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Jean Henri Fabre


"H 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 remove altogether.

"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?" asked Marie.

"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 tears come."

"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 of chlorine."

"And what does it come from, this gas that strangles people if they breathe ever so little of it?" asked Claire.

"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 rejoined.

"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 than before? These almost indestructible substances are hemp, flax, and cotton; and they have no rivals."