Picking Lint

Thanks to Netflix, I can watch documentaries while I knit.  Currently I am halfway through Ken Burns’s “Civil War” (1861-1865).  As I used to teach in women’s studies, I am always interested to see how women are portrayed by the film maker; as a fiber artist I keep an eye out to see how (and if) fiber-related activities are captured.

In one episode, the narrator mentioned “picking lint for bandages.”  My mind immediately flew to a phrase in Gone With the Wind (a favorite book as a child), where Scarlett laments:  “She saw that she was tired of the endless knitting and the endless bandage rolling and lint picking that roughened the cuticle of her nails” (p. 172).

I knew that women prepared bandages by ripping sheets and various linens into strips and then rolling them up (rather like early ace bandages). But what was lint picking?

Lint was literally picked or shaved off woven linen (sometimes cotton) and saved in fluffy masses.  Commonly, woven linen or cotton was cut into small pieces and then the warp and weft threads pulled out.  The short fiber ends were bundled together to form “charpies.”  Picked lint or a charpie would be pressed against a wound (to absorb leakage, fluids, etc.).  A regular bandage was then wrapped around the limb or body of the wounded to hold the charpie in place.  Alternatively, wax or an adhesive plaster might be applied over the charpie.  (For an excellent explanation, see Virginia Mescher’s “Lint and Charpie: It’s Not Your Dryer Lint.”)

While ladies’ aid societies in both the North and South were very active and support of the war effort, the only woman mentioned actively involved in the war effort was Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross, whom we learn stood “barely 5 feet tall” – though I am unsure of the relevance of her height), until the latter part of Episode 5.  At that point, a five-minute or so segment briefly mentioned a few women, such Mary Ann Bickerdyke aka Mother Bickerdyke (known for her fierce lobbying for better medical attention to and care of the wounded – incompetent surgeons and doctors feared her; Generals Grant and Sherman respected her), and their contributions to the war effort through, sewing, baking, etc.

During that war, the nation turned to women’s sphere for help, and women responded enthusiastically.  They wove, knit, spun and sewed; they made clothes, blankets, socks, mittens, hats, uniforms, bandages, lint, and charpies.  They ran farms and stores and raised children while their husbands were fighting.  A handful of women disguised themselves as men and fought.  Some women followed the troops to be near and care for their loved ones.  Not uncommonly, women followed the regiments to wash clothes! (pic source)

I do not think the Civil War would have lasted four years without women’s contributions.  I think the role of women during the Civil War deserves more than a five-minute abbreviated review.  Of course, I have four more episodes to go; perhaps Ken Burns will remedy this oversight.  (I’m not holding my breath.)

(pic source)


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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17 Responses to Picking Lint

  1. salpal1 says:

    It is! and how many people think it is distracting if I have my hands in my lap knitting a hat or something. But not if I sit and doodle on a pad (which is what I do if I can’t knit.)


  2. It’s all the twitching back and forwards between the increases and decreases, too much friction. 🙂


  3. Knitting doesn’t bother my fingers except periodically – oddly generally when I knit a lot of lace!


  4. And isn’t weird how so many people think we can’t listen/participate as we knit/crochet!


  5. Women’s contributions are just aren’t counted very much. 😦


  6. Picking lint will never make quite as many headline nor documentaries nor films as battle scenes. Sad (in both senses) but true. I always knit when watching too. It does sound like rough work too, all that fretting between the fingers, knitting has a bad enough effect on mine! 🙂


  7. salpal1 says:

    Women’s contribution to war is long ignored. During the years leading up to, during and following the revolutionary war, women did all of the things you mentioned. Abigail Adams ran the family farm and raised the children, took care of the aged parents for about 20 years while John was off in Philadelphia, France and England. He only came home long enough to make sure she had another child, it seems! She wasn’t the only one, either – Cokey Robert’s “Founding Mothers” is an interesting read if you want to learn more about the strong women who enabled the fathers to “found” the country. It wasn’t until WW2 that women were asked to leave the home and lint picking to take up manufacturing jobs, and that wound up chanign the world moer than the war did, I think.

    But to your original post – when I sew, I always put a movie or documentary on the TV, it is a nice way to keep my mind occupied while my fingers work. And I never just watch TV without my knitting in hand. I would go crazy! In fact, the knitting goes with me everywhere – car, meetings, lunch time at work. It is amazing how much I get done while not really knitting. 🙂


  8. Yup, Scarlett wasn’t exactly altruistic. That was Melanie’s role. 🙂


  9. kate lore says:

    wow, again, with the “never heard of lint picking!” and I guess i missed that in GWTW…poor Scarlett, I can’t imagine her with the patience to do that! lol… thanks again for another interesting article!


  10. Gotta echo the other posters with “interesting”! I’d never actually heard of lint picking. Makes sense in the years before gauze though!


  11. Northern Narratives says:

    Very true.


  12. Not to mention useful info to have if we find ourselves stuck in the outback somewhere having to dress a wound and only having bed linens to work with. 🙂


  13. Northern Narratives says:

    That is very interesting.


  14. I certainly didn’t! I had imaged Scarlett and Melanien picking lint off blankets to make them look tidy!


  15. I don’t get many channels on my TV (won’t invest the money in a good cable package), but I find Netflix is better for me. So it works out! (I’ve been known to pick up knitting when I’m sitting – behind the wheel – in gridlock traffic!)


  16. Tracey says:

    Very interesting! Who knew?


  17. Great post, very informative. I knit in front of the tv and when in the car- if I”m not driving!


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