Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Haithabu Towel and the joys of cold mangling

Over the summer I was asked to weave a towel for a peerage elevation for a woman I have a tremendous amount of respect for. She has an iron age Danish persona (i.e. Viking, but I sort of hate that term as most people in the SCA use it) and has taught several classes on the garments of the Haithabu (Hedeby) finds, so I did the towel using a 2/2 twill check based on a wool fragment from the dig.  There were in fact linen checked fragments from the same find, however the rep weave (plain tabby) seemed very dull so I went with the wool example.

The towel was woven with 20/2 linen for both warp and weft, with the contrasting colors done in 8/2 Cottolin.  From the pictures I have been able to find of the original fragment, it seems that the chevrons in the twill are somewhat irregular, so I replicated by changing my threading direction at random.

Where I really stretched myself with this project was in the finishing.  The towels/napkins were cut off the loom and hemmed as usual, but I got out my lovely glass smoothing stone and decided to see how it worked on handwoven fabric.

Smoothing stones, often made of glass like mine, have been found all over iron age Europe.  The smoother would have been used in conjunction with a wooden smoothing board and operates in much the same way as a modern cold mangle*.  It's just much, much, much slower.  The smoother is rubbed firmly over the cloth, compressing the linen fibers and polishing them.  This takes a fair bit of time and upper body strength.  If nothing else, mangling fabric this way will give you nice upper arms.

The difference in the hand and texture of the cloth was truly amazing!  It's not that easy to see in the pictures, but the mangled fabric is smooth, lustrous, and almost liquid in it's drape while the unmangled cloth is rough and rather sad by comparison.  No amount of steam ironing will produce the same smooth, slick appearance.

*Cold mangles operate by rolling fabric between heavy,smooth rollers, usually stone.  You can still find these in homes in parts of northern Europe, but the practice seems to have totally died out in the United States.  Linen sheets and table cloths (by which I mean all textiles used on the table, not just the largest one) were finished this way after laundering to give them that characteristic cool, smooth linen feel.  I have also found reference to mangle boards and rollers, which accomplish the same thing only with more upper body strength and less equipment.  The cloth is rolled onto a hard wood dowel, much like a giant rolling pin, and then pressed and rolled back and forth with a smooth wooden board.  So far I have not been able to show that mangle boards were in use during the SCA period, though they certainly were by the end of the 17th century.  It stands to reason these, like three-legged stools and spindle sticks, might not survive in the archaeological record due to their highly utilitarian function.  Linen presses, which again accomplish the same thing only by means of plates and a large screw mechanism, date back to Roman times.

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