©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

35. Straw Into Gold

A few years ago a good friend inherited a beautiful, four-shaft Leclerc loom from an elderly weaver in the family who, in her will, had left everything she owned to all the women relatives. By some stroke of a fairy godmother’s (and perceptive friend’s) wand, the loom ended up in my dining room with the unfinished piece (a delicate rug woven of linen thread and light green and sky blue cotton fabric), still on the loom.

No one but the cat (we had also inherited) loved the loom as much as I did, and various family members grumbled about the size of the loom and how much space it was occupying in a rather small house. But learning to weave had been a profound dream of mine, and I vowed to learn on this gift and to finish the rug out of respect for the weaver and the work she had already done.

A few years passed and I received another gift, this time from my husband: fifteen months free of teaching and any other sabbatical responsibilities. I looked for a weaving teacher (no easy task as it turned out), and finally found a charming Fresno weaver who would commute to our house, spend the weekends there, warp the loom, and guide me through my first four projects. There was no satisfaction like finishing the rug: my mother had saved the scraps from our childhood dresses and I matched the blues, greens, and calico prints to work with the other fabric scraps.

Weaving is one of the most ancient of arts, especially the weaving of linen, which modern folk do not always associate with the healthful flax seeds they grind into their oatmeal for cholesterol lowering and digestive benefits. We are familiar with flax oil and the shiny and slippery seeds in eye pillows, but few of us have had a relationship with the flax plant itself, one of the oldest in human civilization.

According to Arkadiusz Iwaniuk, the first linen cloth was woven 9,000 years ago in India. From Mesopotamia, Egypt and Assyria, flax spread to the Mediterranean and throughout Europe. Planting, harvesting, and processing linen was chiefly women’s work, though men and children made their contributions at various stages of preparing the fiber or bleaching and softening the cloth. Old Lithuanian photographs show fields covered with long strips of linen cloth left out to bleach in the sun. Children were often sent out into those fields to roll the linen up and bring it home.

The common European flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) is not fussy. Not long ago just about every rural household in Central Europe planted a plot of flax between St. Sophie’s and St. Helen’s (late May) for its own use, often near a small marsh. “Ripe fields of flax, stirred by the wind,” recalls Jozefa Drozdowska, “rang like hundreds of tiny bells.” The plant had a sacred aura, she adds, because of its many medicinal and household uses. Children were not allowed to pick the blue flax flowers, but they could suck on the ripened seeds.

Depending on the amount of work in the fields and the timing of the grain harvest, the flax plants had to be pulled, bound, stacked, dried, and then “rippled” to remove the bolls of seeds. The remaining plant material had to be soaked (in natural or human-made “retting” ponds) and dried again on grids over earthen ovens. “The flax must be ultra dry for the pith to crack away without damaging the fibers,” writes Kati Reeder Meek in her exhaustive book on Lithuanian weaving. In post WWII Poland, when the government contracted flax production, the breaking was often done in an enormous barn and became the social event of the season associated with work, feasting, dancing and joking around. Stuffing chaff into someone’s underwear was part of a grand day of flirtation. And not even the chaff, or straw, was wasted; it was used as bedding under apples stored in the cellar or as insulation in wooden houses.

After breaking the flax manually or mechanically, women would use a scutching knife and series of hackles or brushes to break up the flax ribbons into individual fibers, remove the last of the chaff, and comb the fibers to a golden sheen. Flax fiber became linen thread under the magic fingers of spinners, often honored in parades and processions by being drawn in decorated wagons.

There is nothing like a spinning wheel to take one into the heart of a dozen fairytales, usually with a heroine who has the impossible task of spinning straw into gold. Yet a young woman might have woven an entire chest of bed and table linens, clothing, towels and runners for the members of her wedding party before she was married. By dint of hard work, plant knowledge, and creativity, women were spinning the straw of flax into the gold of their daily needs.

“Raw linen will outlast gold any day,” a Lithuanian woman in her eighties told me and then gave me four hanks of lustrous linen fiber which had been sitting in her attic for the last forty years. Afterward she pulled out heavy bolts of plaid linen fabric—as vibrant as the day they were woven by her grandmother, over a century ago. Her parting gift to me was her last spinning wheel, black with flax oil and sweat.

As I am learning to spin flax fiber into linen thread, I enter the hardscrabble world of country women whose floors and aprons were littered with flax chaff and straw. There they are visited by small men with funny names who want to steal their children. But the little devils, goblins, changelings, and gnomes are no match for daily miracle makers and the children are always saved, if not by the spinning then by the memories of their vigilant mothers.

Jozefa Drozdowska remembers the dreamy clicking of the spinning wheel and how it stopped sometimes “because the weary heads of our mothers and aunts began to nod over their wheels. The whirring went with whispered prayers, group listening to presentations, books read aloud, and endless stories about bygone days….baked apples hissed in the oven accompanied by the contented murmur of cats warming themselves under the oven bench.” Fairy tales indeed.

Sources: Balys Buracas, Darbai ir Sventes [Work and Festivals], photos; E. Kuznienski & J. Augustyn-Puziewicz, Przyroda Apteka [Nature as Pharmacy]; A. Iwaniuk, Atlas Ziol Krajowych [Atlas of Native Herbs]; Jozefa Drozdowski’s remembrances in Len w tradycyjnej kulturze ludowej pojezierza suwalskiego [Flax in Traditional Folk Culture of the Suwalki Lake Region], Museum Catalog; and Kati Reeder Meek, Reflections from a Flaxen Past: For Love of Lithuanian Weaving.

Gardening: always something to learn


You’ve head the joke about the man who was told his new bride used to work as a prostitute. His response was, “Professional? Heck, she’s not even a gifted amateur!” That’s the way I feel about my gardening abilities most of the time, and it’s one of the things I enjoy about gardening. There is always something new to learn, so that one can remain at the amateur level for a lifetime.

Both of my parents grew up on farms, and my paternal grandparents maintained a large fruit and vegetable garden after moving into town. You couldn’t visit grandma without taking home something from her garden – some huge red onions or a quart of frozen boysenberries. My parents grew a few rows of berries, but their garden was mainly shade trees, shrubs, grass and a few rose bushes.

My first attempts at growing things were a spindly tomato plant in a pot, which produced a single, pallid tomato, and a small backyard plot that would have served better as a clay quarry. By then I had the urge to stick plants in the earth and hope for the best, so I started reading Organic Gardening magazine and books like Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy.

Things improved considerably when we moved into an older home in Modesto on a large lot. I learned about improving the soil by adding organic material and took a class on composting. Gradually my garden plot got larger and more successful. Adding a drip irrigation system helped control the weeds, and gave me extra time to try my hand at landscape gardening. My front border is a white flower garden and I am experimenting with a wildflower meadow in the west yard.  There is even something of a cottage garden in the east yard, although I prefer to grow native and drought-resistant species.

People who enjoy gardening come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but I will generalize by saying there are only two basic temperaments. You have the profligate, impatient gardener who will buy the five gallon nursery stock to achieve an “instant” garden. Then you have the frugal, patient gardener who either grows plants from seed (especially from seeds saved from last year’s crop) or from nursery six-packs and is content to nurture the seedlings to maturity. A variation of the frugal, patient gardener is the person who digs up and moves plants around in the yard, always looking for the best spot. This person is often glad to accept plants from friends and neighbors – some of my own favorites were given to me, and now I’m glad to pass along my extras (anyone need some yellow iris?).

My husband enjoys reading garden catalogs and his research has led to some interesting plants in our yard. One surprising success is a fine row of blueberry bushes. Who knew blueberries would thrive in the central valley? [a tip: they like an acidic soil, so feed them with camellia/azalea fertilizer.] He also found some terrific strawberries that produce large, sweet fruit all summer.

Gone are the days when I spent $25 on garden supplies to harvest a lone tomato. I have berries in the freezer, just like Grandma, but I haven’t mastered red onions. I’m still learning, and despite the successes I still feel like an amateur.