When blood spills from your body you see it as a viscous red fluid.

There is much ado about blood. We refer to it often. For instance, we say

  • our blood is up when we are angry and ready for a fight;
  • blood is thicker than water when family ties are more important than the connection to other people;
  • in the blood when something is built into your personality or character;
  • it makes my blood boil when we refer to something that provokes our anger;
  • bad blood when there is ill feeling or bitterness between people;
  • blue blood when referring to aristocracy;
  • spilt blood when we speak of an incident where killing or wounding was involved;
  • my own flesh and blood when we speak of kin;
  • blood money is when someone’s betrayal was arranged and paid for;
  • who bathes his hands in blood will have to wash them with tears when we refer to actions that will cause sorrow and regret;
  • trying to get blood out of a stone when we speak of trying to do the impossible such as persuading a person to tell you something or give you something;
  • laws written in blood when we refer to offenses that are punishable by death;
  • in cold blood when an action is deliberate and without passion;
  • and for a liquid twist there is the Bloody Mary cocktail, mysteriously named after Queen Mary Tudor who was bent on persecuting and executing Protestants in the mid 1500s .

What does blood have to do with linen ?

Since the first flax was grown, spun and woven into textiles, blood has been a fly in the ointment. Bed sheets, bed covers, swaddling cloths, medical swabs, bath sheets, table covers, napkins, shrouds, robes, undergarments and overgarments most certainly took the brunt of being used in such close proximity to the body. And considering the longevity of these cloths, keeping them clean was part and parcel of domestic life. Tallow (rendered animal fat) and lye (wood ash) was the cleaning product of the day. ‘Night water’ (gentlemens’ urine) was collected and used for soaking soiled linens and for stubborn stains, a good scrubbing with more of same. You never gave up on a stain.

Can you picture it? The TIME it all took? Today it would not be altogether unusual if you were to pick up a stained item with a stick rather than touch it with your hands, and toss it into the bin!

Pricking your finger

Blood does not only blot our domestic life, it creeps into our linens long before we even own them. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Aurora in Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger while spinning. In the earliest version of this story she pricked her finger with flax. I’m supposing this is feasible because, although I’ve never handled flax, I know there are many types of fibrous grasses that will put a splinter into your finger. Later versions of the story say she pricked her finger on a spindle, which is part of the spinning wheel. Although it is pointed, a spindle is not very sharp.

My sister who spins regularly swears that Aurora must have pricked her finger on a thorn, as when you spin fleece from sheep or alpacas, you encounter many thorns. But nevertheless, Aurora pricked her finger and fell into a deep sleep. Clearly she was under a spell because this is not what usually happens when you prick your finger.

Every needlewoman has her preferred way of holding a needle. Needles, by their very nature, are sharp. It is very easy to stab yourself. Yes, there are thimbles of all kinds of materials made especially to protect your fingers but for many, the loss of touch is unbearable. I prefer not to use a thimble – it is as uncomfortable as wearing a hat to bed. However, naked fingered needlework comes with a price. There is much letting of blood in the seamstress and embroiderer’s life. Behind many, many antique pieces of embroidery and linens in your home is a story of unseen spillage and pain.

There is very little that jolts you quite as much as the piercing shock when, in a very lulled state of mind, a needle slides into your soft plump fingertip and shoots a bolt straight to your brain and central nervous system. Unlike Sleeping Beauty you are instantly wide awake with a surge of adrenalin that serves no purpose. Worse is when just a bit of pressure to push a needle through the fabric results in the back of the needle going into your fingertip, thread and all. This pain is difficult to describe. Maybe it’s a bit like a gunshot. And somehow, if it has happened once, it is going to happen again – into the same place. So unless you are very, very careful, you could end up with a tiny keyhole in your finger.

How often have I, for want of time and bother, wrapped a bit of tissue paper and cellotape around a wounded finger to avoid spilling drops of red onto the white linen I’m working on. And whenever I have a piercing, the first thing I do is check that the cloth didn’t receive a splash. The offending finger is kept aloft until the bleeding stops. There has been many a time when I’ve hand laundered a completed work and had to pay extra attention to the spots of [my] blood.

When next you take out an antique piece of linen from your cupboard, whether a simple tray cloth or a heavy, beautifully embroidered French or Italian sheet, spare a thought to what it cost the embroiderer. A figure of speech has yet to be invented for her blood and tears.

Removing blood

First of all: avoid all forms of heat – this includes hot water.

Blood is a protein and heat will cook it, making it permanent. If the blood is fresh, rinse it under a cold tap as soon as possible. Then wash the stain by hand with more cold water and good quality Boerseep. If the mark has already dried, rinse and rub with Boerseep as before but instead of washing it out, leave the soap on the stain overnight. There are a few of these traditional laundry soaps on the market to choose from. I use Ouma Hanna’s Boerseep (

I can also recommend Canettevallei Laundry soap ( and Antjie’s Handmade Naturals (

A fair bit of rubbing and the stain will disappear before your eyes. The fresher the blood, the easier it is to remove. Don’t ever use bleach on fabrics, it really destroys the fibres. If you have ever washed something by hand using Vanish, you will know what it did to your skin. That is precisely what it will do to fabric.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because loving linen and embroidery – and caring for it – is in my blood.

8 thoughts on “Blood

  1. Oh how very interesting. Thanks too for all the cleaning tips on how to remove blood from cotton or linen.
    I could absolutely relive the sudden pain of a needle. It always seems to go down my back.
    What pleasure and pain those people who sew by hand, must all experience.
    Well written, la vie de praerie!!!


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