia; running-water retting, the method employed in the celebrated Courtrai district in Belgium on the River Lys; and chemical retting.

Dew retting.-Dew retting consists in spreading the flax plants over grassy ground and letting them remain thus for from two weeks to four weeks. In that time decay sets in, the hard parts of the stalks give way, and the fibers may easily be taken out.

Pool retting.-Pool retting is similar in principle to dew retting except that the process is considerably shortened by immersing the bundles of flax in pools of standing water, retting pools, or bogs. Ten days is usually sufficient to complete the process by this method.

Retting in running water.-Retting in running water, the method used in the Courtrai district, is similar to the pool retting method, except that the flax bundles are immersed and tied down in the running water of the streams or rivers.

Chemical retting.-Chemical retting has been tried at various times. Special apparatus has been built, patents obtained, and success promised, but as yet no chemical method has proved sufficiently valuable to lead large numbers of flax growers to invest in the machines required by the process.

Effects of retting.-The quality of the flax and its color are in great measure dependent upon the retting. Dew retting is rather uneven in its effects; hence the linen fiber from this process is usually the poorest in appearance although frequently the strongest in wear. Pool retting usually yields a dull gray or steel-gray product. Stream retting, as practiced on the River Lys in Belgium, is most successful, but it seems that in no other stream in the world can the same results be obtained. Chemists have analyzed the water of the Lys to see if they could discover the secret of its value, but so far they have been unable to find the particular quality involved.

The properties of Belgian waters for retting are so well known that flax is sent thither from France, Holland, and even from South America. From shore to shore the River Lys is crowded for many miles with weighted frames holding flax bundles under water.

Breaking.-After the retting is completed, the bundles are removed from the water or are raked up from the ground, and then thoroughly dried. The flax stalks are then run through a machine called a "breaker." Here the rotted wooden matter in the stalks is thoroughly broken up and crumbled, by which means the fibers are gradually loosened and set free.

Seutehing.-The breaking is followed by scutching; this is done by a machine which even more thoroughly beats the broken wood and pulp portions out of the fibers, leaving them fairly free from impurities.

Hackling.-The fiber is now ready for hackling or combing. This process is still usually done by hand, although machines have been invented for the purpose. This simple process consists in taking a handful of scutched fibers, throwing them over a fine-toothed iron comb, and drawing them through several times. Sometimes several sizes of combs are used, beginning with coarse and ending with fine teeth. In this process all impurities, loose fibers, short fibers, uneven fibers, and so on, are combed out. The residue is fine linen fiber ready to be spun into linen yarn or thread. The combings are called "tow." The fibers to be spun are generally classified according to length and color, and then laid aside in orderly piles so that they may not become tangled. Hackling demands much skill. An inexperienced person would be likely to make two serious mistakes; he would fail to remove all of the impurities, and he would waste much of the good fiber.

Large amount o f labor required.-Throughout the process just described, from the gathering of the plants at harvest time to the final combing or hackling, hand labor is continually required, and care is necessary at every stage to preserve the best quality. Labor that while cheap is yet experienced is absolutely essential to the production of excellent linen fabrics. It has been estimated that it costs about $375 to work up $500 worth of flax from the straw stage into yarn. It takes about $375 more to transform this yarn into brown linen, and about $250 more for bleaching. That is to say, $500 worth of raw flax makes about $1,500 worth of linen, most of this addition in value being the cost of labor.

Spinning.-The spinning of linen is much like that of cotton and wool. The fibers are run through spreading machines that divide the bunches of fibers evenly, and then into drawing frames much like those used for cotton fiber, and finally into the spinning frames. Fine threads must be spun wet, and the temperature of the spinning rooms must be kept at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent break age and to get even yarns. Large or coarse sizes of yarn may be spun dry.

Qualities of linen yarn.-Linen yarn and the fabrics into which it is made are characterized by a high degree of smoothness, freshness, strength, and the quality of improving in appearance with laundering and wear. The color varies. That which is whitest is not by any means the strongest, but good fiber is always lustrous. Linen is not so elastic or pliable as cotton. It is rather leathery in feeling.

Linen finishing.-Linen is finished in various ways, just as is cotton. These finishes will be considered in a separate chapter. Linen does not bleach as readily nor does it dye as easily as cotton. Bleaches, unless very carefully applied, are likely to injure linen. On this account several grades of bleaching such as "full," "three-quarter," "half," and "quarter bleaches" are common. The whitest linen, that is, the full-bleached, is likely to be the weakest.

Irish linen.-Irish linen is the best-known and the most valuable in American markets. A good deal of the flax is raised elsewhere, but is manufactured in Ireland. Belfast, the center of Irish linen manufacture, imports fiber in considerable quantities, especially from Courtrai and other parts of the European continent. The Irish linen workers bleach linens with the least injury to the fiber. This is perhaps due in part to the favorable climate and to the slower methods of bleaching employed.

European linens.-French, German, and Scotch linens rank next to the Irish. French linens are the finest and whitest, but are also the most fragile and hardest to keep in good, clean condition. Scotch linens are generally very good medium qualities. German linens range from very good to very poor, but average fairly good. Austria also produces a little of the linen that finds its way to America.

Adulteration of linen.-Linen is now often so adulterated with cotton in "union goods" that the substitutions or adulterations are hard to detect until the material has seen service. Even a great linen-manufacturing center like Belfast imports every year large quantities of cotton fiber and yarn. These cottons are worked up into the linen textile goods to the ultimate damage of the fabric. The methods of detecting these adulterations will be described later.

Uses of linen.-Linen is now used in the production of sewing thread, shoe thread, book-binder's thread, fish lines, seine twine, better grades of wrapping twine, handkerchiefs, toweling, table linen, linen damasks, dress goods, knit underwear, and, to a limited extent, collars, cuffs, and shirt bosoms. The linen collar, like the linen shirt, is passing out of existence. Bed linen that is really linen is not frequently found among the masses. Fine cotton has taken the place of linen in uncounted instances. A hundred years ago linen fabrics were made in greater yardage than all other fabrics together. Seventy years ago linen still led although it did not then make up more than half of all textiles. Now linen occupies third place, and it seems probable that it is destined to continue in this position unless some means can be invented to cheapen the costs of production. Such processes have been announced from time to time, but so far they have affected neither the market supplies nor the prices of linens. When cheap cotton was made possible by the invention of the cotton gin, linen had to yield its position.

Few changes in fashions in linens.-Linen is a fabric which in its present uses does not change in fashion very frequently. For example, certain designs have for years been standard in table linen, among them the snowdrop, the shamrock,. the maidenhair fern, the rose, stripes, checks, and polka dots. Hems and hemstitching constitute the usual means of finishing at the edges. Lace edges, once common, have practically passed out. Certain fashions, such as hand hemstitching, drawn work, hand weaving, and so on, are to be noted; yet all of these are so cleverly imitated by machinery that the difference can hardly be discovered. Except for the quaint distinction that associates itself with hand-wrought goods, the machine-finished linens are in every way equal to the hand-finished.

In towels there has been a gradual reduction in size from what was once considered standard. Now the usual towel size for family use is about 24 inches by 42 inches; towels 22 by 40 inches are increasing in use. The oldtime towel was about 27 by 45 inches. Damask is a form of linen weave that has practically passed out for towel use. Huckaback and bird's-eye now lead.

In linen dress goods, fashion leads as strongly as in almost any other textile, although the range of possible variations seems narrower.

Linen mesh underwear is becoming popular, being porous, well ventilated, and reputed to be hygienic.

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