Damn and bast…

I’ve been going through my stash, finding small lengths of attractive yarn to make my knitted necklaces, because I can just about manage a necklace in a couple of evenings with my hands as they are.

I came across this,

and just before I put it back with a shudder – not because of the yarn, but because knitting it up was rather traumatic – I took a better look, and it started me thinking. It’s hemp. This left-over bit is still rather stiff, even though I washed it before knitting, but the colour is glorious and I like the natural sheen (bast – woody plant – fibres like this have smooth surfaces, unlike wool which is scaly, allowing it to felt). My problem was the pattern; it needed a lot of adapting, and getting the tension right was a pig. The yarn was lovely, though – once I’d got used to working with it.

I’d not worked with a 100% bast fibre before – with anything like flax, nettle or hemp except as part of a blend. Their history is amazing, and that always gets me going, which is probably partly why I succumbed (that and the colour, of course). Somehow I feel a connection between me, knitting away here in 2011, and the remote past.

Very remote, in the case of bast fibre.

Very, very remote.

These are small samples of flax (Linum usitatissimum) fibre – the longest is only about 200mm – and are among hundreds that were found at Dzudzuana Cave in the Caucasus.  Their discovery was something of an accident – the archaeologists were looking for pollen samples – and they come from deposits going back 32,000 years. But they’re not just naturally occurring flax; they have been artificially modified: cut, twisted and spun. Some even showed traces of colour, and one was knotted.

Despite the evidence, it can be difficult to appreciate just how long people have been using bast fibre. It’s just a very long time ago… But when the earliest Dzudzuana fibres were made, mammoth were being hunted and their bones used to make hide-covered shelters; Europe still had a population of Neanderthals, some coming into contact with modern humans for the first time (modern humans were responsible for the fibres), and the painted caves of Lascaux were, oh, about 15-10,000 years into the future… that is a long, long time. But we’ve still got using bast fibre in common.

So what were those early flax fibres used for? Could have been in some form of basketry or as cords, or they could have been used in clothing – bone needles have been found of comparable date. There is also evidence of corded or string clothing from the Paleolithic, the period of these fibres. Some of this evidence is more recent – still 25,000 years old, mind – than the earliest of the samples, but there’s a huge chronological range at Dzudzuana and there are many fibre samples which are contemporary with this:

She’s the Venus of Lespuge, and she’s wearing a string skirt, something which I talked about here in the early days of this blog. My betting is that it would have been made of a bast fibre; after all, sheep’s wool only became usable to any marked degree with domestication and that happened much, much later.

But preparing plant fibres isn’t just a matter of using something that’s lying about. It requires work and planning, whatever the nature of the original plant; after all, they’re woody – and some ancient ones are very woody, like the willow and linden which were used in the Mesolithic for netting. They need to be made more flexible, the unusable material needs to be separated and removed, and you ultimately need a good length of fibre, too. Take preparing flax in say, the Swiss Neolithic. You’re a woman (well, you most likely are), and you need to:

1. Pull up your plants when they’re just the right age. Young plants give finer, paler fibre – that’s where the expression ‘flaxen-haired’ comes from – and pulling them up preserves the length of the fibre.

2. Dry or cure it to just the right point.

3. Ret it. Put it out in order to rot away most of the plant material which binds the usable fibres to the stem – just until it’s reached the right stage again; you don’t want to over- or under-ret it or it’s no use. Retting can be done in the fields using the dew, on rooftops, in rivers, or in ponds or lakes.

4. Now you’ve got to dry and process the fibre. Basically, it has to be ‘scutched’ – beaten free of the stuff you don’t want – and ‘heckled’. Heckling separates the short or broken fibres from the longer, useful ones (the poet Robert Burns worked briefly as a flax heckler, by the way). Then you lose a heckling tool and an archaeologist comes along and finds it about 4000 years later.

Now you’ve got something you can actually use. And the method for producing other bast fibres is roughly similar, plus nothing much changed for thousands and thousands of years. Phew.

When it comes to hemp, which I’ve been using, the process is much the same, and there’s also ancient evidence.

But of course hemp has other, ahem, properties, and it’s been suggested that the seeds found on archaeological sites come from plants grown for their medicinal purpose. Quite probably – certainly there’s plenty of evidence for the use of hemp as a drug. But I can’t believe that was the only purpose; ancient societies were anything but wasteful, and if a plant had multiple uses it was usually used in multiple ways.

The hemp grown for fibre nowadays won’t give you much of a high, mind; the levels of chemicals aren’t the same. Having said that, I was sorely tempted to try smoking the yarn instead of knitting it when I was battling with my hemp cardigan. It would undoubtedly have been much more fun, even given the ineffective narcotic properties of hemp fibre, but then I wouldn’t have ended up with this baby:

Modelled on Doris (or possibly Madam), my new companion. And from the front:

I really must get some proper pins instead of using the centre proddy bit from a hair thingy. And I need to – er – pad out my dress form at the front, but I do like the finished garment. I like its slightly Edwardian air when I pull it in at the waist (admittedly much reduced when worn with jeans), its softness and the silky drape of the yarn now it’s been washed several times.

Worth it? Oh yes, I think so. Especially since I didn’t have to do any heckling, scutching and, above all, retting. The garden already smells attractively of fleece some of the time; imagine adding rotting plant fibre. Lovely.

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12 thoughts on “Damn and bast…

  1. Annie

    This is from memory (I’m going back ahem cough years here) but when I was an art undergrad I wrote a paper on the use of binding, both ritual and practical, and I’m sure twisted hemp fibres featured in an ancient Chinese context. Sadly the box it was in got lost in a move so I can’t look it up.

    Sorry to hear that your hands are still a problem x

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      That’s interesting — the V&A have a coarse hemp robe from China, which is probably mourning dress (they’ve also got a doll dressed in a similar robe that is definitely known to represent a mourner). I know there’s a lot of early Central Asian evidence, and something from Tibet too, so wouldn’t be at all surprised.

      Sounds like a fascinating paper, shame it went astray…

      Reply
  2. Claire Ward (Claireinstitches)

    Beautiful cardigan! Is it a personal pattern or one I could get hold of?

    When you say “proper pins” I presume you mean practical ones but if you did want decorative you should take a look at Perl Grey stickpins (and other pewter bits and bobs) as they are really lovely

    http://www.perlgrey.com/stickbrooches_ts1.html

    C

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Thanks, glad you like it – the pattern was one of the House of Hemp designs, but I picked it and the yarn up at Wonderwool Wales a couple of years ago, so I don’t know if they’re still doing it. It was called Zara, and I can’t find it on Ravelry, which doesn’t look promising.. Thanks also for the stickpins link – lovely indeed!

      (I had to hammer the pattern into shape, though, lengthening it considerably and adjusting it so that the tension worked; it’s one size. My copy is covered in scribble and highlighter. Hm.)

      Reply
  3. Knitsister

    I have worked with bast and do love it when you need to have a little stiffness for shaping in items like hats, jewellery etc.
    I simply adore your cardigan, very regal, yet feminine with that distinct Edwardian touch…and the colour, yummy!
    Show us some photos of your necklace when you have finished.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’m after more bast fibres now I’ve got used to them – I just love the feel. When they’re washed and softened, that is – unless you want the stiffness. Imagine they’d be good for bags – ah ha, back to a Neolithic usage!

      (Cardigan not so regal when on me, alas – I don’t do smart, but it is quite Goth, and I do do that… )

      Reply
  4. Harriet

    Aha! Another Doris! My mannequin was christened that name when she first arrived. Love the cardigan but must have been a so and so to make.
    Fascinating post about bast – wonder what the modern day equivilant to a flax heckler is?

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Hee hee, maybe most dress forms are really called Doris and transmit the information subconsciously – in fact, maybe they’re all part of one great multi-dimensional alien intelligence, lulling us into a false sense of security.
      Ahem.
      Sorry, too many SF movies….
      I’m getting quite bast-obsessed now; we’ve been discussing the possibilities of working with nettles and how long we might need to leave them to ret. Well, would make a change to use something that annoys me when I’m gardening – now all I need is a comparable use for slugs.

      Reply
  5. spidersworkshop

    I just found your blog and have been browsing, what a beautiful sweater. It is interesting to hear about the preparation of different fibres, especially ones prepared such a long time ago. That is one of the things I love about spinning; that feeling of being connected to the past, and something so much older and bigger than me.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Thank you – glad you found me!

      That cardi is gorgeous, and I have just about forgiven it for being – well – not the most straightforward knit in the world. You’re so right about spinning – it ties us right back, doesn’t it?

      Reply

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