|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
EMP is woven into coarse material for towels and sacks, and
even into finer material for sheets, chemises,
table-cloths, and napkins. From flax is obtained still
finer goods for the same purposes. Sometimes the same
material contains both hemp and flax. Thus the goods
known as cretonnes, manufactured at Lisieux and its
environs, have the warp of hemp and the woof of flax.
Sometimes, again, it is cotton that is mixed with hemp.
Ticking, for example, is a very close fabric used for
making coverings for bolsters and also men's summer
clothes. Generally it is all hemp, but certain grades
have a cotton woof. So it is that the three kinds of
vegetable fiber—hemp, flax and cotton—can
be used two together in the same material, which gives
goods of greater variety and better adapted to the
infinite uses for which they are destined.
"Goods of this sort generally bear the name of the
country that produces them: such are the goods called
Brittany, Laval, Valenciennes, Saint-Quentin, Voiron.
Others are named after their inventor, as Cretonne,
which derives its name from a manufacturer, Creton, who
centuries ago gained a great reputation for
linen-manufacture. One kind of linen, very fine and
close, used for handkerchiefs and
 various articles of attire, such as veils, collars, and
cuffs, is called batiste in honor of Baptiste Chambrai
who was the first to make this material, and who
introduced its use about five centuries ago.
"Material composed only of hemp and flax, either
separate or together, is commonly called linen. Certain
qualities distinguish these goods from cotton. To a
delicate skin they have a cool and soothing feeling,
whereas cotton, owing to its nap, which is slightly
rough, produces a kind of tickling that may be
positively disagreeable. Thus a cotton handkerchief
irritates nostrils that have been made sensitive by a
prolonged cold; but a linen handkerchief has not the
same objectionable quality. And again, for dressing
wounds it is customary to use linen or hemp bandages
and lint obtained from old rags of the same material,
since cotton, no matter how fine, and soft, would only
increase the irritation of the wound by its rough
contact with the quivering flesh. Finally, hemp and
linen as used for underwear keep the skin in a state of
coolness that is very agreeable in the heat of summer,
but which may under certain conditions prove very
disagreeable. Let perspiration be checked, let the
body, poorly protected by its cool covering of hemp or
linen, cool off quickly, and we are in serious danger.
Cotton, on the contrary, stimulates the skin slightly,
keeps it warm, and affords better protection when
perspiration is arrested. In this respect it is
preferable to linen and hemp. But I will come back to
this subject after some details that I wish to give you
in a subsequent talk on the conservation of heat.
 "As soon as hemp has been spun into thread by the long
and patient labor of the distaff, it is sent to the
weaver, who coats it with a preparation of glue to
facilitate the play of the shuttle, stretches it on his
loom in parallel lines, and weaves it as I have already
explained to you, each foot pressing in turn one of the
pedals that operate the warp, and the two hands
throwing, one to the other, the shuttle which stretches
the thread of the woof between the two sets of warp
threads. A good washing cleans the cloth, removing the
preparation I have referred to and all impurities
contracted during the weaving. But that is not enough
to produce the beautiful white cloth that the housewife
cuts into shirts and sheets. Hemp and flax are, in
fact, naturally of a light reddish tint, so firmly
fixed that only after repeated washings will it
entirely disappear; which explains why sheeting is
whiter as well as softer the longer it is used.
"As a first step in bleaching, the linen is spread on
the ground in a well-mown field, where for whole weeks
it remains exposed to the daylight and to the damp
night air. The prolonged action of air and sun, dryness
and dampness, at length fades the reddish color, which
subsequent washings will, little by little, finally
"This bleaching by exposure to sun and rain is very
slow. Moreover, when the operation has to be carried on
uninterruptedly and on a large scale it is very costly,
because it renders unproductive considerable stretches
of land. Consequently in hemp, linen, and especially
cotton factories recourse is had
 to means that are at once more energetic and more
expeditious. You remember how easily and economically
wool and silk are bleached by burning a few handfuls of
sulphur, thus generating a gas called sulphurous oxide.
It is only necessary to expose wet wool and silk for a
few hours to the action of this gas to give them the
dazzling whiteness of snow."
"Is that the way hemp, flax, and cotton are treated?"
"Not quite, although the method employed much
resembles that used for wool. Sulphurous oxide would
have no effect here, so difficult is it to destroy the
natural color of hemp, flax, and cotton. Something
stronger, something more drastic, must be used."
"But that sulphur smoke is pretty strong; it pricks
your nose like needles, and makes you cough till the
"Yet it is nothing in comparison with the drug used for
bleaching. This drug is also a gas—that is to
say, a substance as impalpable as air, but at the same
time a visible gas, for it has a light greenish color.
It is called chlorine. If you breath a whiff of it, you
are immediately seized with a violent cough such as you
would never get in winter, however cold it might be.
The throat contracts painfully, the chest is oppressed,
and you would die in frightful torture if you inhaled
this formidable gas three or four times in succession.
You can see, then, what precautions one must take in
factories not to expose oneself to the terrible effects
 "And what does it come from, this gas that strangles
people if they breathe ever so little of it?" asked
"It comes from common salt, the same salt with which we
season our food. But I must add that in salt it is not
found all by itself; it is mixed with another substance
which renders it harmless, even wholesome. Once freed
from this partnership it is murderous, a frightfully
destructive agent. I am sorry I cannot show you its
astonishing power in destroying colors; but nothing
prevents my telling you about it. Imagine a sheet of
paper not only covered with characters traced by the
pen but daubed all over with ink. Now plunge this into
chlorine gas, and writing and ink-blots all disappear
instantly, leaving the sheet of paper as white as if it
had never been used. Suppose, again, you put chlorine
into a bottle of ink. The black liquid fades quickly
and soon there is nothing left but clear water.
"After this you can understand that the material to be
bleached has to be subjected to the action of chlorine
for only a few moments in order to turn whiter than
through long exposure in the field."
"If the deep black of ink is destroyed so quickly,"
remarked Marie, "the pale reddish tinge of hemp or
linen is not likely to hold out very long."
"Wool and silk," Claire observed, "ought to be bleached
that way too: it would be much quicker."
"The manufacturers are very careful not to follow any
such method," was the reply. "This gas corrodes wool
and silk, soon reducing them to a mere pulp."
 "And yet cotton, flax, and hemp can stand it," Claire
"Yes, but their resistance to the action of drugs has
not its equal in the world, and this resistance gives
them a very peculiar value. Think in how many ways
cloth of this sort is used, and what severe treatment
it undergoes: repeated washing with corrosive ashes,
rubbing with harsh soap, heating, exposure to sun, air,
and rain. What then are these substances that withstand
the asperities of washing, soap, sun, and air, that
even remain intact when all around them goes to decay,
that brave the drugs used in manufacturing and emerge
from these manifold tests softer and whiter that
before? These almost indestructible substances are
hemp, flax, and cotton; and they have no rivals."
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