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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre

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FLAX AND HEMP

[31]

"T
HE inner coating of the stalk of flax and hemp, as I have already told you, is composed of long filaments, very fine, flexible, and strong, which are used like cotton in the manufacture of various fabrics. Flax gives us such fine fabrics as cambric, tulle, gauze, and laces of various kinds; hemp furnishes us stronger stuffs, up to the coarse canvas used for making sacks. Flax, as you have already learned, is a slender plant with small flowers of a delicate blue. It is sown and reaped annually, and is raised especially in northern France, in Belgium, and in Holland. The first of plants to be used by man for making fabrics, it was turned to account by the people of Egypt, the land of Moses and the Pharaohs, for the furnishing of linen bands with which to wrap the mummies that have been reposing in their sepulchres for thousands of years. So carefully, indeed, were they embalmed and then wrapped in linen and enclosed in chests of aromatic wood that to-day, after the lapse of centuries upon centuries, the contemporaries of the ancient kings of Egypt, of the Pharaohs in other words, are found intact, though dried up and blackened by time."

"But in spite of all these precautions," objected [32] Claire, "surely the mummies must have gone to decay if they were buried in the ground!"

"For that reason," replied her uncle, "they were not buried; they were laid away in orderly rows in spacious halls hollowed out of the solid rock of mountains. These mortuary halls, to which dampness never penetrated and the air had but little access, have kept for us intact, swathed in their linen bands, the bodies of the ancient Egyptians."


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MUMMY-CASE OF KHA-HOR

Uncle Paul next took up the subject of hemp, relating the history of its cultivation in Europe from early times and describing its appearance, with its small green flowers and its slender stalk about two meters in height. He explained that, like flax, it is [33] grown both for its fibrous stem and for its seed, known as hempseed, which is used as a favorite food for certain singing-birds. From the seed are obtained hempseed oil and hempseed cake, the latter being sometimes fed to cattle.


[Illustration]

FLAX

"And what is flaxseed good for?" asked Emile.

"From the seeds of flax," answered his uncle, "is obtained by pressure an oil called linseed oil, which can be used for lighting, but is chiefly employed in painting. For culinary purposes it is almost worthless, being of no use at all unless very fresh, and even then of but moderate value. Its principal use, as I said, is in painting, because of its quality of slowly drying and thus forming a sort of varnish which holds fast the pigment with which it is mixed. The coat of paint that overlies, for example, the woodwork of doors and windows is made of linseed oil in which has been stirred a mineral powder, white, green, or any other color chosen by the painter. When flaxseed is ground it yields a powder much used for poultices, being of an unctuous nature soothing to pains.

"When hemp and flax are ripe they are harvested and the seeds are detached either by threshing or by passing the seed-bearing ends of the stalks through a strong iron-toothed comb. The comb is set up across the middle of a bench on which the two workmen seat themselves astride, one at each end, facing the comb. Then, by turns, they draw each his handful [34] of flax or hemp through the comb, thus separating the seeds from the stalks.

"Next comes the operation known as retting, whereby the fibers of the bark are rendered separable from the rest of the stem and from one another. The gummy substance holding them together has to be disintegrated either by prolonged exposure in the field, where the flax or hemp is turned over from time to time, or, more expeditiously, by soaking the stalks in water, after first tying them into bundles. The resulting putrefaction liberates the fibers. Drying, breaking, and hackling them complete the separation of the fibers from the useless substance of the stem and their reduction to a condition in which they are ready for use.


[Illustration]

HEMP

"I will add that the fibrous part of hemp, as you may know already, is far coarser that that of flax. The filaments of the latter are so fine that one gramme of tow, spun on the wheel, makes a thread nearly one hundred and fifty meters long. Nevertheless, this product of man's skill, this linen thread that seems to reach the limit of fineness, is very coarse indeed when compared with what is furnished by the caterpillar and the spider. The highest degree of delicacy attainable by our fingers with the [35] aid of the most ingenious machinery is but an enormous cable in contrast with the thread manufactured by a despised little worm. A single gramme of the silkworm's thread, as we find it in the cocoon, represents a length of two thousand meters, whereas the finest of linen thread of the same weight represents only one hundred and fifty.

"But even the slender filament spun from the silkworm's spinneret in incomparably coarser than the spider's thread, the achievement of that master artisan the very sight of whom evokes from you senseless outcries of alarm. To weave the airy textures intended to catch their prey, such as flies and gnats and similar small game, as also to line the dainty little sachets that hold their eggs, spiders on their part produce a sort of silk. The silk matter is contained in liquid form in the spider's body and is forced out as required through four or five little nipples called spinnerets, situated at the end of the insect's stomach, each of these nipples being perforated with many tiny holes, the total number of which for a single spider is reckoned at about a thousand. Hence the spider's thread as it leaves the insect's body is not a single strand, but a cord of a thousand strands, although we commonly consider it of almost infinitesimal minuteness. Our finest sewing silk is a stout cable in comparison, and a human hair has the thickness of ten twisted spider's threads or, in other words, of ten thousand combined elementary filaments of spider-silk. How inconceivably fine then must be a thread that needs to be multiplied ten thousand times in order to equal a human hair in [36] size! The larger spiders that live in woods weave webs of remarkable amplitude, requiring each at least ten meters of thread, or ten thousand meters of the elementary filament emitted by a single aperture of the spinneret. But to make the entire web the spider uses up only a tiny drop of liquid silk, of which it would take hundreds of similar drops to weigh a gramme. What machine of human invention or what fingers could spin for us a thread of any such inconceivable fineness!"


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