a pile of snowy muslins, fresh from Hannah’s hands

Axelroll

Senior Member
Spanish (Spain)
Hello:

I'm working on a translation of Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, and I'm having trouble to understand the phrase highlighted in bolds below, taken from the beginning of Chapter IX. In this part of the book, the older sister Meg is getting ready and packing her trunk for a visit to a friend [Annie Moffat] in another city. Her sisters [Beth, Amy and Jo] and her are in the upper floor of their house. Hannah is the family's maid.

"Annie Moffat has blue and pink bows on her night-caps; would you put some on mine?" she asked, as Beth brought up a pile of snowy muslins, fresh from Hannah’s hands.

Ok, my problem is, on the one hand, that I don't know if "muslins" (a kind of fabric) refers to sheets, breadths of fabric, dresses or some other thing (any idea? There's no more context on that, although the sisters usually talk of dresses just by the material they're made of, e. g., "my silk", "my tarlatan", etc.); on the other hand, when the narrator says "fresh from Hannah's hands", what does "fresh" mean exactly? Just bought, cleaned, ironed...?

Any explanation of these questions would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks!
 
  • london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Muslins was used to mean bedsheets (see the Free Dictionary here) and I imagine that that is was is meant here, rather than dresses, as they are all white: would anyone have lots of white dresses? I think 'fresh from Hannah's hands' means thay have just been washed and ironed by Hannah.
     

    Axelroll

    Senior Member
    Spanish (Spain)
    Muslins was used to mean bedsheets (see the Free Dictionary here) and I imagine that that is was is meant here, rather than dresses, as they are all white: would anyone have lots of white dresses?
    It makes a lot of sense; I should have thought about that, but that way of talking about dresses confounded me. Thank you so much!
     

    Axelroll

    Senior Member
    Spanish (Spain)
    Just for interest, where on that page does it suggest that? :) I used the search function and it showed me nothing.:(

    Muslin sounds a bit fragile for use as bed-linen.
    mus•lin
    (ˈmʌz lɪn)

    n.
    a plain-weave cotton fabric made in various degrees of fineness, used esp. for sheets. (muslin)

    :idea:I've just thought of something else: she's packing, so it may mean undergarments made of muslin.
    You mean, like muslin petticoats? Given the religious upbringing and strict morals of Alcott, I really don't think it can be a reference, as indirect as it may be, to any other kind of "undergarment". Now I'm confused again :(, the idea of the "muslins" being sheets suited nicely the context.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    From a little earlier:
    "And such lovely weather, I'm so glad of that," added Beth, tidily sorting neck and hair ribbons in her best box, lent for the great occasion."

    From the context:

    "Annie Moffat has blue and pink bows on her night-caps; would you put some on mine?" she asked, as Beth brought up a pile of snowy muslins, fresh from Hannah’s hands."

    "muslins" might be nightcaps made of [white] muslin that Beth had in her "best box".
     
    Last edited:

    AutumnOwl

    Senior Member
    -
    Swedish
    I would say that the muslins were nightgowns and night-caps, as they were often made by muslin fabric (and are still available). Here's a pattern for a muslin nightgown from 1877, Amazon.com: 1877 Lady's Tucked Muslin Nightgown Pattern: Arts, Crafts & Sewing and here is a photo from the 1949 film where the sisters are seen in their white muslins in bed: Stock Photo - Little Women, aka Kleine tapfere Jo, USA, 1949, Regie: Mervyn LeRoy, Darsteller: Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson, Margaret O'Brie
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Elsewhere in Little Women, reference is made to a muslin dress, muslin curtains and a muslin skirt. Also, at one stage Meg, having bought "a sweet blue muslin", "discovered, after she cut the breadths off, that it wouldn't wash".

    Many sources say that muslin was used primarily for clothing and curtains. I've found no mention of its use as bed linen (so to speak!). And it's difficult to find out exactly what's meant by "muslins" – perhaps just lengths of fabric?
     

    RedwoodGrove

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    The better sheets and other bedding were typically made of linen as were many forms of clothing. Some dresses were made out of cotton/linen fustian. I think cotton was reserved for lesser quality things or things worn against the skin, despite the use of "linens" to mean undergarments (which would indicate it, too, was long prevalent as underwear). I doubt there was a hard and fast rule. It may also be that because this is the United States, probably the largest cotton producer in the world at the time, that most things were made out of cotton.

    So in other words, as lingobingo points out, you'll have to go with textual clues. :)
     
    Last edited:

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    Little Women is an American novel and I notice that AE and BE have a different terminology. A heavier "muslin" in England would probably have been called "calico".

    Calico, muslin, gauze – a history of fabric terminology – Part I – The Dreamstress
    In the US and Canada
    Muslin – simple, cheap equal weft and warp plain weave fabric in white, cream or unbleached cotton and/or a very fine, light plain weave cotton fabric (sometimes called muslin gauze, though this usually applies to the very lightest, most open weave of these fabrics).

    In the UK and Australia
    Muslin – a very fine, light plain weave cotton fabric. Sometimes called muslin gauze
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    From the OED entry for muslin:
    2. U.S. Strong cotton cloth of a plain weave; an item made of this. Obs.
    1830 S. H. Collins Emigrant's Guide 176 Calico is called muslin, and prints are called calicoes here.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    Since these muslins are "fresh from Hannah's hands", it sounds as though they have been freshly laundered, so are probably garments of various kinds (skirts, shirts, dresses, etc.) It doesn't really make sense for her to be packing unsewn lengths of fabric to take with her.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Who knows? That's the problem! In terms of the translation, it would be better to find a way of skirting round the issue, rather than making a possibly wrong assumption.

    By the way, yet another meaning of "a muslin" is given in the Wikipedia entry (under Dress-making and sewing), but I don't think that's relevant either.
     

    Axelroll

    Senior Member
    Spanish (Spain)
    Who knows? That's the problem! In terms of the translation, it would be better to find a way of skirting round the issue, rather than making a possibly wrong assumption.
    .
    I was "on the same page" as you, so I think I will translate it (to Spanish) as "a pile of muslin items of clothing", which in my language sounds not so bad, actually.

    Thank you all for your comments and time, you've been incredibly helpful.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top