W h a t i s . . . ?
The word itself, from the Germanic "Kolnisch Blau", refers to a plant grown as animal feed, and whose leaves and stems were the sources of an intense blue dye. As early as the 7th century, the plant, along with hemp and linen, was the main crop cultivated in eastern France and neighboring Germany. From the 16th through the 19century, the word kelsch came to describe the hand-woven linen and hemp cloths made by the rural peasantry in French Alsace.
Cotton and métis joined these basic textiles in the 19th century. Indigo blue and the root of the madder plant (the source of a bright red) eventually replaced or complemented the original dyes.
Making kelsch cloth defined domestic industry during the winter months when work on the land was less demanding. With the first frosts, families would weave and dye cloth on small handmade frames. Every member of the household was skilled in their use. Being part of local cottage weaving industries was a popular and necessary source of income for the peasant class.
As the looms were small, the lengths of two cloths were hand-stitched together, selvage to selvage, and without any seam allowance, to meet the necessary sizes of personal linens. When joined as fabric envelopes, the "kelsch cloth" became the "kelsch" as it is known today -- the mattress itself, or a plumeaux.
These pieced cloths, one plain bottom, one patterned top, were tightly whipstitched together on three sides. Linen ribbons, appliquéd to the open edge of the envelope after the three sides of the finished piece were joined, kept the feather or straw lining, crudely in place. Vents cut into the cloth or formed by leaving the corners of the kelsch open, allowed the family to stir the stuffing with their hands, thus keeping it well distributed. Family Linens often finds cloths that still have remnants of feathers or straw caught in the stitching.
In France, as early as the 14th century, the word trousseau (from the 12th century word for bundle) meant not only those items of cloth brought by a bride to the new home to share with her husband, but the stuff accompanying a child to a boarding school or a convent. These "trousseaux" incorporated a set amount of "kelschs." A trousseau was, essentially, the personal patrimony of each family member. It was, undeniably, a woman's gift to her family.
In English, a mixture. A general term used to describe any fabric woven with different yarns in the warp and the weft. At Family Linens, métis refers to a cotton warp with a linen weft.
The thread or yarn that is carried by a shuttle in weaving and interlaces the warp yarn at right angles from selvage to selvage.
Any of the intricate designs made on a Jacquard loom in brocade, tapestry, and especially damask.
In French, chanvre. A plant that produces a very resistant fiber, used for making coarse cloth. Since the Alsatian kelsch was made to be a mattress that held straw or feathers, the underside is often made of hemp or a mixture of hemp and linen.
In French, garance. The root of the madder plant is the source of a bright red dye. The red trousers of the French infantry were referred to as les pantalons garance.
Homespun is loosely woven woolen, linen, or hemp fabric originally made from homespun yarn. Family Linens uses the term to define the fabric woven on narrow looms, often at home in 18th and 19th century Alsace. We also refer to homespun as kelschcloth. The texture of homespun fabric is not as smooth and regular as the texture of an industrial weave.