Anyone can find an organic cotton T-shirt or ball cap in today's retail stores. Consumers pay significantly higher prices for a shirt that doesn't seem so different than its Fruit of the Loom counterpart. I recently visited Kane County's own version of Little House on the Prairie: the Durant House and Museum. The homestead offers educational programs throughout the changing seasons. The most recent event at the museum was textile day, a hands-on experience showing the hard work behind making one shirt.
"It's such a labor intensive process. That's why cotton is so popular today," said Frank Wukitsch.
Wukitsch and his wife have both worked as costumed docents at the Durant House for over 25 years. He demonstrated using flax as a fiber — a textile pioneers used during the 17th and 18th centuries in Midwest America.
"It's a historical fabric that's not so common today. After the invention of the cotton gin in the 19th century, flax became less popular," he said.
Wukitsch's wife works with fiber when she spins, knits and quilts, but Frank became interested in it after collecting tools.
"There are two types of collectors. I'm a user type. I find old tools and learn how to use them," he said.
Among the tools in Wukitsch's collection are a flax brake, a hatchel and a scutchboard; all are used to turn raw flax into a material suitable for spinning into thread.
Wukitsch explained that the process using the three tools is meant for separating the three layers of flax.
"These are the tools that were used 5,000 years ago, found in Mesopotamia," he said.
Wukitsch demonstrated the age-old process with flax hand harvested in West Virginia.
"It's terrible to grow because it needs perfect sunlight, the perfect amount of water and it must be harvested by hand. It must be picked and dried before it's ready to be used," he said.
Flax is a common crop used in the U.S. today, not for its textile use, but for linseed oil and linoleum. The only countries that grow and produce it into clothing are India and Ireland.
Wukitsch mentioned the importance of the flax crop in the pioneer years because people had limited clothing.
"There was the work shirt and the church shirt. The work shirt was washed once a week and could last for 40 years," he said.
Commercial shirts in today's market wouldn't last that long mainly because of the cotton material and modern washing and care techniques.
"There was no such thing as starch back then, or the concept of bleach," he said.
Although Wukitsch claims he doesn't own one linen shirt, his wife enjoys working with the fiber as well as working with wool.
"There's a lot of time involved behind the process, but it's the fact that I can make it myself," she said.
Susan enjoys the intricate process involved in transforming fibers into thread for knitting.
"Sustainable living is so time consuming, but you appreciate it so much more," she said.
Susan has worked at the museum for 28 years and sees the importance for future generations to appreciate the simple life.
"Younger kids have no concept of hands-to-work. Everything is bought and processed. Consumers are not connected to the actual thing anymore," she said.
The Durant House and Museum offers that authentic experience for the youth to understand the importance of history.
"We try to give them a taste of what it was like 170 years ago," she said. "Every family member was involved. Everyone worked."