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FLAX AND HEMP
HILE listening to what Jacques was saying about wool, Emile
examined his handkerchief attentively. He turned it over and
over, felt it, then looked through it. Jacques foresaw the
question Emile was getting ready to ask him, and he said:
"Handkerchiefs and linens are not woolen. Certain plants,
cotton, hemp, flax, and not sheep, furnish them; for, you
see, I don't know much about those things myself. I have
heard tell of the cotton plant, but have never seen it. And,
besides, I am afraid talking to you will make me cut the
In the evening, at Jules's request, they took up the history
of the materials with which we clothe ourselves, and Uncle
Paul explained their nature.
"The outside of hemp and flax is composed of long threads,
very fine, supple, and tenacious, from which we manufacture
our fabrics. We clothe ourselves with the spoils of the
sheep, we make ourselves fine with the bark of the plant.
The fabrics of luxury, cambric, tulle, gauze, point-lace,
Mechlin lace, are made from flax; the stronger ones, even to
coarse sacking, are of hemp. The cotton plant gives us the
fabrics made of cotton.
 "Flax is a slender plant with little delicate blue flowers,
and is sown and harvested every year. It is much cultivated
in Northern France, Belgium, and Holland. It is the first
plant used by man for woven fabrics. Mummies of Egypt, the
old land of Moses and the patriarchs, mummies which have
lain buried four thousand years and more, are swathed in
bands of linen."
"Mummies, did you say?" interposed Jules. "I don't know what
"I will tell you, my dear child. Respect for the dead is
found among all people and in all ages. Man regards as
sacred what was the seat of a soul made in the image of God;
he honors the dead, but the honors rendered differ according
to time, place, customs. We inter the dead and put over the
burial place a tombstone with an inscription, or at least a
humble cross, divine emblem of life eternal. The ancients
burned them on a funeral pile; they piously gathered the
bones bleached by the fire and inclosed them in priceless
vases. In Egypt, to preserve the cherished remains for the
family, they embalmed the dead; that is to say, they
impregnated them with aromatics and swathed them in linen to
prevent decomposition. These pious duties were so delicately
performed that, after centuries and centuries, we find
intact in their chests of sweet-smelling wood, but dried and
blackened by years, contemporaries of the ancient kings of
Egypt or the Pharaohs. These are what are called mummies.
 "Hemp has been cultivated all over Europe for many
centuries. It is an annual, of a strong, nauseous odor, with
little, green, dull-looking flowers, whose stem, of the
thickness of a quill pen, rises to about two meters. It is
cultivated, like flax, both for its bark and for its grain,
"That is the grain, I think," said Emile, "we give the
goldfinch, which it cracks with its beak when it breaks the
shell to get out the little kernel."
"Yes, hemp-seed is the feast of little birds.
"The bark of the hemp has not the fineness of flax. The
fibers of this latter plant are so fine that twenty-five
grams of tow spun on the spinning wheel furnishes a thread
almost a league long. The spider's web alone can rival in
delicacy certain linen fabrics.
"When hemp and flax reach maturity, they are harvested, and
the seeds are separated by thrashing. The next operation,
retting, then takes place, its purpose being to render the
filaments of the bark, or the fibers, as they are called,
easily separable from the wood. These fibers, in fact, are
pasted to the stem and stuck together by a gummy substance
that is very resistant and prevents separation until it is
destroyed by rot. They sometimes do this retting by
spreading the plants in the fields for a couple of weeks
and turning them over now and then, until the tow detaches
itself from the woody part or hemp-stalk.
But the quickest way is to tie the flax and hemp in bundles
and keep them submerged in a pond. There soon follows a rot
which gives out intolerable smells;
 the bark decays, and the
fiber, endowed with exceptional resistance, is freed.
"Then the bundles are dried; after that they crush them
between the jaws of an instrument called a brake, to crush
the stems into small pieces and separate the tow. Finally,
to purge the tow of all woody refuse and to divide it into
the finest threads, they pass it between the iron teeth of a
sort of big comb called a heckle. In this state, the fiber
is spun either by hand or by machine. The thread obtained is
ready for weaving.
"On a loom they place in order, side by side, numerous
threads composing what they call the warp. By turns,
impelled by a pedal on which the operator's foot presses,
one half of these threads descends while the other half
ascends. At the same time the operator passes a transverse
thread in a shuttle through the two halves of the warp, from
left to right, then from right to left. From this
inter-crossing comes the woven fabric. And it is finished;
the garb of the plant has changed masters; the bark of the
hemp has become cloth, that of flax a princely lace worth
some hundreds of francs by the piece."