Fustein, fustian, bombazine, barchent.
What these names have in common is that they are all a blending fabric. Often a blending fabric of linen or cotton with an other material like silk or wool.
But for now I am talking about fustian as we know the fabric today. With fustian you always talk about a linen warp and a cotton weft.
This fabric is as people used to make it; single-threaded and with a fairly high thread density. The fabric can remain plain in colour (often varying from off-white, yellow-grey to ecru, but in the past people also liked to dye the fabric in indigo, madder/cochineal or black.
In 2022, archaeologist and re-enactor Peter Kalkman came to me asking if I could weave fustian cloth for him. I had never heard of fustian before, so I dove into my bookcase to dig through every textile book for this interesting term. I soon found out that they mostly talked about a linen warp and cotton weft. That did sound like a job I could do! After going through his requirements with Peter, I started picking the right materials. Peter wanted a sturdy fabric; he was going to make a brigandine with it. A brigandine is a kind of medieval fighting jacket with metal plates mounted in it. So the fustian fabric had to be sturdy and as hard-wearing as possible. I pulled out my crate of all linen yarns and fished out the sturdiest, thickest-looking linen. Even the single-thread cotton was the coarsest I had at my disposal.
Full of enthusiasm, I quickly had the loom ready to start weaving.
The adventure with weaving could begin!
Thread breakage and fluff everywhere
After setting up the loom with the linen yarn, I soon thought I could start weaving effortlessly.
This illusion was immediately dashed after the first few wefts of the cotton.
The warp (linen) threads broke at the drop of a hat. The reed (metal comb through which the threads run) seemed to tear the linen threads every time I moved it. Like a nightmare, I saw thread after thread break. At one point, I had so many pins in the fabric from mending the thread breakage that it looked like a pincushion! This was no go. I had to come up with something else to weave the fabric anyway.
I had two options: get a coarser reed so the linen threads wouldn't rub so violently along the metal, or somehow get the linen threads stronger.
Since I did not have coarser reeds, I chose option two. After briefly researching the sizing of warp threads, I found out that a variety of recipes are possible. Many people use boiled linseed to lubricate the threads with it. Some use a starch paste or gelatine. Gelatine seemed like the cheapest way for me to test whether this would work for me at all. So; into the car and to the shop to get gelatine! The porridge was quickly made, and I smeared this onto the warp with a coarse paint brush. I found the mess smelly, but that was not to spoil the fun. It seemed to work! After drying, the threads seemed to have a kind of protective layer. Relieved, I could continue weaving. The weaving did take longer than I had calculated. I spent a lot of extra time gluing and drying the threads. But fortunately, that didn't matter to the client.
When I took the fabric off the loom, I could almost put it upright! That's how stiff it had become from the gelatine. After washing it in lukewarm water, I saw the fabric change. The fibres seemed to open up beautifully, the threads relaxed and together they formed a real fabric. With an enormous sense of pride, this fabric could go to its new owner.
I found out afterwards that the linen yarn I had used was extremely unsuitable for warp. It was "tow" linen. Also called "work". It is actually the coarse waste product of the fine and long flax fibre when it is processed. Tow linen is characterised by its short, prickly fibres. No wonder it became difficult to weave with this!