An afternoon working with Baleen

This past weekend (i.e. part of Friday and all day Saturday), the Biblical rains stopped pouring from the heavens to give Noah a chance to send a dove out to find land...or a pizza.

While Noah was busy looking for land, I was busy owning my American-ness and earning myself a redneck (literally, first sunburn of the year and my neck hurts.) Since I am moving to Williamsburg, Virginia in 2 weeks (WEEEEEE!), I needed to take care of working the baleen before I left. I also have an ever growing list of projects I need to work on before I leave, and well, I really want to have my stays finished for when I start working. I have crap to do, and slicing the baleen was high on the list.

So since Saturday was the first sunny day since...um...March, I jumped on the chance to work outside. The upside, I got it done, and it was a beautiful day. The downside? All our wood was wet. It was a very smokey day.

I've gotten several photos of the process, etc, so I'm going to use those to explain to you how I worked the baleen and got it into 1/4" wide strips.

First things first. You need an outdoor fire pit.

Preferably without wet wood that produces tons of smoke.

This is a brilliant chicken feeder from Tractor Supply. It was the
perfect width and length to hold the baleen. You need to get the
water boiling.

Outdoor workstation with wood cutting board, rotary mat, rulers
box cutter, rotary cutter, oven mitts, tongs (for getting the baleen out of
the water) and old school solid iron irons.
An after shot with tools and some baleen strips in the shot.

You can see that before boiling the baleen I scoured it using a ruler
and a box cutter in quarter in segments. They helped as guidelines
but you need a ruler/straight edge anyways to help keep your cut straight.
It's not easy.


See how perfect the chicken feeder holds the baleen?

Bubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble....

I used a rotary cutter (it worked really well), and a ruler to help guide
my cuts. You really only have enough time to cut one strip before having
to put the baleen back into the boiling water for another 10 minutes or so.

The thicker the baleen, the harder it was to cut...I was sore for 2 days.

Not to mentioned sun burned, but no cuts!

Here are some strips through the process

Cut Cut Cut...see the iron? It was handy to keep things from wiggling.



So, from the hours of 11 - 2pm I was outside working the baleen. And by the end of it, I had everything in 1/4" wide strips of varying length. Next on my list is to boil the tips and put a small hole in one end for two reasons. 1: Extant stays all had prick stitches at the top and bottom to help hold the boning in place. 2: Pulling boning through will be easier than pushing. So I was going to lace some thread through the hole and slide a bodkin through the channel to then pull the boning through. At least...that's my plan.

Here is my list of materials I used for working the baleen:

1. Baleen (purchased legally) of 30-35" length (it varies) (Edit 5/06: 3-4 pieces of baleen will be enough for a fully boned pair of stays)

2. Rotary Mat & Cutter

3. Bon fire & official keeper of the fire. This is a 2 person deal, one cuts the baleen, one stokes the fire.

4. Large chicken feeder from Tractor Supply Company (or copper boilers)

5. Box cutter & Ruler for scouring the baleen before boiling (though the marks grew faint during boiling, but you can still see them)

6. Oven mitts and tongs to handle the baleen around the boiling water and fire. You don't want to burn your beautiful hands, now do you?

7. Weights. I used the old irons, but you can use whatever. You have to move quickly and this helped just prevent accidents.

8. Scissors to trim the extra hair off the baleen.


After Thoughts: I actually really enjoyed working with the baleen, and the whole process. Once I got the handle of it, it was actually quite  a smooth  process and fairly easy. My rotary cutter dulled out by the end of it, but I can still use it for a while. I purchased 3 lengths of baleen and the 3rd was boiled long enough to be cut in half into 2 shorter pieces. I'm going to boil those in the kitchen and cut them up inside. My mother swears there's a smell, but I just think it's the stinky rotary mat. Maybe a faint smell, but nothing major in my opinion.

The baleen was really difficult to cut when it was at it's thickest (between 1/8 and 1/4" thick) and it is also uneven so you have to be careful when cutting, but lil ol' me still managed to cut through it. So I think about anyone can do it themselves. The sharper your tools the better. I don't think using a box cutter would be wise, as it might catch/break/pull.... a rotary cutter worked really nicely. Have extra blades on hand if you are going to work with a lot of baleen.

The key with baleen, in my opinion, is managing to move quickly and effectively. When you're rushed it's easy to get sloppy with your work...and that would just be a disaster. Some of my lengths are not that straight/slightly larger than 1/4", and a lot of that was because I was working quickly and not knowing what I was doing. You cannot rush this process. You will need a whole day to work the baleen.

I still have to trim the lengths and sand the baleen but that is just standard operating procedure...and I'll post about that at a later date. My next post will hopefully be on how different baleen is from other materials that we are using for stays now a days.

Hope you all enjoyed the post & if you have any questions, feel free to ask!

<3 <3

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