Tales of the Burden Cloth…

How the Burden Cloth Got Its Name…

Easy pickings…

Sometime late in the 1980s, Carol Jacobs, inventor of the Burden Cloth and founder of Timeless Enterprises, demonstrated her product to Conrad, a friend of the family. Now it happened that Conrad was a domestic blacksmith and a longtime student of pre-industrial technology, and he responded instantly, ”Oh, a burden cloth.” At which, Carol asked him about the term, and he went on to state that that was a medieval name for the tool. And Carol thanked him for the information, and proceeded with putting together Timeless Enterprises, along with its flagship product name, the Burden Cloth™.

Now, Carol needed images for her marketing efforts, and she sought woodcuts or illuminations or other historic artwork which might depict an historical burden cloth. The University of Oregon’s extensive  libraries were accessible to local residents & researchers, and Carol spent many a long afternoon in the stacks and turning the pages of oversized books of art work.  Several months of intermittent but dedicated research later, Carol had images useful for her marketing efforts…but no true matches.

Time passed. Carol abandoned her fruitless search for a reference in text or image to a medieval burden cloth.  Upon another encounter, Carol mentioned to Conrad her failure to find any medieval source image or text describing a burden cloth. And Conrad looked at her thoughtfully, and replied, “Well, I may have been talking through my hat. I do that sometimes.”

And that, folks, is how the Burden Cloth got its name.

How the Burden Cloth Was Proven Medieval…


Fourteenth century illuminated manuscript depicting a burden cloth in use as a ground cloth for a musical performer. Note the four roadies  holding the corner handles.

As outlined on our home page, Timeless Enterprises, in the way of all things, became Timeless & Daughters after Carol passed on (in 2007). For five years, Deb & Rebecca maintained Timeless’ 20-year membership & participation in Eugene’s Saturday Market and its winter indoor version, Holiday Market.  And in December of 2009, as Deb greeted another visitor and gawker at the Timeless booth with Carol’s tried and true opening line, ”So, what the heck is a Burden Cloth?

To Deb’s astonishment, the woman responded, ”I know what it is! Last week I was figuring it out in a medieval manuscript that I was including in the materials for my spring semester course on the minnesingers.” And she went on to explain that she was a professor at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, and had been examining the image above and figuring out that the square was some sort of gathering and carrying tool. She was tickled by the synchronicity of finding us selling the Burden Cloth (on her annual holiday visit to relatives in Eugene), understood its usefulness without explanation, and chose to purchase three of them. Further, she promised, and kept that promise, to provide the 1325 CE illumination shown here.

So…whether or not anyone in the Middle Ages called this thing a Burden Cloth, Conrad was eventually proven right in that they are ancient tools!

Around the World with the Burden Cloth…

Carol founded Timeless Enterprises to make and sell the Burden Cloth with one goal—to make the Burden Cloth so commonplace that everyone knows what it is…and how useful. In pursuit of that goal, Carol sent manufacturing kits sent with friends working in different continents, each with a partially completed Burden Cloth, and a page about fabric choice, preparation, and so on. She succeeded in “seeding” these kits to Australia, Europe, South America, and Africa.

The Burden Cloth in Asia…

A gift of bones!

In the mid-1990s, Deb presented the Burden Cloth at her employer’s in-house holiday market, together with a few personal craft items. The employer in question was a large Silicon Valley manufacturing firm, with the usual diversity of global employees. And an engineer of Asian origin admired the Burden Cloth tools for sale there. After chatting for a little, he kindly told Deb that the Japanese had a name for it—a furoshiki . And it took her a few tries to get the pronunciation correct—because it sounded to her ears like f’röshkee—but then that’s how many Japanese words are elided. It appears that, in Japan, rather than wasteful toss-away wrapping paper and ribbon, furoshiki are used to wrap gifts. And re-used, and re-used, and re-used… Which pleased Carol immensely when she learned of both the name and the custom. Because part of Carol’s purpose in making the Burden Cloth was to enable walking more lightly on this earth.

The Burden Cloth in Africa…

Burden Cloth or luggage?

Carol’s friend and African emissary travelled for a year in Africa, taking only a Burden Cloth as her luggage. (!) During that year, one African village reverse-engineered her Burden Cloth in order to make their own. When Carol’s missionary friend returned to Eugene after her year abroad, she presented Carol with an African-made one from that village, and here it is.  Hand-woven in narrow strips, the narrow bands were then stitched together into the body of the Burden Cloth. The “webbing” for the edging was made by more of that narrow fabric folded into edging and stitched into place as well.Once assembled, this native-made Burden Cloth was dyed using traditional methods which involved stamping the cloth into natural colors of mud. The result pleased the villagers enough to make a gift of one to send back to Carol in the USA…

How Carol Invented the Burden Cloth…

Once upon a time…no, wait. You’ve already heard about Carol and her travels.

So, when Carol was working as a ballistics engineer at Air Research in greater Los Angeles in the late 1950s, she was living in a rented home with her two small daughters, who were just entering elementary school. Now, being Los Angeles, that rented home was a tract home on the edge of a development across Manhattan Beach Blvd from a local park and golf course. And the house came with front and back yards, which the tenant (Carol) was responsible for maintaining. Along with raising the two daughters, and along with a professional and sometimes demanding day job.

You can imagine just how much free time Carol had to tend to the yard! Once in a while, she would spend a little of her scarce ”free” time weeding, and by the time she was done, she’d look at the heap of weeds and think, “I’ll clean that up later.” But—of course—later was lots later so that the weed heap had usually sprouted its own weeds by then. Now you already know that Carol was an engineer. So she considered the matter, and decided that she’d be able to clean up her weeding chore much more easily if she put down a cloth before she started. And she did, and it was better.

As Carol picked up her cloth full of weeds, she found herself struggling to hold onto it. And she thought, “This would be a lot easier if the cloth had handles on it.” And later she put the sewing machine to work and put handles on her cloth. And it was better.

But. Carol’s chances to weed were sometimes limited by all her other life-tasks, and the next time she used her cloth with handles to weed, well, she piled up such a big heap of weeds that when she picked it up by the handles…the cloth split! And many people, at this point, would just give up and say, “Oh, this doesn’t work.”

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Carol was an engineer, and engineers’ minds don’t work like that. They take failure as a chance to improve something! So Carol considered the latest failure, and she considered the nature of fabric, and she determined that what her cloth needed was reinforcement around the edge…and that she could combine that reinforcement with adding the handles, so that the whole thing became one thing and not many parts. And Carol and her sewing machine got busy one more time…and it was better still.

Now Carol liked to garden, and she had friends who gardened as well. And sometimes she entertained friends at home, where often Carol’s cloth would be hanging on a hook, or sitting out next to a half-weeded flower bed, and when Carol’s friends saw her cloth, they often admired it. And when they did, Carol would give hers away…and make herself another one. Years went past, and Carol moved to Sonoma County from greater L.A., and there she bought a house of her own that was not a tract home, and it sat on a quarter acre.  By the time her daughters were in high school, she took up organic gardening, where once again, fellow gardeners would admire her cloth and how useful it was, and Carol would give them hers, and make herself another.

Later still, Carol moved to western Oregon upon retirement. She studied and became a Master Gardener, and she volunteered at the local Extension Service as a Master Gardener, and soon determined that her useful reinforced cloth with handles needed to become a product that people could purchase for themselves. And in the course of looking for a name for her product, she happened to talk to her friend Conrad…but that is another story.

So Carol founded Timeless Enterprises, and every year Timeless donated a Burden Cloth™ to the newly graduating class of Master Gardeners, which held a drawing to determine the fortunate recipient. And long before she died, Carol became a Lifetime Master Gardener, whose work with a local church’s huge garden enabled it to increase its yearly food-bank donation from 5,000 pounds to 50,000 in a decade—as the Grassroots Garden project head informed everyone attending her memorial service in 2007.

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