The wooly facts

So, my last post concerned flax and linen. I forgot to mention that flax was also grown for its seed. The seeds produce an oil. I’ve never heard of that, you say. But you have, under the name linseed oil. Linseed oil has a long history of human use, right down to cleaning artists’s brushes.

The fibers for wool are shorter than for linen but still has to be aligned the same way. Usually that was done by carding. Some of the prints from this period show very little girls carding wool. The carded wool was then spun into yarn.

Linen was actually more commonly worn than wool; sheep were expensive and many households didn’t own the equipment with which to process the wool. Also, handling the flax and  the sheared wool took time and skill.

But what about cotton, you ask? Cotton, because of the seeds which need to be picked out of the cotton boll, is very labor intensive as well. Unlike linen and wool, it requires a hot climate. It is also a ‘heavy feeder’, and rapidly sucks the nutrients from the soil. So cotton was not commonly worn, especially by the middle and lower classes. Lawn, a very finely woven cotton, was a fashionable fabric during the Regency period and as expensive as silk. It was not until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin that cotton became more economically feasible to produce. Because of the gin’s impact not only on cloth production but also on slavery (many many slaves were now required to grow cotton), I think a case could be made that the gin changed the world.

Cloth was consequently very valuable. Every piece of clothing was worn, by the average person anyway, until it was literally rags and then those scraps were used for other things like pieced quilts. The wealthy could purchase many changes of clothing and unlike today, when it is frequently difficult to tell who is wealthy and who is not by looking at them, in earlier times someone’s wealth and status was immediately apparent. Maybe that is why some people know crave the designer labels; it speaks to the trappings of wealth and status? What do you think?