Textile Talk: Flax
Here’s another textile history lesson for you this fine day, this time on the topic of Flax.
Perhaps you are familiar with the term ‘flax’, as it is commonly heard in connotation these days with ‘flaxseed’ or ‘flaxseed oil’ or even the fabric it can create; ‘linen’. Flax seed has a list of uses that could fill a series of blog posts on its own. However, seldom do we ever consider the history of this incredible plant, or the role it has played in shaping our cultures, fashion, and language. Today we're going to focus on the textile, not the food, produced by this incredible plant!
Let’s jump back in time about 5000 years. Yep, the oldest remaining swatch of linen fabric is dated to this time period in Egypt - part of a dress believed to have been worn during Egypt's first Dynasty. Did you know that flax linen was used to wrap mummies because it allowed the body to breathe? Flax linen was a very common fabric available throughout history across the Old World. In the Bible, fine linens are referenced throughout the testaments as clothing fabrics, as well as the cloth used to wrap Lazarus and Jesus in when they were buried in their tombs. During the Renaissance, the majority of clothing worn was woven from flax. Up until the early 1900’s, linen cloth (made from flax) was used for tablecloths, napkins, drapes, and other household linens. The word ‘linen’ ceased to refer to the type of textile, but the textile’s use (household linens, table linens, bed linens, etc…).
In a day and age where cotton, polyester, and nylon fabrics are in mass production and we cannot tell you what type of fabric our clothing is made from without looking at the manufacturing tag, where’s flax linen at now?
Well, it’s still there, and still popular. Growing flax to produce fabric is a long, arduous process. In a world where ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ rule our day to day lives, fabrics that take less time and are cheaper to produce tend to be used more frequently. Polyester and Nylon are both fabrics with plastic in them, much easier to produce than the field grown flax linen. Cotton, while still field grown, is much easier to process (due Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin and technological advances) than field grown flax linen.
In comparison, flax must be sown in April, weeded, and pulled within the course of 100 days. The seeds must be sown into rich soil closely together to avoid as many weeds as possible. Weeding was commonly done by women and children when the flax was very young, since they may have weighed less and could trample while weeding between the plants without killing them. The plan flowers a lovely small flower, typically blue, prior to forming seed heads in mid summer. When the seed heads (bolls) and stalks become yellowish brown in color, the entire plant must be pulled (root and all), gathered into bundles, and left in the field to stand and dry for a few days. Once dry, the seeds can be harvested through rippling (drawing the stalks root first through a large wooden comb, popping the bolls off into a basket below).
Then, the stalks are then retted. In the 18th century, this could be done in a variety of ways. Tying the stalks up and drowning them in the nearby river/stream and allowing the downstream current to flow through the stalks was a common way for water dwelling folks to complete this step. However, recent studies have shown how the flax stalks release harmful chemicals into the water, so this is no longer a recommended way of retting flax fibers.
Leaving the fibers in the field to ret is another way of breaking them down – the morning dew helps to moisten the outer part of the stalk and eventually begin decomposing the fibers. Today, using an empty tray or shallow pool (depending on the amount of flax) is an alternative to either of these traditional ways, but be prepared for an odor. Decomposing material always comes with a delightfully odiferous smell!
Once the flax fibers separate easily from the stalk, the bundle is laid flat in the fields to dry (a few days on one side, and a few days on the other). When entirely dry, it is stacked inside for a few more weeks. Then, the fun begins!
Flax fibers must go through a rigorous beating and combing process to reduce the woody stalks to a smooth yarn-ready fiber. The fiber is placed on the brake to help separate unwanted plant material (boon) from the flax fiber. Then the fiber is scutched by draping fabric over a board and beating it with a blunt wooden knife. Lastly, the fiber is hackled; drawn through metal combs repeatedly to remove any remaining unwanted vegetative material. The final result of all of this back-breaking labor should be long, light grey/gold fibers that may resemble some human hair. Shorter fibers that are removed during the hackling can be used to create tow cloth (a rougher linen cloth) or for fire starting materials.
At this point, you’ve just about broken your back to get the fiber to a point where it can finally be spun into thread. Flax can be processed commercially, using machines to do the work traditionally done by hand, but it is still a difficult process and the ratio of tow fiber to linen changes depending on the intensity of the processing.
Here at the National Colonial Farm 2 years ago, we grew flax for the first time in 10 or so years. Just at first glance, one would never think that the little stalky plant could become a beautiful, lustrous fiber that sells for $20+ a yard. Our flax is fiber flax, so we will work through all of the steps of flax processing this coming year. We've already saved the seeds and retted the fiber, so it's ready for all the braking, beating, scutching, and spinning our staff and volunteers can handle.
It is quite incredible to have observed this historically significant crop growing on our farm, and to realize that I have the awesome opportunity to help to process this fiber from start to finish. As I walked through the field each day for harvesting a few years ago, I could not help but feel as though I had stepped back in time and was watching history grow before my very eyes! Hopefully this will not be the last textile talk on our flax – maybe the next one will contain images and anecdotes from our processing volunteers on how the steps of flax processing have worked on our site.