Tontheer Callen is the Master Weaver, living and working in the central city of Bal’Loa, on the island of Sháelarn.
Tontheer sunk her hands into the water trough and gathered up the flax stems she had lain there to soak just under a week ago. She could already feel they were much softer than when she had placed them out to dry in the late summer sun before they had been soaked. This retting step was complete now and she laid them out once again to dry.Her mother looked on from the corner of their home and patting her hands dry on her apron Tonthéer walked swiftly over to her. “How are your stems, ready for the scutching?” she asked.
“They seem so, they are much softer and flexible now than when left them to dry out,” Tontheer replied.
“Well good, now come and take the retted ones we dried yesterday and I’ll show you how we get the fibre from them,” her mother told her.
Getting the fibre from the flax stems was the reason they had been grown, harvested, dried, soaked, and dried again. To Tontheer it all seemed to be a lot of work, especially when in her mind sheep’s wool was so much more easily gathered, spun and gathered into clews for knitting. Now they had to scutch the stems, a labour intensive job and just the start of their labours.
They both gathered up the dried stems from a pile spread out on the carefully placed slate slabs and walked under the small roof extending from their cottage. Tontheer’s father had built the roof, no more than an overhang really, to give a covered outdoor space for her mother to work. Scutching was always done in August and Autumn rains were not uncommon on the Sháelarn.
There was a mangle there that had been her grandmothers, Tontheer recalled, but she had used it to squeeze the water from clothes not break apart flax stems. It was her mother that had realised it could be used for the scutching of the flax stems. The scutching was usually done by beating the stems with a wooden hammer, but this had been back breaking and arm aching work Tontheer could not imagine doing. The horizontal wooden rollers still pressed against each other well and the large iron crank with its vicious cogs and rotating handle would make short work of crushing the stems.
Her mother placed the end of about twenty stems in between the rollers, then gave Tontheer a look and slight nod that told her to start rotating the handle. As she did so her mother guided the stems until they were drawn in and began to be crushed. She quickly moved to the other side and gathered them back up. The process was repeated until there was a tangle of soft fibres and woody outer straw. Sitting down on a pair of old wooden stools, they both began to separate the soft fibres that were to become the linen threads they aimed to make.
“Why don’t we just make woolen thread, mother?” Tontheer asked.
After a moments silence her mother replied. “Well, Tontheer. Your Grandfather had always been a crop farmer and never had livestock. When he married my mother her sisters cleared the land we use to grow the flax on now, you’ll remember neither had brothers, so it was down to them,” she said pausing in reflection of the family memories. “They had some flax for the seeds and oil but used to leave the rest of the plant before we knew we could use it. That was before we were taught the value of the plant and to spin our flax yarn into linen threads,” she concluded, looking wistful once more as she continued separating the threads from the recently crushed stems.
“Is that when Kreyss’hai visited Grandfather?” Tontheer asked.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“You never really told me what happened, please tell me, mother.”
Tontheer’s mother sat quietly for a moment and turning to her daughter smiled and began to talk. “As you know, my mother’s sisters were all acolytes of the Holy Meá of Kreyss’hai and had devoted themselves to the study of the sacred teachings. Each had kept their virtue and lived righteously, and up to that point were unmarried. The work they did clearing the land for your Grandmother was a wedding gift but also an act of devotion to their goddess, Kreyss’hai”. She looked to her daughter and for a moment thought about her virtue and righteousness. She had never received the teachings of Holy Meá, but had been raised by their precepts.
She continued, “Knowing this, your Grandfather built a small shrine to Kreyss’hai with a statue he carved out of Oceanstone hardwood, which was very rare and very expensive in his day. As costly as the service his sisters in-law had provided. He was a clever man, each year when he harvested the seeds he took the oil from them and would clean and re-oil the statue to preserve it.”
Tontheer was lost in her thoughts for a moment and realised what her mother was about to explain. Seeing the recognition she continued, “Kreyss’hai is not blind to our hearts and she knew and accepted it as an offering to her, for the flax that grew in the field, dedicated to her by her acolytes.”
In a trembling voice her mother began to share what she had never explained to Tontheer before. “On the fifth year my father completed the ritual he had established, said a silent prayer to Kreyss’hai and turned to go into the cottage. As he turned Kreyss’hai was there stood in front of him, he said she was tall and beautiful, wrapped in flowing silvery garments and holding her Bellhammer in her right hand, a mass of white clouds and what appeared to be stars behind her”.
“Then what?” Tontheer demanded.
“Then Kreyss’hai spoke, but it seems not in words that can be repeated, but from her heart. My father knew she was pleased, but he was dumbstruck, awaiting her guidance. That guidance was to be on how we could make the cloth she wore. She grasped a handful of flax in her left hand and pulled it out of the ground. Resting it in her palm a great rain fell about her, then sun warmed her and dried the flax. She struck the stems with the Bellhammer and my father saw the straws scatter to the ground, leaving fine lengths of inner fibre. He said she turned these in her hands and at first created shining, silver threads, then in an instant she held a small patch of cloth in her hand. It was the same cloth she was wearing”.
Her mother looked over to her awestruck daughter and continued “It took some time, but with a little help from Achrán Callen’s father we mastered how to make the finest threads, finer than any wool” she said smiling, “the weaving of the cloth took more time still, but once we understood it the cloth we made was fit for Lords and Ladies the islands over”.
“I never realised Kreyss’hai had first shown our family this,” Tonthéer said, “I see why we wear Linen now.”
Her mother smiled, “Cloth of the goddess herself, but not if we don’t finish this and make some thread it won’t be.”
Tontheer looked down at the fibres in her hands in a new light and over at the wooden statue in the corner of the flax field. “Let’s get these combed and spun then mother.”
Sat quietly with each other they continued their work. Unnoticed, a female figure smiled at the two women, gathered a handful of flax stems and vanished to her distant abode once more.