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