Tag: History


Flax Project: ‘Fiber is not for the weak’

A sizeable campus and community audience learned more Tuesday (Nov. 3) about a hands-on history and art project that is teaching UW-Green Bay students the facts about an industrial-strength plant that shaped life in the ancient and medieval world.

“The Flax Project” was the topic of UW-Green Bay Profs. Heidi Sherman and Alison Gates in a slide-illustrated presentation offered as part of the After Thoughts series at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

Historian Sherman and textile artist Gates talked about their efforts since 2011 to perfect the ancient art and practice of turning flax into linen by growing a fiber crop and processing the harvest on a college campus. Although they have planted successful crops each year with teams of new students from History, Art and several other majors, it has never been easy. Especially the processing.

“In the Middle Ages, it was called ‘the agony of the flax,’” Sherman told the audience.
“Fiber is not for the weak,” Gates said. She drew a laugh when she described “scutching,” one of the steps in the process, “as basically just whacking the hell out of the fiber.”

The interdisciplinary work by Sherman and Gates grew out of earlier research at UW-Green Bay suggesting linen made from flax was a history-changing development for societies including the ancient Greeks, who used it to construct lightweight, virtually impenetrable battle armor.

Sherman described her work as “experiential archeology.” She has led student travel trips to Russia where they worked with 1,000-year-old tools and learned that the arduous task of creating linen was something that frequently demanded the communal cooperation of entire villages.

Lessons learned there only amplify the experiences students encounter in harvesting and processing the plants from UW-Green Bay’s small, central-campus plots. Students learn about “rippling” seed bolls from the fiber tips, which must be done before the flax is laid in water to rett (to soak and separate the fiber from the stem) followed by breaking the stem into short segments, scutching to extracting the fibers and “heckling” (combing) the flax before it is spun and woven for use.

Sherman says her history students — relatively few of whom will be professional, Ph.D. historians but many of whom will go on to teach K-12 history or serve as historical interpreters — will occasionally offer up a good-natured grumble if crop-pulling day is hot, or when the harvested flax fibers soaking in children’s wading pools emit powerfully pungent odors. Mostly, though, the students are big fans.

“They love this,” Sherman said. “It’s a way to learn history by getting your hands dirty.”
Gates said that, over the course of the “Flax Project,” she has been learning right alongside her Introduction to Textile students. A trained artist, she said had never much paid attention to the history of textile art created before the first decade or so of the 1900s. The quality of Sherman’s medieval scholarship on flax and linen and the people who worked those materials drew her into the topic, Gates said.

The idea of “growing our own arts supplies here on campus,” was another plus, Gates said. (It became even more appealing when the UWGB Medieval Dye Garden succeeded in growing plants historically used for their ability to yield naturally occurring red, blue and yellow dye for the linen.)

The biggest breakthrough for fiber and textile artists on campus, however, came with the acquisition of a 21st century Hollander beater. Based on a 17th century design, it’s basically an industrial blender that’s “a two-gallon version of what’s in every local paper mill,” Gates said.
As a final result, art students are honing their artisanal skills in creating high-grade linen paper and fine art from material grown at the heart of campus.

(The vivid green flax stands and their pretty blue flowers add visual interest to the decorative planters on the rooftop plaza atop the Student Services Building.)

While linen paper is being created now, production of linen fabric from the Flax Project isn’t likely any time soon, the presenters indicated in response to audience questions. The reasons involve limitations of time, resources and machinery. It was noted that the Vikings are said to have needed seven years to hand-make a single sail of linen, with eight or more “spinners” needed to feed one loom.

UW-Green Bay Dean of Professional Studies Sue Mattison introduced the presentation by noting that Sherman and Gates have presented at national and international conferences. Eva Andersson Strand, one of the world’s leading specialists on Viking-age textile production, visited UW-Green Bay last fall for workshops with faculty and students. Additionally, Mattison noted that Sherman’s hands-on experience with the Flax Project has persuaded some scholars to reexamine long-held notions about the tools and processes used to make early linen fabric.

Photos by student intern Kayla Erma, Office of Marketing and University Communication

(Click thumbnails to enter slideshow view.)


Sherman, Gates present The Flax Project in ‘After Thoughts’ talk Nov. 3

The re-creation of the ancient processing technique of turning flax to linen will be a topic of UW-Green Bay’s next After Thoughts presentation of the 2015-16 season.

UW-Green Bay Associate Professor of Medieval History and Archeology, Heidi Sherman, and Associate Professor of Fiber Arts, Alison Gates, will present “The Flax Project” Tuesday, Nov. 3, in the Grand Foyer of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts on campus at 2420 Nicolet Drive.

Historian Sherman and textile artist Gates will share their experiences working across academic disciplines and across the ages as they perfect the art and practice of growing a fiber crop and processing the harvest on a college campus. Sherman and Gates, along with an outstanding undergraduate researcher, grew and processed their first successful crop in 2011. Since then, they have planted successful crops each year with a team of new students from History, Art and several other majors. The project grew out of earlier research at UW-Green Bay suggesting linen made from flax was a history-changing development for societies including the ancient Greeks, who used it to construct lightweight, virtually impenetrable battle armor. The Flax Project is funded through grants from the UWGB Research Council, the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Office of the Provost.

Now in its fifth full season, After Thoughts seeks to connect members of the community with UW-Green Bay. The gatherings showcase talented women among University faculty, staff and alumni, and convene men and women after their workday for learning, enrichment and fun.

After Thoughts begins with a 5 p.m. reception, followed by the presentation by Sherman and Gates beginning at 5:45 p.m. Each After Thoughts event is located in the Grand Foyer of the Weidner Center at UW-Green Bay and is from 5 to 7 p.m. The event begins with time to socialize, network, and enjoy hors d’oeuvres before the featured presentation.

Seating for After Thoughts is limited, so advanced registration is recommended. The cost of each program is $15. To reserve your spot, send a check (payable to UW-Green Bay Foundation) to: UW-Green Bay Foundation, CL 805, 2420 Nicolet Drive, Green Bay, WI 54311; or register online at https://secure.qgiv.com/for/afterthoughts. Walk-up registration also is an option. For any questions or comments regarding After Thoughts, please contact Mary Rass at rassm@uwgb.edu or (920) 465-2553. You can also find After Thoughts on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/afterthoughts.uwgb. Visit www.uwgb.edu/afterthoughts/ for more information about the series.


Faculty note: Kain publication

Kevin Kain, senior lecturer in Humanistic Studies (History), has published “Abbots and Artifacts: The Creation of National Identity at Resurrection ‘New Jerusalem’ Monastery in Nineteenth-Century Russia” and it has appeared in Ines Angeli-Muzaka ed., Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (New York: Routledge, 2015). The book is the latest in the Routledge series Religion, Society and Government in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet States.

Ganyard, Film Society host screening of Polish/Jewish story, Ida

At 7 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 21) at the Neville Public Museum, historian and Associate Provost Clif Ganyard will introduce the screening of the Academy Award-winning Polish film Ida as part of the Green Bay Film Society international series. Ida tells the story of a young woman who is about to take her vows as a nun when she learns from her mother superior that she is in fact of Jewish descent. She embarks on a personal journey to discover her story and her family’s past dating to the Nazi era. Co-sponsored by the Polish Heritage Society of Green Bay, the evening’s program is free and open to the public.

Great Books series resumes with Kain on Dostoevsky

The Great Books discussion series organized by the Humanistic Studies academic unit continues Tuesday (Oct. 13) when European and Russian history specialist Kevin Kain of the faculty will lead discussion of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. The free public event begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Board Room of the main downtown branch of the Brown County Public Library on Pine Street.

Kaye reviews ‘American history for the Twitter age’

UW-Green Bay Prof. Harvey J. Kaye, Democracy and Justice Studies, offers a review of James West Davidson’s new book, A Little History of the United States, at The Daily Beast website. Kaye says the book struck a chord, in that he has “often thought of offering a course to history and social science students that would require them to tell the story of the United States in a limited number of words (say, a 5,000-word essay).”

Faculty note: Voelker channels Paine in Pittsburgh lecture

Historian David Voelker, associate professor of Humanistic Studies, recently delivered an invited lecture titled “‘To Begin the World Over Again': Thomas Paine and the American Founding” for Grove City College’s American Founders Luncheon Series Lectures in downtown Pittsburgh. The talk focused on what Voelker calls Paine’s “civil religion of reason.” He also reflected on how Paine might respond to our 21st-century challenges, noting: “I think that if Paine were to visit us today, he would ask us questions about where power has accumulated in our society and how that has affected the prospects of equal opportunities for all. Paine believed that the earth was an inheritance equally of all people, present and future, so I imagine that he would also ask difficult questions about how we are stewarding this marvelous gift.” Voelker also gave a “shout out” to colleague Harvey Kaye, whose 2005 book, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, informs his thinking about Paine’s legacy.

Faculty note: 
Heidi Sherman

Heidi Sherman of Humanistic Studies has published “The Tooth Blades of Medieval Novgorod,” in K. Grömer and F. Pritchard (eds.) 2015: Aspects of the Design, Production and Use of Textiles and Clothing from the Bronze Age to the Early Modern Era. She presented her research The North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles in May 2014 in Hallstatt, Austria, and the Archaeolingua Main Series 33. Budapest 2015.

Faculty note: Aldrete publication

History Prof. Gregory S. Aldrete of Humanistic Studies had an article published in the August issue of the Spanish journal Desperta Ferro: Arqueología & Historia. It is a special issue on the lower classes of ancient Rome, with articles from scholars in France, Spain, England, and the United States. Aldrete’s article is titled “La voz del pueblo. Clases bajas y violencia políticamente motivada,” which translates as, “The Voice of the People: The Lower Classes and Politically Motivated Violence.”