I have three weaknesses. You’ve already figured out the embroidery one – I’m a bit obsessed with needle & thread. But you might not know about the other two, which are closely connected. One is old books and the other is children’s books.
Imagine all three of those woven together into one book – a book I grew up with.
And that’s where this book fits in. How a Shirt Grew in the Field is a children’s book that, in storybook fashion, takes the child (and adult!) through the whole process of how linen was made by the Russian peasant back in the days before industrial farming and textile machinery. In the late ’60’s, Marguerita Rudolph adapted the original Russian tale by Konstantin Ushinsky (the original story is over 140 years old), and Yaroslava, a Ukrainian folk artist and illustrator, drew the illustrations. The book has since been republished (in the ’90’s) and re-illustrated by Erica Weihs. Both editions are out of print but available through used book sources or libraries.
The story begins with a young boy, Vasya, who watches his father planting seed by hand in a field. He asks his father what he is doing, and his father tells him that he is sowing flax seeds so that a shirt will grow for Vasya and his little sister.
Well, this intrigued the little lad. How can a shirt grow in a field?
Vasya observes all that happens with this field – he sees his mother and father and older sisters weeding the field, then he sees the field blossom with beautiful blue flax blossoms. He watches as the field is cut down. And all the while, he is puzzled, because he doesn’t understand how a shirt will grow there.
The tale takes the reader through the harvesting of the flax, the winnowing of the flax, the soaking of the flax stalks in the river…
… eventually, the combing of the flax, the spinning of the flax tow into thread, the weaving of the thread into cloth, and then the whole process to make the cloth soft and white – how they spread it out in the snow of winter, and then again on the fresh grass in the spring sun.
The cloth, now soft and white, is cut, and Vasya’s sisters begin adorning the various pieces with embroidery.
He awakens one morning to see his new shirt ready for him – and now he understands how a shirt can grow in a field.
In these days of practically-disposable clothing and cloth that is bought readily off the bolt, this book is a great little lesson for children to see the time-intensive and laborious process of creating cloth and clothing before industrialization. It gives them a peek into life 150 years ago and a little vicarious experience of what life then would have been like – imagine waiting a year or longer for a shirt! It’s a great way to inspire appreciation for the process and art of cloth making, as well as an appreciation for things.
It’s a great little book – for children… and adults!
So, why am I bringing up a children’s book? Well, last week, I was communicating with Jan of Wooly Thread, and she mentioned the book. Little did she know that I’ve a bit of an infatuation with these types of books – vintage, children’s, and textile-related – so her reminder was much appreciated! It was one of those little serendipitous memory jogs (thanks, Jan!). I always take delight in re-reading books I grew up with. And since I found it so delightful to revisit this gem, I thought you might like it, too!