Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Hemp and Linen: Material Actors

In the summer of 2012 the innovative ecomuseum in Douarnenez, The Port-Musée/ Musée du Bateau presented an exhibition, Fibres Marines as part of a larger regional theme (Chanvre et Lin/ Hemp and Linen) shared that season across multiple sites: the history and importance of the natural fibers  linen and hemp in Brittany’s history and the role of these materials in global maritime history.

"Organisé par le réseau Lin et Chanvre en Bretagne, le projet 2012 – Année du lin et du chanvre en Bretagne, vise à faire découvrir ou redécouvrir ces plantes au public à travers leurs applications passées, présentes et futures."

For centuries, hemp and linen were grown, processed and finished in Brittany and were the materials from which nets, lines, ropes and sails were made.

Map of linen and hemp areas in 16th to 17th century Brittany.

Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things has encouraged us to look differently at the relationships of the human and non-human worlds. She writes that she aspires “to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (viii). Putting these materials at the center of an exhibition, and using representations (photographs, objects, films) as supplementary, contextual evidence shifts the terms of a museum visit. The humble matter itself assumes the agency it had all along in the telling of local history.

Duhamel du Monceau's Enlightenment-era encyclopedia of fishing, Traité général des pesches (1769-82.  This image demonstrating the fabrication of nets comes from the first volume (1769) which offers a remarkably detailed inventory of halieutics, or the science of the exploitation of living aquatic resources. The images that follow from this volume also speak to the material actors that enabled the harvesting of ocean fish.
 The image above was one of many supporting images that demonstrated the technologies of fishing that depended upon hemp and linen.

Denis Diderot, Hemp and Cotton
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, 
des arts et des métiers. Plates vol. I Paris (1762)

A few years earlier, Diderot's Encyclopedia had also demonstrated the processing of hemp (and cotton).

In the Douarnenez show, from hemp plants under grow lights to bales of fragrant raw fibers, the ecological materiality of these fibers was foregrounded.

Viewers had to think about the way that these plants made sea travel and shipping possible.   Taking the use of these materials for ropes and ship rigging up into the World Wars of the 20th century, the show concluded pointedly: there is too much plastic in the ocean—much of this comes from plastics used in fishing gear and lightweight boats.

 Linen and hemp, finally, were offered as solutions to ocean plastics. In concert with other fibers and composites, they can replace petro-chemical resins in promising ways, such as the light, yet biodegradable boats .  This show that made materiality central also opened up the possibility of new, sustainable futures.

Naskapi Canoe, made of composite of  bio-materials including linen fibers.

A talk I gave in 2012 at the AAH conference in Milton Keynes explored Brittany’s former linen industry (Toiles de Bretagne) that flourished from the 16th to 19th centuries. This was a global operation that imported linen seeds from Baltic States and grew, spun and wove linen in Brittany that was exported as finished fabric to Latin America and elsewhere.

Little material evidence of the industry remains, apart from the intangible memories of the local people and the former manor houses of the textile merchants. The cloth trade brought  economic prosperity to Brittany in the 16th to 17th centuries, especially in Léon diocese. With the evocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685, Louis XIV effectively shut down this trade and destroyed the local economy.  The  Breton Protestants who made up a mass “brain drain” emigration included many cloth dealers and manufactuers (in Rennes, Nantes and Vitré). But during the prosperous time of the linen trade, (like the earlier competitive building of ever-taller Gothic cathedrals in the Ile-de-France region) seemingly remote, linen-producing Breton interior towns in Finistère built elaborate, multi-structured compounds known as enclos. A few of my photos on this blog attest to these monuments of global trade that today are often misread as local oddities, provincial misunderstandings of renaissance classicism.

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