Unlike many countries where the names of the months are derived the ancient Roman calendar, the names of the months on the Polish calendar generally come from some aspect of nature or the yearly agricultural cycle. For instance, Kwiecien, the month of April comes from the word kwitnie (blossoming). The month of July, is named Lipiec, from lipa, the linden tree that blooms so profusely during this month and is the source of wood used for carving and much loved by the bees that produce honey. October is no exception. The Polish word for the month is Październik. The word comes from the word paździerz, the inner fiber of the all-important flax plant (Linium usitatissium).
The flax plant was grown primarily by families to provide themselves with what would eventually become a piece of cloth. In olden days, whether you lived in America or in Poland, this was no small feat. If you wanted to eat, you had to produce your own food. If you wanted clothes on your back, you had to produce your own clothes and if you didn't have access to sheep for wool, you grew your own flax.
The flax seeds were generally planted in April and grew throughout the summer season. When it was ready in October, the process of converting the flax plant into a usable fiber began and was generally regarded as the work of women.
Step 1. The plant was was pulled out of the earth, tied into bundles and taken to the barns where it was dried very well. Then the flower heads were either combed or beaten to obtain the valuable flax seeds. Some of the seeds were saved and put aside for the next years planting. Some was crushed to obtain the all important flaxseed oil which was used specifically for frying and cooking purposes during the strict fasts of Advent and Lent when all meat and most meat products were eliminated from the diet. The leftover mash from the crushed seeds was fed to the cattle.
Step 2. The stems were then subject to a long-term treatment of exposure to water to help break down the plant structure to separate the fibers of the plant. This was done by spreading the stems out on grass when it was wet with dew, called dew retting. The stems were turned regularly to make sure all sides rotted equally. Dew retting would eventually yield a final thread that was gray in color and a hallmark of many older Polish linen tablecloths, shirts and blouses. Stems soaked directly in water would produce thread that was a light blond color
Step 3. The stalks were dried again. Mind you, all this is taking two to three weeks to get to the next step.
Step 4. Braking. The fiber that our ancestors were looking for was located on the outer skin of the flax stem. This was obtained when the prepared flax stems were now forced to bend into the shape of a W, using a tool called a brake (in Polish, międlica). It broke the inner layer (the paździerz), which would drop off, leaving the long outer layers, the flax fiber.
Step 5. Not quite the last step was the combing of the flax fibers into something smooth that could be spun called combing with the use of a hatchel. (photo)
Step 6. The Polish housewife now had a product that she could actually work with and spun it into a thread using a drop spindle or a spinning wheel. She spent the winter months spinning and then weaving the linen thread into cloth. The cloth became a sheet for a bed, a pillowcase, a hand towel or, more importantly, a blouse or a shirt. Something to think about when we visit the museums in Poland displaying folk costumes of the past.
Photo:Woman spinning courtesy of Polish Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw
Photo Collage: Google images
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.