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The Couche Chronicals

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proth5's picture
proth5

The Couche Chronicals

 On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of "Good Eats" I've decide to get my "nerd on" and offer a detailed explanation for a small detail.


 From time to time I read discussions on couches and couche care on these pages and I encounter what I will call "folklore" about the fibers and  fabric care.


I will not wade too deeply into the various controversies, but I do have some small expertise on fibers and fabric care and would really like to share it for those who desire a more complete understanding of this fascinating topic.


 Let's start with linen.  Linen is a bast fiber (other common bast fibers are jute, hemp, and ramie) which means that it comes from the center stalk of a plant.  In the case of linen, it comes from the center stalk of the flax plant.  The fibers that are known as flax before they are spun and linen after they are spun are the long fibrous strands found between the outer "bark" and inner core of the flax plant.  Although the flax plant obligingly provides us with seeds for use in our baking as well as fiber, the culture is different between those plants destined mostly for fiber and those destined mostly for seed.  Plants to be grown for fiber are planted close together so that the plant will grow tall and straight with little branching and fewer flowers.  Plants grown for seed are planted further apart so that they will branch and produce more flowers.  Additionally, different varieties of flax are cultivated commercially for these purposes and to achieve these ends, so while it is a romantic notion to think that the very same plant gives us linen for our couche and seeds for our bread, it is a just a bit invalid here in the early days of the 21st century.


 Because it is a bast fiber, linen is extremely strong.  Also bast fibers do not have any crimp (like a lock of wool or a cotton fiber) and so will not shrink.


 Because of the expense of producing cotton (more later) and its limited growing range, linen was the most commonly used fiber in Europe until the end of the 18th century and continued to be widely used until the invention of the cotton gin.


Flax becomes linen in a multi step process.  After the plant has reached maturity, it is harvested - preferably by pulling it from the ground root and all to maximize the length of the fiber.  It is dried, the seed pods removed, and then retted.  Retting is a process where the flax is kept wet - either by submerging it in water or keeping it on a moist surface (like the dew on grass) until the outer layer partially decomposes exposing the fibers.  Once again it is dried.  The next step is breaking where the outer layer is further broken mechanically.  Scutching comes next - where a knife like device is used to further scrape the outer layer from the fibers.  At this point the fibers are mostly clean, but they are further cleaned and straightened by a process known as hackling.  A flax hackle looks something like a medieval torture device and is a board from which protrude number of sharp iron spikes.  The hackling process will produce long fibers that will be spun into fine linen and short yellow fibers called "tow."  When we look at a blonde child and call her a "tow head" we are comparing the color and texture of her hair to the color and texture of the tow produced by this process.  Tow can also be spun, but it will not be as smooth as fine linen.  After all this, the fibers are spun (after mounting them on a distaff) (oh, and they are usually spun wet to give the smoothest results) and become linen.  This can either be bleached (by the action of chemicals or the sun) or left natural.  Then it is woven and there is one more chance to bleach it. 


 After all it has gone through to become cloth; one really must ponder why we have come to think of this fiber as "delicate."  Yes, it can be finely spun to produce a very fine fabric, but this is a tough fiber indeed.


 I have planted and tended flax, processed it and spun it into linen.  This is one of the reasons why $9 per yard for couche linen does not cause me to flinch.  While I understand that people's economic situations and propensity to spend vary, I consider the number of steps to create that cloth and I can't begrudge anyone the money.


One characteristic of linen is that it absorbs and evaporates moisture quickly.  This makes it particularly suited for use as a couche, since in theory one of the functions of the couche is to pull moisture from the surface of the bread to prepare it for better scoring.  This also means that once a linen couche is used and has absorbed some moisture, it will dry more quickly and so prevent mold.


 New linen couche cloth needs to be washed to rid it of any chemicals used in finishing.  It will ravel somewhat, but well woven linen couche cloth will not ravel excessively.  It can be washed in hot water simply to get it as clean as possible.  There is no need to use hot water to shrink it (for, as mentioned before, it can not shrink).  Mild soap should be used for fine or antique linens, but for a couche as long as you feel good about it rinsing out of the cloth, the linen does just fine with any modern detergent (I routinely launder my linen aprons in regular detergent and they are holding up just fine...).  This being the one of the sturdiest fibers there is (consider that sails were made of linen) there is no need for a gentle cycle for couche cloth.  (Again, fine or antique linens are another diverting topic in and of themselves and are treated differently.)  Linen couche cloth can safely be dried in an automatic dryer.  (Actually, the dryer is the biggest enemy of linen (and cotton) - not because of the heat, but because the tumbling action will cause friction on the fabric and pull off parts of the fiber which we experience as dryer lint.  However, since the couche will not be washed often - have no fear.)  Fabric softeners (liquids or dryer sheets) should not be used as they impact the absorption qualities of the fiber (this also goes for cotton.)  (Won't get involved in the whole "toxic chemicals" debate.)  It might be slightly puckered after washing and drying (and again, this is wrinkling, not shrinkage) but since this is the one and only time you should be washing it, any raveled threads can be trimmed and the cloth is ready.  No need to hem or serge it.  If you wish to iron it, it should be ironed when quite damp.


 Linen contains a wax that when exposed to the heat of an iron will provide the fabric with a luster.  We hardly care about this in our couches, but when dealing with fine linen cloth it is best to iron it on both sides to maximize the luster.


 Cotton requires a warm climate and a long growing season to reach maturity.  When picked from the plant, the cotton contains about 2/3 seeds to 1/3 fiber.  Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, these seeds needed to be picked out by hand or by putting each cotton tuft through a couple of rollers to squeeze out the seeds (either one a labor intensive process.)  When the cotton is dried after harvest, the fiber dries into a flat ribbon shape that corkscrews.  This is the crimp that will cause cotton to shrink.  It also gives cotton more elasticity than linen, so it is less prone to wrinkles.


 Because cotton fibers are relatively short (different varieties of cotton have different fiber lengths, but they are all considered short in relation to wool - and of course linen where the fibers may be 2-3 feet in length), they require a great deal of twist when spinning.  Although cotton is easy to spin, putting in a lot of twist causes spinning to be relatively slow.  In an environment of hand spinning or limited mechanical spinning, cotton is a luxury fiber.  Most folks who live in the US are familiar with the role that the cotton gin played in the American South and how ensuing events lead to conflict.


 I have also planted, grown, harvested, cleaned, and spun my own cotton.  It seems like it should be less effort than processing flax, but harvesting is kind of grueling (yes, the cotton pods are sharp!), and picking out the seeds - although simple - is pretty time consuming.  Also, I could grow flax in Colorado and not cotton.  And I like it here...  In fact, it is this limited growing range that created an important cotton trade.  Flax, on the other hand, was readily grown in many climates and never reached this kind of economic importance.


 Cotton does not have the wicking power of linen so will take longer to dry and "in theory" will not perform as well as linen to pull moisture from dough.  I won't weigh in on the cotton vs. linen couche decision except to say that I like the feel of linen as opposed to cotton.  I like touching it and I try to use it when I can.  (A linen bath towel dries like nothing else, by the way.)  Obsessive perfectionists might want to blow the money to get the absolute perfect fabric for the application (and it is.)  If we look backwards to "the old ways" - especially old European ways - linen would be the fabric of choice as cotton would have been too rare and expensive.  But cotton is just fine.


 Once again, a well woven cotton couche will ravel when washed (and it should be washed to remove finishing chemicals), but not so much as to be a problem.  Since this should be the one and only time the couche is washed, these threads can be trimmed and will not be a problem again.  No need to hem, serge, etc. unless even the smallest amount of raveling (in the past) is something you simply cannot tolerate.  Similarly, since the couche will not be washed again, washing it in hot water will cause it to shrink a bit, but there is really no need to shrink it.  Most cotton that is commercially available has already gone through enough processing so that any major shrinkage has already occurred.


 No matter what fabric you use, the couche should be dry before storage, or stored in such a way that it will dry quickly in storage.  Those of us in dry climates can be a bit careless, while those in humid climates might wish to find a spot to hang couches until they are dry.  Folding any fabric will result - over time - in permanent creases and will eventually cause weak spots in the fabric along those crease lines.  "Over time" is sort of a relative thing.  For a couche which we might be using for ten or twenty years and will not be passed down to the children and grandchildren, this should not be a concern.  Creases will develop, but they will not substantially reduce the functionality of the couche.  For treasured quilts or tablecloths, many experts recommend that they be rolled, or if that is not practical that folds be padded with acid free tissue paper and that periodically they be re folded in a different way.  Personally I can roll my couche and so I do.


 Yes, it's a long winded post with no pictures and I realize that it will fade away as more blogs are created, but I've really done my homework on this and attempted to present facts as opposed to folklore.  Hope it is useful and dispels some myths.

Comments

Oldcampcook's picture
Oldcampcook

Wonderful read!  Thanks for taking the time to write it up.


Bob

Susan's picture
Susan

and now I know why.  Thanks for the enlightenment; I enjoyed it.  I've wanted linen sheets for years and haven't made myself splurge on them.  So I make do with all cotton.  Maybe one day.


Susan from San Diego

proth5's picture
proth5

are indeed an indulgence.  Once you try them though, you will never, ever want to sleep on anything else....

chouette22's picture
chouette22

and very useful. Thank you!

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Proth5, I used to sell even weave linen for cross stitch in my needlework store ( for much more than $9 a yard!) and all I knew was that it came from flax. Thank you so much for such interesting and detailed information. One of the favorite gifts English people send to their dear ones living overseas is an Irish linen teatowel, usually printed with a calendar or a map. I have collected several and I'm sure they would make great couches, A.



proth5's picture
proth5

to everyone for kind words (and your persistance).


This one deserves a special reply, because my love affair with linen began with the even weave linen used for cross stitch (and yes, for much more than $9 a yard!)  Obviously on a large project, this spends some time in one's hands and that's when I learned to enjoy the feel of linen.

inlovewbread's picture
inlovewbread

Looks like some of us share an interest in cross stitching! Beaded cross-stich anyone? Love the home arts. 


AnnieT- that cross stitch store, was it in San Diego?


I just got a couche as a gift that was ordered from KA. There's another question below about this in particular. What is it?


Maybe I should get out some of my nice cross stitching linen to use for bread proofing instead?  


This article was very interesting, proth5- I love learning about this kind of thing. And, I have always wondered about the saying, "tow-head" Ha! Now I know. 


Thanks for posting this.

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Yes, inlovewbread, it was indeed - Windsor Counting House in San Carlos. Then I moved it to Flagstaff AZ... I haven't stitched in years since I got hooked on quilting and then became totally obsessed with bread baking. I'm hoping one of my grandgirls will want to learn to stitch before I'm too old to show her how. Her sister is more into archery and skateboarding! A.


proth5's picture
proth5

Personally, I would not use this in bread making.  Couche cloth has a much coarser fiber and weave.  It is also unbleached.  I think the coarse texture is helpful in holding flour. 


There are way better applications for the lustrous linen I used for cross stitch - even if you have more of it than you think you could ever use, I would be using it for aprons or towels, or clothing before I would consign it to proofing bread....

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Wasn't AB's tenth anniversary show a hoot!  Heck of a way to make smoothies, though.


Your couche chronical is most appreciated and timely, Pat.  You have amazing talents. 


After my experience of using a linen napkin to turn my brotform into a banneton, I've decided to replace my homemade cotton canvas couche with linen.  I prefer the way linen feels, handles, and releases the dough. 


But which linen couche?  I was looking at King Arthur Flour and their couche is "Belgian canvas made of natural flax fibers."  Untreated.  SFBI's is "linen canvas" with no details.


Any suggestions will be most appreciated.

proth5's picture
proth5

Fizzy smoothies....


I purchased a KA couch some time ago.  It is perfectly nice.  My recollection was that it was sized (because I start to itch mightily if I am exposed to fabric sizing, an unfortunate side effect of what I call my "first lifetime" when I was exposed to tremendous amounts of inexpensive fabrics) so I'm not sure about their claim of "untreated."  However, I recently purchased the SFBI linen canvas and like it better.  The two are fairly similar in terms of fabric quality.  The one from SFBI is heavily sized and needs to be washed (washed before I could handle it with bare hands...), but it handles well after washing, and you can buy a larger continuous yardage.  Their narrowest size fits perfectly into a half sheet pan - which is what I use for proofing at home.


I just looked up the KA couche and read reviews.  They are pretty adamant that you should not wash it - even when it is new.  As I said, because of my reaction to fabric sizing, I washed mine when it was new.  Maybe they have changed the source for the fabric or maybe folk without my sensitvity can stand the fabric finish, but I really felt the need to wash mine.  It raveled a bit, but not enough to impact its function.  I'm not sure about the reviewer who claimed that it "ripped to shreds" after washing.  Any linen fabric that shreds in the washer is simply defective fabric.  As I've said, I've worked with a lot of fabric (and a lot of linen) and there is a difference between raveling and ripping to shreds.  (You just need to be calm and trim off the threads - I have never seen a good piece of linen ravel more than 1/2 inch) They are asking a pretty steep price for a half yard of 30" linen canvas, though. Maybe that's why folks are upset when it ravels.  Sheer economics says to buy from SFBI...


"Belgian canvas made of natural flax" - I love the folks at KA, but sometimes their marketing flair is too much for me. 

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Appreciate your advice and wisdom.  SFBI it is.

ehanner's picture
ehanner

I enjoy reading a chronicle that is thoughtful and well versed. There were a few little details I knew from my experiences in the past but I learned a lot from your post. Thank you for taking the time. I'm going to print this for my dear Mother-in law who is the family authority for most things of this nature. I'm sure she will appreciate your contribution.


Eric

proth5's picture
proth5

you enjoyed it. 

wally's picture
wally

I never understood why linen couche cost so much.  After reading your article the light bulb went on!  Thanks for an informative and useful piece.


Larry

JeremyCherfas's picture
JeremyCherfas

Thank you so much for a very informative post. You prompted me to try and search for a clip I saw a long time ago on British TV, about the resurrection of fine linen-making in Ireland. It was that show that first enabled me to understand how you get from a bunch of dried (or rotten) stalks to the phrase "flaxen haired".


I couldn't find that clip, but I did find a small video on Youtube that shows the transformation of retted stalks into flaxen fibres.


The version I saw was more up to date, involving a spinning wheel of some sort that turned the bunch of dry stalks into the soft lustrous fibres, but this video is just as wonderful.


Jeremy

proth5's picture
proth5

deja vu all over again.  Just like I remember.


I am sure that modern flax processing combines these processes.  To me a "spinning wheel" is a very specific piece of equipment.  I am sure you meant "a wheel that happens to be spinning" because, trust me - that flax better be well prepared before taking it to a spinning wheel.


The handspinning of flax is another diverting process and really off topic for these pages.  The importance of properly dressing a distaff and spinning wet cannot be overstated. 


Thanks for the link!

JeremyCherfas's picture
JeremyCherfas

A wheel that happens to be spinning, not a wheel for spinning. I do wish I could find the original, because it was much more magical, in a way, seeing the straw-like stalks turn into a hank of fine, hair-like flax.


Hunting for that image, I came acoss another film, which is a very long 10 minutes ... so I won't link to it.


And then there's the oldest known human-made fibre.


Jeremy

proth5's picture
proth5

madness lies.


I often wonder about the discovery of the flax processing process.  I mean, you can look at a wild sheep - maybe even get some of the soft down in your hand and think "Oh, soft! Maybe I can twist it..."  Wool indeed is easily spun against a thigh and its crimp makes it into strong cord rather easily. But to dry, rett, dry, break, scutch, hackle and spin the weed growing outside the cave?  That takes some thought!


 

Janknitz's picture
Janknitz

for the very informative post, Proth.  I've tried knitting linen and didn't like it much because there is no spring to linen yarn--really hurt my hands while knitting (I don't particularly like knitting cotton or silk for the same reason).  But I certainly like the fabric produced by other's hands (and machines).


I don't yet have a couche because I haven't taken the leap to baguettes yet, but one of these days I will.  I'm eager for any helpful info and have more questions:


Is the canvas you can buy at an art supply store for painting OK for this use?


Could you go the next step and explain how to properly flour the linen to avoid sticking?  Do you just sprinkle it on or is there a science to the method.  Should you rub flour into the surface?


What about cleaning?  Should you just knock the flour out, or brush it off?  What should you do if dough does stick?   

proth5's picture
proth5

You are taking me out of my area of profound expertise, but I'll give it a shot.


Cotton should have some spring, but not like wool.   I enjoy working with silk, though...


I use a couch for more than baguettes - I also use mine for whole wheat batards.


I don't know what treatments are applied to "art supply" canvas.  My thinking would be that the surface is prepped in some way so as to take paint better and that surface prep is not something we want to have (or to pay for) in a couche.  Seems like this would be the least likely way to go if you don't want to actually buy some canvas at the fabric store (or at the harware store as some have) or some linen from, say, SFBI (or rather, TMB Baking).  Unless, of course, you have a lot of the stuff laying about.  But it should be free of any treatments.


As for flour - well, my experience is that I rubbed my linen couche with a light dusting of flour a couple of years ago and haven't needed to touch it since.  But I live in dry, dry Denver.  When I bake elsewhere I have both rubbed flour into the couche each time it was used to make sure that the fabric wasn't unduly exposed and sprinkled the couche  heavily with flour (at the direction of whoever was telling me what to do.)  Seems like rubbing the flour in is a good idea and is generally practiced among bakers.


Um, since I have such a very small amount of flour on my couche, I let the thing dry and then just roll it up with whatever flour is on it.  It is stored in an open plastic container where a gentle dusting of flour is not a problem.  I have seen the couche simply folded on a sheet pan (with whatever flour is on it) and stored on a speed rack and also rolled (with whatever flour is on it) and stored on a sheet pan on a speed rack.  Seemed to work for the folks who did it that way. 


I have heresay reports that some bakers brush excess flour off the couche with a brush - but I have not personally seen it done, nor have I done it.


KA suggests that only lean doughs be put on a couche and that if they stick, the dough should be allowed to dry and then it can be brushed off.  Knock wood - I haven't had my dough stick to my linen couche  - ever.  What I do find is that if a dough seems to be sticking, gravity is a wonderful thing.  Sometime you can just hold the couche so that the weight of the loaf will pull it from the surface.  A little scary, but it does work.  I have had to do that.


I think the flouring, etc of the couche is a more personal thing and is tailored to individual baking styles (and climates).  There is no "one right way."


Hope this helps. 

Janknitz's picture
Janknitz

:o)

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I came across a YouTube video about sizing painter's Canvas with "rabbit skin glue".  Something like that doesn't sound much like what I would want to use for making bread.  I'm sure most rabbits would agree.

EvaB's picture
EvaB

my mother wasn't fortunate to own such a thing, but she used butchers waxed brown paper as a surface for rolling pie crusts and shaping bread etc and I suspect she used it for years, as I never saw her change the paper, she simply scraped the surface lightly with her hand, dusted the flour into a sifter, and sifted out the large lumps, put the flour into the middle of the paper and folded it up in quarters and stored it in the flour bin. (which was never used for flour but for storing the odd sized things like rolling pins etc.) She might put the sack of flour into the bin, but never poured the flour in loosely, she said it was an invitation to larder beetles.

So storing the couche without removing the flour is perfectly normal, and no matter how you do it, it probably perfectly fine. I too live in a dry climate and don't ever worry about a bit of flour on a cloth or the pastry cover of a rolling pin (another use for linen espcially finer linen) I personally love linen and have for a great many years!

 

mredwood's picture
mredwood

Thank you Proth. I throughly enjoyed reading about linen and flax. What a wonderful job you did describing it. I use fine linen napkins I bought at a second hand store for so cheap I am embarrassed to say how much. I have a lovely collection of those wonderful linen dish towels. I recently added about a dozen for 25 cents each. All the linen napkins work wonderful I have yet to try the towels. I have been using the napkins for years long before I really knew their true value. I will probably never bake that much bread to use all my napkins at one time. 


Mariah

pncc's picture
pncc

An enjoyable read & clears up whether linen or cotton is better.

Chef D.'s picture
Chef D.

Thanks i found this really helpful!! your still spreading the knowledge :)