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Jean Henri Fabre

Woolen Cloth

"I HAVE just given you a general description of the art of weaving. Now I propose to add some details relating to the more important products of the loom. And first let us take up woolen cloth.

"Woolen cloth is woven of woolen yarn. As it comes from the spinning wheel or spinning-jenny this yarn has certain surface irregularities, little bristling fibers standing up and crinkling with the natural curliness characteristic of wool. In this state the yarn would check the easy gliding of the shuttle, which must shoot back and forth with great rapidity; and thus the work would be rendered laborious and the woven fabric wanting in evenness of texture. The surface must be made as smooth and uniform as possible, the fluff flattened and held down the whole length of the thread. This is done by means of a preparation or facing with which the threads of both the woof and the warp are coated. In this preparation are glue, which holds down the fluff, and oil, which makes the surface slippery.

"Thus it is that, as it comes from the loom, cloth is badly soiled, carrying as it does a coating of glue and ill-smelling oil. Before these impurities become seats of decay the cloth must be cleaned, and it must be done as soon as possible. The operation is carried out in a fulling-mill, which consists of a series of heavy wooden clubs or beaters set in motion by means of a wheel turning in a stream. The beaters alternately rise and then fall with all their weight to the bottom of a trough continually sprinkled by a jet of clear water. The cloth is placed in the trough where, the clubs beat it one after another for whole days. But this energetic beating is not enough; the glue would disappear, but not the oil, which is more tenacious and on which water has no effect. Accordingly, recourse is had to a sort of rich earth, fine and white, which has the property of absorbing oil. It is called fullers' earth."

"That rich earth could be used then for taking out grease spots?" queried Marie.

"It is used for that purpose. All you have to do is to cover the grease spot for a while with a layer of fullers' earth made into paste, and the grease will disappear, being absorbed by the clay. In many countries it is used instead of soap for washing clothes."

"What a funny kind of earth!" Claire exclaimed. "I should like to wash with it. What is it like?"

"It is a white clay, greasy to the touch, taking a polish when smoothed with the finger-nail, and mixing readily with water, to which it gives a soapy look. In France the best-known fullers' earth is found in the departments of Indre, Isère, and Aveyron.

"Beaten with this earth for a number of hours by the heavy clubs of the fulling-mill, the cloth loses the oil with which it is impregnated. Soap-suds and finally pure water finish the cleaning.

"But the part performed by the fulling-mill is not limited to cleaning the cloth; it also shrinks the goods to half the original width and nearly half the length. In this connection I will call your attention to a precaution familiar to every good housewife. Before cutting out a garment she is careful to wet the cloth so as to shrink it as much as possible. If this precaution were not taken, the garment would shrink so in the first washing that you couldn't get into it."

"That is what happened to Emile's linen trousers," said Jules. "They came out of the wash so short they hardly reached to his knees."

"A rope shrinks, too, when it is wet," remarked Marie. "Once, after a rain, the clothes-line in our back yard shrank so that it pulled out the hooks it was fastened to."

"That reminds me of a little anecdote," said Uncle Paul. "When shortened by being wet, a rope exerts so strong a pull that not only can it extract hooks, but it can even lift immense weights. It is said that Pope Sixtus the Fifth, when he was about to erect in one of the public squares of Rome an obelisk brought from Egypt at great expense, ordered under pain of death the most profound silence during the operation, so anxious were the operating engineers on account of the enormous weight to be moved. I will tell you, before going further, that obelisks are tall, slender, four-sided columns engraved with a multitude of figures and crowned by a small pyramid. They are in one piece, of a very hard and fine-grained stone called granite. Their height, not counting the pedestal that supports them, may reach fifty meters, and their weight may range between ten thousand and fifteen thousand hundredweight. Judge, then, whether the erection of this ponderous mass upon its pedestal did not present difficulties.

"To operate in perfect unison the numerous ropes, pulleys, and levels used for raising the immense piece, absolute silence was necessary so that not a word should distract the workmen's attention. The square was crowded with curious idlers watching this mighty exertion of mechanical power. Complete silence reigned, every one bearing in mind the pope's order. But when the raising of the obelisk had proceeded half-way, the enormous stone refused to go further and remained leaning with all its weight on the ropes. Everything was at a stand-still. The engineers, at the end of their resources, saw their gigantic task threatened with failure, when suddenly from the midst of the crowd a man's voice rose at the peril of his life. 'Wet the ropes!' he cried. 'Wet the ropes!' They wet the ropes and the obelisk soon stood upright on its pedestal. The tension of the cordage when soaked with water had of itself done what an army of workmen had failed to accomplish."

"And what happened to the man who broke the silence?" asked Emile.

"The pope willingly pardoned him, you may be sure. But let us return to our subject of woolen cloth. You can now easily understand what happens when this cloth is wet. It is made of crossed threads, each one of which, on being soaked with water, acts like a rope, that is to say it becomes shortened. The result of this is a closer texture. On drying, the cloth does not return to its original state, as a rope when dry resumes its former length; it remains close, because the threads held in position by their interlacing, are not free to slip. Thus by being put through the fulling-mill, where it is beaten and wet at the same time, the cloth which was at first loose enough to show the daylight between its meshes, becomes a firm piece of goods with warp and woof close together.

"The two sides of a piece of cloth are not the same: one, called the wrong side, shows the crossed threads of the fabric, otherwise known as the thread; the other, called the right side, is covered with a fine, even nap, all lying the same way. This nap is obtained by means of a kind of rude brush made of the thorny burs furnished by a plant called teazel, or fullers' teazel.

"Teazel lives from one to two years. Its stalk, which attains the height of a man, is armed with strong hooked thorns and bears, at a certain distance apart, pairs of large leaves, each pair forming a cup more or less deep in which rain gathers. Growing from the main stem are six or seven branches, each terminated by a strong elongated head or bur composed of hard scales sharply pointed and recurved at the end in the shape of a fine hook. The plant is cultivated expressly for its burs, which are used in great quantities in cloth-manufacture. It would be difficult to replace this natural brush with any similar tool made by our hands, for nothing could give the same degree of needed stiffness and suppleness combined. Five or six of these burs are placed side by side so as to form a brush, which is drawn over the cloth always in the same direction. The thousand hooks of the teazel, each as fine as the slenderest needle, but elastic and supple, seize the tiny fibers of surface wool lying between the threads, and pull them out, laying them one on the other, all pointing the same way. The result of this operation is the nap which on the right side of a piece of cloth covers and hides the thread.


Fullers' Teazel

"But this nap is still imperfect: its tiny fibers are of unequal length, some long, some short, at haphazard, just as the hooks of the teazel brush drew them from the threads. To make it all smooth and even, it must be shorn; that is to say, large broad-bladed shears are used to pare down the surface of the cloth so as to leave the nap all of the desired length. This completes the essential part of the work. Sedan, Louviers, and Elbeuf are the chief cloth-manufacturing towns of France."