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Archive for June, 2013

I work in international development, where we talk a lot about the work (and sometimes the danger) involved in such basic tasks as fetching water and firewood. When I travel, I am awed by the great posture and muscled physiques of people who walk almost everywhere and do hard physical labour to earn enough to eat, then go home to places with few or no timesaving devices.

Today I did four hours of solid physical effort. Two hours of that was walking at a steady pace. That would have been enough to maybe get me to the nearest market on market day (though I had only a light knapsack, not a heavy bundle of things to sell or bring home). It would have been enough draw water, prepare a meal, wash dishes, feed and milk the animals and collect some eggs. There might have been a little bit of energy left (if not the time) to chop a bit of firewood or wash a few clothes. When I got home, I was thankful for the pouring rain, as it meant I had a legitimate excuse to avoid the gardening, something that a medieval housewife would need to do throughout the summer.

Instead, I had a nap and read a book. Had a really been a medieval housewife, that time would have been needed for spinning, weaving or child care. Plus, as a lower-class woman, I probably would not have had the luxury of tasty protein-rich or sweet snacks, as I did today.

As much as I appreciate not starving, dying in childbirth, or being killed by a preventable disease, I think we could go a long way towards really trying to live a medieval lifestyle. Less food, more exercise, local crops, lower environmental impact: all would be welcome improvements. They would even make medieval recreation more enjoyable, as we would have fewer injuries to people who aren’t used to being active.

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This was an unspectacular day for my own production, but I did make some useful progress on a few things. The repairs to a pair of socks are almost done – I spun enough yellow wool to finish the last bit of naalbinding, and I spent time over the two days naalbinding white and brown stripes to make the socks high enough for the comfort of the owner. More importantly, I made a small bone needle and then used it to start work on a coiled, or naalbound cow’s hair strainer.

I can’t absolutely document such strainers to the Middle Ages, but Odd Nordlund has many folk examples in his 1960 book on knotless netting, with references to hair strainers dating back to the 1800’s, and some wooden straining cups as well as two examples of hop strainers that have frames worked into the naalbinding. The strainers were used for straining milk. Hair strainers don’t absorb milk, so they can be washed and dried, without having sour milk trapped in the knots.

I had never really read closely the information on the strainers before, and somehow missed that the cow’s hairs needed to be spun.

According to Nordlund, the long hairs of a cow would be cut in the winter (when they weren’t needed to keep off the flies), then spun to a thread about 3 mm in thickness. The thread was then naalbound into a kind of cloth about 15 cm across, fitting to the shape of the straining cup. Ne says that a wooden needle, 15-20 cm long and 1 cm thick was used. The needle would be pointed at both ends and have its eye in the middle. That seems very long to me, but I will make one to see how it works. It will be tough to spin such slippery fibres into a single thread, but this is clearly something I have to master.

Without benefit of the above information, I tried working single hairs. This was hopeless, so eventually I took 3-4 hairs at a time through the needle. This gave a quite respectable simple loop, once I got the hang of it. It was still a challenge to add enough loops to make a reasonably flat coil (mine was shaped approximately like a very large thimble). However, this is something that will improve with practice. The next challenge will be to do the most common stitch, which involves a twist (possibly a variant on the Oslo Stitch). I had plenty of troubles just doing a simple coil!

It appears the strainers were also used as dishcloths or pot scrubbers, either before or after being put to service as strainers. Since I don’t actually have much use for strainers for milk, I rather like the idea of making rough dishcloths for scouring our dishware.

Until I have some decent results to take pictures of, here are a few photos of the Dark Ages Recreation Company at Upper Canada Village, where we were presenting as part of their annual medieval festival.

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