Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Tale of a Hardworking French Hemp Sheet!

A found a rather lovely 19th Century French sheet at the Textile Society Fair last week.  I obviously love my old fabrics but about 200 years is a very good vintage.  I made the duvet cover on my bed from some sheets that celebrate their two hundredth birthday this year, they are marked on the corner as part of a household inventory and I only wish I knew with what, the writing had been laundered for two hundred years and is still perfect in a very florid hand.  

19th Century sheets have a perfectly executed seam up the middle because they would have been produced on a narrow loom.  The above photo shows my deconstruction of the original sheet.  These are French and are hemp, which was easier and a cheaper to produce and spin than flax/linen.  In my head I thought hemp was far rougher but after doing a bit of research it seems that hemp just needs wearing in, it would have been normal for a servant to wear-in his masters shirt.  After a couple of hundred years hard labour this fabric is just divine.

It is difficult to tell the two fibres apart but in their natural state their colour is different and they naturally would twist in opposite directions, flax clockwise and hemp anti-clockwise.  As a spinner I could work this one out.  I know a couple of people who can spin flax,  it's a completely different wheel and you wouldn't do it for fun, we've never discussed hemp but I'll definitely be picking their brains at our next Stafford Knot Spinners meeting.

This wouldn't have been dyed originally, a lot of the textiles coming from France seem to be blue and I'm not sure if it's an actual French thing or just a thing for export.  I saw a lot of work smocks in their natural colour, I have a gorgeous one made of a sheet with a tiny gingham collar which I'm sure would have been a thrifty make by a farmers wife - my husband won't be seen with me wearing this!  There were an awful lot of navy/denim blue workers jackets at the fair, old and new, but I don't imagine that a poor peasant farmer would have paid £145 for a new overall.

I bought the fabric because it had a lot of 'age' and I wanted to make it up into a couple of garments for myself because it was so soft and just such a good textile.  As I was contemplating I thought it would look better if it was completely hand sewn, machining would look harsh against  this worn-in fabric, but then what thread to use?  I don't have a stash of two hundred year old thread but as I was unpicking the centre seam a lightbulb went off in my head, I do in fact have plenty of two hundred year old thread I just need to harvest it.  There may well be/should be a difference between the warp and weft but I can't find it.  I pulled out the individual thread and waxed it and gave it more twist and hey-presto, like magic it worked, although very labour intensive.  Normally I would use Thread Heaven which is silicone but I went for the beeswax this time as it would have been available two hundred years ago.  I did know someone at the Embroiderers Guild years ago who swore by ear wax, it was actually a thing and a lady would have had a tool in her sewing box for the scooping out, but I'm not going to be that authentic.

The first garment that I've cut out is a cross back apron, I though it would be perfect.  I kept the selvedge as the bottom and as with my workers smock I used the original hand stitched hem at one edge and hand stitched my own hem for the other.  The above photo shows mine on the left and the original on the right,  I could have got mine as narrow as the original but I like to see the difference and I'm all for a good bit of visible mending.  Tom of Holland does excellent work championing visible mending.

What to do with the very important pockets?  I wanted again to utilise the selvedge and also the thinner parts of fabric so that I could do some form of darning.  I went with a long rectangle of fabric folded over with the selvedge outermost at the top and folded in the rest of the fabric, pinned, basted, stitched up the edges and then the fun part, the mending stitches.

More to follow...

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