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.