I work with linen fabric in my collections, such as FUSION in 2016, and I shall be making good use of it in the collection I am presently working on. Consequently, it is quite natural for me to explore its history in Brittany. And it is rather sad realizing that we do not have any more flax producers to-day whilst it had pronounced wealth for four centuries from the time the Duchy of Brittany was independent until the 19th century.
Together with hemp, flax was at the core of a luxurious trade, connected to the Baltic countries where their seeds came from, and also throughout Europe, to start with Britain so near to us Bretons or the Spanish Empire.
The most flourishing era was when the writer Miguel de Cervantès, as quartermaster of the combat fleet - King Philip II’s Invincible Armada - used to buy hemp from Brittany for the sails of its ships and clothing of its sailors. And when William Shakespeare, said to have died the same day as Cervantes, on 23 April 1616, hailed in his plays the shirts from the hamlet of Daoulas (called Dowlas which Flastaff wore in the drama Henry V). Young William was probably inspired by the fact that his father John Shakespeare, a clothes and gloves merchant in Stratford-Upon-Avon, heard about the existence of this magnificent textile when coming to the horse and textile fair of La Martyre, a borough in Finistere. As Peter Ackroyd explained in his book Shakespeare, the Biography (Vintage Books, 2005), John was also selling wools and linens. He was even sentenced for illegal wool trade.
In fact, in Brittany culture was divided between hemp, also known as canevas and flax used for linen. One can find the description of those farming techniques succession in the study written by the organization « Lin et chanvre en Bretagne » (Linen and Hemp in Brittany).
Vitré, a city on the eastern border between Brittany and the kingdom of France was famous for hemp growing and selling. From 1472 was set a Brotherhood of Overseas Merchants bringing together the producers, working with the Saint-Malo shipowners to sell their hemp throughout Europe, with important relays such as the Breton community in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, between Cadiz and Seville in Spain. The most famous of those merchants was Pierre Malherbe from Vitré, who sailed off Sanlúcar to reach Latin America to scout out new markets and ended up being the first man to travel around the world mainly by land.
The linen in Low Brittany
Flax was also grown in the region of Vitré, but they left most of the trade to merchants and weavers from Western Low Brittany. During the Summer, hemp was collected and then retted by bathing the stem during several days to separate the fibre from the woody part. Finally, the latter was disconnected during the scutching from the hemp rod. The same sequence of operations applies to the flax.
Then women brought the flax yarn in distaff, spinned it on the spinning wheel or with a spindle. Similarly to hemp, strong-armed artisans were obviously needed to be weaving with heavy hand looms.
Throughout Brittany producers differed: in the Vannes and Treguiers bishoprics, was produced rope hemp; in Vitré, ecru hemp gave a strong canvas used for ship sails, mill wings and bags that people bought all over Europe. Nonetheless Vitré workshops also produced fine lingerie made of Flanders linette, needlepoint stockings, oversleeves, flaps, socks, collars and neckties.
Before Winter, merchants filled up to 130 warehouses. The Vitré canvases were completed by big stocks from neighbouring regions - Rouen (Normandy), Laval (Mayenne) – and from all the Breton districts where other linen fabrics were woven: the Bretagnes from Quintin and Loudéac and the Créées from Morlaix. The finest Créées used to sew shirts and napkins came from Plougastel, Landerneau and Daoulas.
In fact, the word Créées comes from the Breton language Krez meaning “shirt” (similar to Krys in Cornish and Crys in Welsh).
There were also hemp canvases from Fougères, known as Cannevaux, the Olonnes from Locronan and Merdrignac, and yet again the Vitré Noyales completing the family of the famous Canevas. The two alternative capitals of Brittany are not to be forgotten: Rennes had its Paraiges and Nantes the Indiennes (hemp) and les Nantaises (linen).
The Créées are to be found in the two regions of Léon and Cornouaille, with cities such as Landivisiau, Morlaix, the county of Landerneau and Daoulas. In other words, it covers Northern Finistere today.
In Landerneau, Mme Andrée Le Gall-Sanquer, chairwoman of Dourdon association
is a specialist of local heritage History. That includes the story of linen, and in the collective book she edited L’or bleu (An aour glaz), “The Blue Gold”, has been published a detailed map with red dots showing the presence of linen working sites.
This is precisely the region and the linen nicknamed « Blue Gold » (An aour glaz in Breton) that I am focusing the first episode of the series on the subject. I shall have the opportunity of writing in future articles on other Bretons regions, on the Locronan weavers for instance and on hemp production and use for fashion.
As explained by the historian from Quimper Gwenolé Le Goué-Sinquin in his master essay on canvas merchants: “With the intensification of flax and hemp culture in various European regions, in the 1470s, Brittany developed its long-lasting textile production. From the 16th to the 18th century, Brittany was known among the largest canvas producing and exporting regions in the West of France, selling the biggest part of sails which equipped European navies or linen used for undergarments.”
The author sheds light on the natural reasons that explain why this hemp and flax growing was flourishing: “Those two canvas plants are thirsty and find in Brittany an oceanic and temperate climate that favours their growth. Sown in April, harvested in July, flax and hemp do not suffer from frost and the more so in the coastline regions. Spring rains, indispensable for their growth also prevent their stems from becoming too dry or too hard. Finally, this region is one of bocage retaining humidity and protecting thin stems of the canvas plants from violent storms.”
The whitewashing of linen and the kanndi
In the land of Morlaix, Landerneau and Daoulas, there was a long process between the time women and girls spinned flax yarn with spindle or spinning wheel and sales and exchanges that took place in fairs such as La Martyre. As the historian Jean Tanguy mentioned in his book (Quand la toile va, Apogée Publishers, 1994), children, especially those from the Leon region, were often sent as commissioners on those markets.
Once thread, yarn or linen fabric produced, cavenases or clothes are made and sold nearby or far away. We shall come back to that later.
The artisans-merchants who made the Créées in the Morlaix, Landerneau and Daoulas region were striking by their creativity as they whitewashed linen.
Coming from that part of Brittany I have seen many tracks of this trade. In the borough of Loperhet, where I was reared, the Breton place names prove it. The former school director Léo Quillien identified them in his history of Loperhet: Lingoual (“linen from the pond”) et Linglas (precisely “blue linen”). Likewise Coat ar Poulin was “the wood close to the pond where flax is retted”. And many other examples could be quoted in the vicinity. On the road, leaving to Daoulas, there is Trebeolin (“site of a tank for storing flax”).
There were many kanndi that is to say ‘houses of Whiteness’ where the linen was whitewashed also known as “buanderies” (wash houses or laundries). Some 370 kanndi existed in the country of Landerneau-Daoulas of which 40 ruins were found. Some have been rebuilt such as the wash house of Penbran (in the borough of Saint-Urbain). For this article, we have taken pictures of remains of one kanndi in the site of Goas (Irvillac hamlet).
The wash basin is circled by blue stones, the granite water inlet chute from the stream within a set of schiste-rubble walls (on 16 square meters) provides an idea of how it was used.
The acidity of Breton waters helped whitewashing. That water stems from the stream flowing through the building, warmed up in a big brass basin in the chimney and thence spilled into a granite tank. There, linen threads were plunged together with beech ash and were subsequently dried up in a courtil (a small lodging made of mud).
The operation was repeated seven to nine times, allowing the finest threads to acquire a resplendent white. A luxury product that must be protected to such an extent that, a servant or the owner, had to stand guard overnight in the kanndi or the courtil with a musket to shoot robbers.
This enrichment also grew due to the berlinge fabric very famous in Irvillac, this time a crossing between wool and linen, as in Daoulas.
As Mr Marc Mével, to-day’s owner of the farm tells us: “The name of our hamlet Goas [gwazh in Breton] means a stream for some, which is meaningful. But others rather see in the word goas, meaning ‘a man’; and since there is another kanndi nearby called Crec (possibly gwreg meaning ‘woman’) that expressed a sense of humour and this indicated that men and women worked together in this trade. The old house further down, at it is written on the lintel of the front door, dates from 1656, under King Louis XIV. That gives you an idea.
Later, in the 20th century our kanndi was used by our family as a simple wash house. Then only women used it to wash clothes.”
Influence of the Breton linen around the world
The refinement of those threads and textile explain why as early as the 15th century, they met with a great success being exported abroad from the harbours of Roscoff, Morlaix and Landerneau to Britain, Spain and the Spanish empire (not without difficulty because the merchants from the Breton colony in Andalusia where not allowed to sell directly to the overseas Spanish empire in Peru, Mexico or Fillipinos).
From the 14th century onwards, the most striking aspect was the important trade on the other side of the Channel (Mor Breizh, the Breton Sea) with Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, that is the other side of the transmaritime kingdom of Dumnonia that existed in the 5th/6th centuries, the Southern part of which being what became later Brittany. Among the most famous Créées was sold the Dowlas linen, as we have seen with Shakespeare, but also the Lockeram which came from Saint-Renan in Léon (Lokournan in Breton).
At the height of the production, the Vitré canevas merchants extended their trade to the rest of Armorican Cornwall and Normandy. In the 1570s-1580s, trade was important towards Devon (through the harbours of Exeter and Darthmouth) or Dorset (Lyme Regis).
Thereafter, the Overseas Merchants enriched themselves more than the people from Morlaix who would rather see foreigners coming to them to trade in their country, which explains the presence of rich mansions with pondalez (galleries), all along the quay, which used to belong to Britons in a harbour which had grown when taking over the small port of Roscoff under its wings.
Before that period, due to the religion wars and the consequences of the international conflict that opposed in the 16th century the very catholic Spain to protestant England, our merchants had to find alternate outlets for their sales.
The Bretons themselves were divided: the inhabitants of Vitré, Rennes and Brest supported French king Henri IV, for a time united through protestantism to the English queen Elizabeth I, while other Bretons were connected to the fundamentalists from the Catholic League allied to the Spanish king Philip II. As blood gushed all over the place, one had to beat around the bush to maintain some sort of Breton neutrality.
To sum up that story, one could say the history of Breton linen was an international affair since flax seeds came from the Baltic countries. In fact, Breton canvas merchants were trading with the Brotherhood of Blackheads from Riga and Reval (today Talinn, capital of Estonia).
From Riga two or three ships unloaded their cargo mainly in Roscoff. They dropped anchor in April so that seeds could quickly be sown. Beforehand vessels risked to be stranded in ice.
And then began the whole cycle I have just described until the sale of canvas, textile and clothes occurred. There were firstly pieces made and sold on the spot (let’s not forget that before Plougastel-Daoulas became the capital of strawberries its wealth was due to hemp and linen sold to dress sailors and prisoners in Brest).
Linen – a new upheaval ?
Let’s have a dream: at the time when it is said that ‘relocation’ of sectors of the economy is needed, to revive here in Brittany – connected to neighbouring regions as in the past – production and exploitation of linen, the ‘Blue Gold’, so rich of potentialities for us fashion designers but also for other trades and corporations in the field of home environment or arts. Let us hope we shall cease to see, unsustainable trips back and forth of linen for its exploitation and cloth-making, when one sees the Chinese (who call linen ‘Asian hemp’ [in Chinese Yàmá (亚麻)], buy those fabrics from our Norman and Belgian friends and then sell back finished products to Europe.
As far as I am concerned, for the clothes I conceive, the choice of linen as a key fabric is obvious for various reasons. First of all, because it is one of the most ecofriendly textile: easy to grow without pesticides and without irrigation (needing only rain water) and does not produce any waste. Linen is also healthy for those who cultivate, work with it, and wear it.
As we have just seen, throughout centuries, hemp and linen were the most important textile fibres in Brittany (for clothing and sailing). But it is not so far away from us today since they are grown in Normandy, in Belgium and the Low Countries, regions or nation-states with a strong agricultural density as is the case in Brittany. Additionnally, linen is spinned and woven in different European countries, including France since it has recently been restored in Alsace.
Finally, linen shows added virtues such as thermoregulation. As you could check with my designs: it is cool in Summer and warm in Winter, most comfortable and anallergic. So, let’s us not be allergic to linen. But let us see how to revive it in Brittany.