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  • Just like at home in Bavaria, we make linen, Sister Albina and I, from flax we grow. The field in bloom is the brilliant blue of a July sky. We harvest the seeds for tea and medicine, but what we need is the fiber at each stalk’s center. For that we flail, submerge the stalks in water for weeks, dry and break, scutch and hackle them. Finally, we comb out the last chaff, spin our yarn, and weave it into cloth. Our unbleached homespun isn’t fine enough to be valuable, but it has made many fine vestments and altar cloths.

    {This is a 100-word story, part of the "Habits" series.}

    Sister Petrina and Sister Albina came to the United States from Bavaria in 1893 and 1894 and went almost immediately to the Benedictine convent. Petrina began making linen in 1904, and in 1914 her sister joined her. They managed a quarter-acre plot of flax and the intensive process that involved sowing the seed, weeding the plot, harvesting by hand, rippling, retting, drying, flaying, scutching, hackling, reeling, soaking, spinning and weaving the cloth. Most of the fibers were coarse and short and used for making towels, doilies, table runners and other pieces. The finer cloth was bleached and used to make vestments and altar cloths. Petrina and Albina produced as much as 75 yards of cloth each year, depending on the soil and weather, until 1944, when the monastery discontinued growing flax. They died in 1945 and 1947, respectively. When there was a good harvest, some of the seed was sold. Later it was used for teas and medicinal purposes at the monastery and the Sisters’ hospital and homes for the aged. By 1937 it was not seen as a money-making venture but to give retired Sisters “new interests and occupation during their venerable age.” The photos are of Sisters Petrina and Albina from Vivarium, and online archive of the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. The final photo is of the Sisters dressing the altar in the 1980s with a linen altar cloth made by the Hoeft sisters in 1920.
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