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Linen Versus Cotton

by Meredith Harmon 8 months ago in clothing
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A bit of hopepunk on a raw, rainy day.

Another raw, rainy day - a Polar Plunge. I'm the one in the head veil.

I know you want an edge-of-the-seat page turner for this challenge, but I cannot. I've only told that story a few times, and I've always lost that friendship because inevitably they come to believe that it's so fantastic that I must be making it up. Sorry, I'm not putting myself out there on the interwebs with that track record. So, instead, a hopepunk story - brew up a cup of a warm toasty beverage for this one:

I almost killed a friend of mine.

Luckily, the circumstances were those where he was perfectly safe the whole time.

I'm a Middle-Ages re-enactor. See, we have to say "Middle Ages," because saying "Medieval" gets some people's knickers in a twist because they only see the "evil" in the word and assume the worst. We like to get together and camp like it's 1599 without the nasty things like plagues. We try to make our camp and kits as historically accurate as possible, and falling down rabbit holes of research to find the perfect way to disguise something (say, build a wooden box with a thick layer of foam for a disguised cooler) or recreate the item (say, a zeer pot to cool your food) is a wonderful way to spend months of time.

The balance, of course, is money and time. We still live in the modern world, so our re-enactment is still a hobby. Work and family take their time / money tax, and what's left over may not be enough to make for a perfect kit.

Enter me, enthusiastic amateur looking at this historical world with the "what's all this about then?" eyes of wonder. Me, who can't find my way around a sewing machine and wants All The Garb (complete with swirly princess dresses and even more swirly cloaks to match). Champagne taste, beer budget...

After a trip to the fabric store and a rude awakening to the cost of the more period bolts, I settled for poly-cotton, and churned out basic t-tunics with glittery trim. It's a buck a yard, what could go wrong?

Try going camping with ten thousand of your closest friends in the middle of August. We couldn't afford a canvas pavilion, so a nylon pop-up tent would have to do.

We baked.

It took a few years and one spectacular catastrophic failure of time, space, and a washing machine to finally get a clue. I'm not sure what exactly happened, but I was stunned to pull a beach-ball-sized thread ball out of the dryer where my garb should have been.

I upgraded to full cotton. Many of my friends had been urging me to do so, explaining that the "poly" part of poly-cotton stood for polyester. When in doubt, especially for re-enactment, natural fibers are better than synthetic. And, the oft-quoted phrase: "Two layers of linen and a layer of wool will keep you warm in anything."

I was drowning in a thin layer of poly-cotton! They wanted me to get into THREE layers?!? Were they mad?!?!

So. Old cotton bed sheets, remastered into chemises. I quick-whipped up two bog dresses, which are just two rectangles of cloth pinned at the shoulders and tied with a belt, for a quick nod to a second layer. Off to our biggest event, for ten days' sojourn into medieval re-enactment.

In the heat of August.

We baked. Again. A lot. Sitting around camp in chemises with bags of ice on our head became de rigueur.

One early morning, I just couldn't sleep anymore. I got up so as not to wake my husband (HOW can he sleep in the heat? HOW??), and quietly sat in a camp chair in the second half of the cabin tent. I unzipped the windows so that if a chance breeze happened to visit, I could make it welcome. I sat in my chair, in my cotton chemise, watching the world go by.

And Angus walked into camp. (Let's call him Angus, because every single group has at least one Angus, one Duncan, one Cat, and one unpronounceable. It's a rule.) Angus was a good friend and camp mate, and we belonged to the same local group, called a shire. He'd been fighting that morning on the battlefield before it became a scorcher, so I could hear him clanking up the road as he returned. As he passed by to his beautiful fully period pavilion aside of my nylon thingamy, he nodded a quiet "Morning!" to me. I waved weakly in response.

And then I watched as he unbuckled his armor, and made a shiny pile like some sort of self-peeling lobster. Shooka-clank, slither-clank, peeeel clanka-clunk, the pile grew. After the armor, the top layer of green wool, slither-shooka-slide-thud, sopping wet with his sweat, revealing the layer of equally-soaked linen underneath.

And a breeze puffed by.

Ahhh! I arched my back to let that poor little puff of air do its cooling thing, just as Angus stretched. And suddenly he hunched over, moaning, "Cold, cold, COLD!" and dove into his tent. I could hear the sounds of his stripping off his last layer and the plops they made on the floor mat, and the sounds of more clothing being pulled out of a chest and being put on.

When he emerged from his pavilion, he was back in two layers of linen, and a layer of wool over it, very satisfied, looking every inch the fourteenth-century tailor that was his persona. He stretched again, purred "Ahhhhh, comfortable!" and bounced out of camp again.

I was left making limp strangling motions in the air, where his neck had been. If I coulda moved, which I couldn't. I settled for glaring. Not that it mattered, he was already gone.

But that winter, I was given the magical URL of a website that sold very good linen at amazing prices, and I took the plunge and bought enough yards to get some good chemises made. The difference in how I feel and work in hot weather is amazing. I still don't need to be warm enough to go with the wool layer, but I do two layers of linen.

And, in the back of my head, I could hear my grandmother. Every time I repeated it, or heard it said: "You can be perfectly comfortable in any weather in two layers of linen and one layer of wool," my grandmother the archeologist's voice in my head would bark, "Aaaaanything? ANYTHING??"


I come from a family of archeologists. The phrase "experimental archeology" wasn't invented yet, but there are flakes and chips of jasper all over our back yard, from my uncle trying to figure out how to flint knap when I was a kid. Even today people know not to come into our house and try random things on the stove; it could be a pot of soup, but it's more likely to be a pot of deer legs being rendered for the bones.

It was a strange childhood, leading to a strange adulthood.

I knew what that voice meant. So, to test that phrase for real, I signed up for the local Polar Plunge.

Then my friends made me a set of winter garb, two layers of lovely thick linen and one of wool. And I took the plunge on a cold day in February in drizzling freezing rain, just to test it. The wool was soaked. The first layer of linen had patches of damp. The second layer was bone dry.

See, linen wicks water away from the skin. So does cotton, but cotton tends to absorb the water on the way out, and the fibers swell up and lock in place and turn the wearer into a sauna when the system overloads and backs up. Linen doesn't swell, and takes the moisture and lets it evaporate. Wool does the same wicking, but it has that scratchiness, so you just put a layer of linen or two between you and the wool as a soft cushy barrier.

I ended up shredding many linen tunics as night shirts because I needed them for the terrible night sweats I used to get. I'm using old cotton shirts now out of necessity, but I just gave a commission to a friend to make me more linen nightshirts. They're just more comfortable, and feel warm in the winter and cool in the summer. (And you don't stink as much as when you wear cotton. Trust me on that one.)

I'm wearing a linen overshirt as I type this. As fall begins, we have some raw rainy days with variable temperature, and linen is perfect to keep me comfortable. I usually buy secondhand shirts to save money, and also because some companies are silly and coat the linen with a nasty plastic layer to keep it looking pre-pressed. I like washing them hard to get that coating off as soon as possible since it completely defeats the purpose of wearing linen. And linen is a fabric that gets softer and more comfy as it gets older, so it's worth throwing them in the washer more often.

So my friend didn't die, and I got some amazingly comfortable threads and a whole new outlook on clothing and my relationship to it. I pass that story on to as many people as I can, and I cannot tell you how many have slept easier and have eased PMS and menopause symptoms just from switching the fabric they use. And now I've passed it to you. Try it if you've had problems. There are many websites that sell 100% linen tunics, and though they look pricey, they last a long time. My typing fingers may be cold on this cold and rainy day, but my back and shoulders are just right.


About the author

Meredith Harmon

Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.

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