A peasant’s existence was based on growing and processing hemp, linen and other natural, organic fibers. Women were trained into traditional fiber arts since childhood. Hemp fiber was often used to make towels, peasant blouses for men and women, tight summer pants for men, ropes and different items they needed to wear or use on a daily basis.
The seeds are planted in early spring. Early planting produces tall crops. Best time for harvesting stalks from the male plant is in the summer, before it is quite ripe or changes color. For obtaining high quality, soft fibers, it is pulled when it’s somewhat green, before it reaches maturity.
Harvesting was a duty of the peasant women. The hemp was tied into sheaves. They were left to dry on the field, in the yards or leaning against the fences. Then the dried leaves were shaken off.
Processing Bast Fibers
Processing hemp involves separating the fiber (the bast), which is the outer portion of the stem, from the wooden core (hurd).
Retting is the process of allowing microbes to dissolve or rot away the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding the bast-fiber bundles. It facilitates separation of the fiber from the stem.
The stalks were immersed in the creek for a week. They used to hit the sheaves against the water to wash off the impurities.
Water retting was a labor intensive process, which required constant monitoring. During storms, they were running to the creek to save their hemp before being taken by flood waters.
Each family had their share of hemp marked with a sign, a piece of fabric tied to a stick. To recognize it, the fabric was usually ripped off from a blouse crafted by the peasant woman. So convenient for other peasant women to sneak and copy the motifs, then design their blouses with the “borrowed” motifs, adding their own style. When they wanted to embarrass a rival, they were sewing the motifs on a work blouse.
After a week, the hemp was taken home and dried in the sun.
The wooden core is removed from the fiber with a hemp break, operating with a swingle made out of a single log (or with double blade) for scraping and beating fibers.
To divide and remove the remains, they must be drawn through a heckle (watch video).
Next, the fiber is spun into yarn and wound into circle, to keep it from tangling.
Processing Hemp Fiber Whitening and Cleaning
They put the fibers inside an open top barrel, made from a single piece of wood, with ash spread between them.
Wooden sticks are slid through the holes punched in the barrel, at 6″-8″ distance from the bottom. The yarn is placed on these sticks and not on the bottom of the barrel.
A loosely woven fabric is placed on top of the barrel, allowing water to pass through it. Then, they pour 15 lbs of dry ashes over the fabric and spill hot water.
The lye water drains through a hole in the bottom of the barrel. It is a natural and safe way to clean and whiten the fibers. The process must be done 5/6 times a day, for a week.
After a week, they were washing the threads in the creek, then left them dry in the direct sunlight. After weaving the fabric, they were drying it in the sun repeatedly, until it was getting white.
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