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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fabulous Flaxen Fiber Fan

On my last trip to an earlier century, I did some of my usual relentless questioning to uncover 'the way things used to be.'  Genesee Country Village and Museum, my somewhat local gateway to the 19th century, had a Fiddlers and Fiber Fair.  Surprisingly, I didn't go in costume but I'd like to show you my latest 1812 get up so you know I'm not kidding when I say I like to do this stuff 'hands-on'.

Here's a bit of my visit with the flax-to-linen man. He knew a lot about wool and spinning besides flax and linen, and I was, well, asking a lot of questions.  They love that, right?

I did do a post on flax and linen  and linsey-woolsey over at the Colonial Quills blog in the past with a nice video of the process, so I'll just offer the link here, and for the Inkwell, I'll stay with new photos.

Flax is a lovely plant that few of us grow. I have, but it's only because I love the plant and its blue flowers. I'd have a lot more of it if I had the room. It's an annual, but I've had it come back in the same spots so it must self-seed at times. For those who grow flax for linen (and that would have been quite a number of people in most of the northern climates over the last few thousand years...)  flax seed must be scattered in spring and then the plants can be harvested about a month after flowering, or roughly three months after seeding.  Those beautiful small flowers turn into small seedheads that contain a few small seeds in each.

Yes- you will now begin to look at those flax seeds you put in your food a bit differently now.  PS flax seeds make linseed oil. The spoils of linen production was used like hay - to stuff mattresses and sadly, to start fires. A woman in linen dress could be horribly burned as the stuff goes up in seconds!  Many colonials wore a wool petticoat and so hitched their linen skirt up away from the fireplace while cooking.

Plants were usually pulled out by the roots rather than cut to reduce loss of fiber, but in any case, were gathered in small clumps. From there our poor lovely flax plants begins to take a beating.
They are knocked around and beaten a bit and then left to hang out in the field in big clumps. In my research, I've seen both standing clumps and clumps laying down on the ground.  The point here is that the plant is encouraged to pick up bacteria from the soil that help break down the stem. After this, the clumps are chomped down upon as they are dragged through a device the bruises and separates the stems. This is called RIPPLING

Next comes the wooden knife beating which knocks away the tougher coating that didn't release during rippling. Our demonstrator explained it also does a fair job on the knuckles if you aren't careful. Somewhere in this process, the job is turned over from the farmer to his wife.

Next comes the HECKLING, or dragging through combs. You'll see the combs are really nails pounded through blocks of wood. Three sizes generally, with smaller nails and closer together as you go.
At this point, you have a nice handful of what looks like smooth, blond hair or a palomino's tail. ... uh, flaxen!

This hand-full of fiber easily lets itself get wrapped loosely around a spindle called a distaff.  Linen fibers retain a cuticle (like our hair) and tend to stick together.   Each distaff of flax fiber can be mounted on top of a spinning wheel or even held on the lap at which point a spinner lets the fiber run through wet fingers to be twisted by the spinning wheel and wrapped on to a smaller spool.

A spool of linen 'yarn' is then used for weaving or at times for knitting.

The finer linens were used for clothing, the rougher stuff (this has a lot to do with how much time is put into preparation) often is used for non-clothing items such as ruck sacks and outer coats. As you can imagine it's a matter of social status as well.

The demonstrator told us something about the ways linen was lightened (bleached) but I only recall it was a matter of repeated treatments in a liquid that 'might' have included cow dung. Well, we know the ammonia of urine is used in the tanning process of leather, so I wasn't too surprised.

I also learned a bit more about natural dyes but I'll save that for another day.

Linen making is so time consuming that wool was actually a quicker process. Of course, there's a difference in the use of the end products. No wonder cotton took over as the easier fabric - easier for some, right?  The boom in cotton fed the slave trade. Later in the 19th century, many abolitionists went back to flax/line and sheep/wool to put their money behind their words.


  1. Flax is a crop grown in my part of Canada (Saskatchewan). It is beautiful to see the blue field especially if it is next to the yellow canola field. I really didn't know how they processed it though so thanks for this great description complete with photos!

    1. I'd love to see that, Elaine! It is quite beautiful. I believe it's still grown in large quantities in northern Europe and and Eurasia as an industrial crop also. I imagine there are varieties that are grown more specifically for linen production vs linseed oil, vs food-grad flax seed. Thanks for commenting!

  2. This was totally new information for me. Thank you for sharing. : ) And I will be nicer to my linen from now on.

  3. I'm with Elaine on the blue flax and yellow canola. So beautiful in July.

    When I lived in Manitoba, the province to the east of Sask, I was used to seeing acres of flax bales in what was coined Flax City. The farmers would build their square bale flax stacks, cover them with huge tarps, and leave them for 7 years to deteriorate. The next harvest, they would build the stacks on another farmer's land and leave them for 7 years. By and by, huge flax machinery would move in to whichever Flax City had been there the longest and it would process the fibers. The following year, the machinery would move to the next Flax City and so on.

    As I knew that linen came from flax, this seemed like a natural process. Think of my surprise then when I moved to Saskatchewan and found out that all the farmers in our area were burning the flax straw after harvesting the seeds. When I asked why, they said it was too tough for animal food or bedding. When I asked why it wasn't used for linen, they told me I was crazy. It was actually my father-in-law who made that last remark and he was dead serious about trying to use the straw for linen.

    Great post, Deb. I love seeing you in your historical garb. :)