Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission

March 18, 2013 How a Shirt Grew in the Field

Source: N. Lee Pengilly   |  Category: General News

How a Shirt Grew in the Field

By N. Lee Pengilly, Researcher and Author

Konstantin Ushinsky (1824 – 1870) was a popular Russian educator and writer. His stories are still popular with Russian children and How a Shirt Grew in the Field, his best known work, is now considered a classic. Marguerita Rudolph translated and adapted the story in 1967 and Erika Weihs illustrated the 1992 version.

In wonderful detail, the story chronicles the questions posed by Vasya, a young boy who is told by this father while broadcasting flaxseeds, “I am sowing flax seeds so that shirts will grow for you…” The puzzled Vasya checks on the field in a few days and finds his mother and sisters “bending low and stepping carefully” as they weed the field, but no shirts are growing. When next he looks upon the field he finds “small, light blossoms,” then “little green heads” followed by “dried up brownish heads,” but still no shirts. In the fall he is surprised and disappointed to find his mother and sisters pulling the flax out by the roots and tying it into sheaves. A few days later they are “knocking the heads off the flax with paddles” and subsequently pulling it into the river. The young Vasya decides they must be drowning the flax because “it is no good” and when they cover it with large stones, he is sure. There is now “no shirt and no flax!”

In a few weeks the flax is dragged out of the water and allowed to dry. Vasya is relieved to see the flax might still be put to some use, but is surprised all over again as he watches the flax beaten, first with boards and then with a swingle. “The flax was beaten so hard that sparks flew in all directions.” Once again the young boy is sure the flax will be destroyed. It is late fall when Vasya’s mother brings what is left of the flax into the house, where she begins to comb it. His mother tells him the flax will make a new shirt for him, but by now, Vasya is not so sure. Through the winter “with its long evenings for working indoors” Vasya’s sisters tie the flax to spinning boards and the little boy listens to their singing as they spin the flax into thread. From there, the loom is set up and the cloth begins to take shape. Vasya’s excitement is tempered by how coarse, stiff and scratchy the fabric feels. Towards the end of winter, the fabric is carried outside and spread upon the snow.

With spring’s arrival, the material is dipped in the river and spread out once again, this time on the green grass while the bright sun shines down upon it. Each day Vasya’s mother dampens the cloth and each day it becomes whiter and softer. Late in the summer the cloth is again soaked in the river, but this time it’s hung on the fence to dry and further whiten. As summer becomes fall, Vasya’s mother brings the cloth indoors, and begins cutting it into pieces. She tells the child she is making him a shirt, but after so much time has passed, he remains unsure. Late at night while Vasya sleeps, his sisters sew and embroider and finally, he awakens one morning to find his beautiful new shirt with its embroidered collar and cuffs. He is, of course, the happiest boy in the village!

With its detailed seasonal illustrations, How a Shirt Grew in the Field   reminds us of how lengthy a process it was for the people of yesteryear to transform flax from seed to garment. The division of labour between, father, mother and sisters is clearly documented and one can’t help but marvel at what families were able to accomplish.

How a Shirt Grew in the Field is available through the Regional Library Systems in Saskatchewan with copies by both Ushinsky and Rudolf. Although it is currently out of print, it can be purchased at various online bookstores in used form.

Note: A swingle is a wooden instrument like a knife or paddle used to beat hemp or flax and scrape woody portions out of the material.

How a Shirt Grew in the Field
Adapted from the Russian by Marguerita Rudolph
Illustrated by Erika Weihs
Clarion Book
A Houghton Mifflin Company imprint
New York, N.Y.