The beginning of flax cultivation
5000 B.C. in Mesopotamia.
4000 B.C. in Egypt
3000 B.C. in Switzerland
400 A.D. in Scandinavia
Flax is one of the earliest plants known to be used for producing textiles. Its many species grow naturally in the southern part of Europe and in the Mediterranean region and this is where we see the first traces of flax cultivation.
7000 years ago it was grown in Mesopotamia and in the following millenniums we find flax with the Egyptians, the younger stone age Swiss, the Greeks and the Romans and later with the stone age people in Germany and Scandinavia.
Nowadays flax cultivation is widespread but almost only in Europe flax is still used for textile production. On the other continents flax is grown for the linseed oil.
It is important for the quality of flax that it is not exposed to great differences in temperature during the period of growth. Best for the quality is a temperate coast or island climate. Flax from Flanders, from Ireland or from the Baltic states is good. But also Russia produces good qualities.
There has been a strong recession in flax cultivation during the last 100 years. Strong competitors are cotton, wool and the modern artificial fabrics and only in war times or when fashion dictates linen dresses there has been a slight progress.
Genus flax: It contains 25 families numbering 500 varieties. Flax is one of them and contains 200 varieties. Only one wild variety exists in Scandinavia: Linum Cartharticum.
Many cross breeds have been made. They yield more seed capsules and larger seed than ordinary flax. It also gives longer fibres than the oil flax, but can only be used in mixed yarns (e.g. cotton linen).
The colour of the flowers varies from white to full blue or even red. The colour of the seeds vary from bright yellow to brown.
Flax should be sewn in good deep soil. Often it wasn’t only the housewife who had a piece of land for flax, also the house maids had some so that they could procure their outfits. It was the farmer who sowed the flax.
The closer the plants stood the finer the fibres became.
Before the flax became too high it had to be weeded. Farmhands, girls and children did the job carefully in order not to trample too much down. 8 persons could weed an acre in a day.
Much superstition was attached to growing flax. E.g. sticks should be placed in the flax on the 24th of June. They should be as tall as one wanted the flax to grow.
Pulling Airing Threshing
When the seed capsules started going yellow, it was time to harvest the flax. That happened in the middle of the harvest time.
The earlier it was harvested the better the quality of the flax.
If all the seed capsules were quite yellow the fibre was weak and rough and could not produce a fine thread.
Flax was harvested by pulling it up with the root. In that way the fibre was protected when standing on the field for airing.
It was tied in sheaves and stood up in shocks like barley etc. for airing.
The flax was brought home after the corn. One had to be careful so that the seeds didn’t fall off.
A great comb was fixed to a post in the barn and a handful of flax at a time was pulled through the comb so that the seed capsules fell off. It was possible to have a person on either side of the comb to pull alternatively.
The seeds were cleaned out for chaffs which are the shells of the seed capsules. This could be done with a round riddle hung up in a beam. When the riddle was turned fast the chaff gathered in the middle. One could also use a flat wooden trough. By throwing the seed in the air the chaff could be blown away.
A portion of seed was put aside for next years sowing.
Linseed is known to be good for the stomach. It was often used in boiled milk for feeding calves. Tea from linseed was drunk as a remedy against colic, kidney stone and dry cough. Linseed boiled in milk or water was laid on swellings.
If strewn around the farm the night before the 1st of May, it protected against witches and trolls.
In the play by Ludvig Holberg “Barselsstuen” (“The Lying-in Room” 1723) the woman in confinement gets this advice against nightmares: “… if it’s pixies that trouble you, place linseed around the bed and they’ll depart”.
The next step in preparing the flax was retting. It is a fermentation process which could be compared to the process of decay that happens in nature. The process must be stopped when the gelatine in the straw has been decomposed.
One can choose land retting or water retting. Which method is best has been a topic of discussion for hundreds of years.
In 1670 a vicar in Birkerød, Henrik Gerner, wrote that land retted flax was better than water retted as it gave a finer thread.
The retting must be sufficient for the fibre to be freed from the straw. If the gelatine is not rotted enough the fibre can’t be freed and if it is overdone the fibres are spoiled and can’t be spun to thread.
A couple of straws were dried to see if the process of retting was completed.
Retting on land was also called dew retting. It took place on a grass field sheltered from the wind. The storm which often appears after harvest was in the older days on the island of Bornholm called the “flax roller”.
Flax straws were placed in thin layers with all the roots to the same side. They were laid out for 4 to 8 weeks depending on how much dew and rain there was during that period.
The flax had to be turned a couple of times so that all straws came in contact with the ground where the fermentation was strongest.
Water retting took place in a pond or a ditch.
In the bye-law of Rønninge in Funen from 1601 it is said that retting must not take place in the common watering holes. That is because the water becomes poisonous to animals.
You also had to be sure that there were no fish in the water for they would die from the bacteria that are produced by the fermenting process.
The flax was placed carefully and stones or turfs were placed on top to keep it under water. After 7 to 14 days the flax was retted depending on the temperature or if the process had taken place before.
After retting the flax was stood up on the root for airing. Then it was brought home and stored in a dry airy place.
The wooden part of the flax stem must be crushed so that it can be removed.
In the 18th century it was a rule that the flax should be broken in the third month after harvesting, although it can be done immediately after retting.
It could also wait till after next year’s harvest.
For breaking, the flax should be bone dry. The best way to dry the flax was over an open fire, in a pit, outdoors on a calm day. The pit should be approximately 1,5 metres deep and the fire should burn evenly.
The flax was placed on bars laid across the pit and it had to be turned several times to dry evenly.
It was necessary to see that the heat wasn’t too strong and that the flames were not so high that the flax caught fire. There was always a bucket of water ready beside the pit.
In the earlier times it was a trusted job to dry flax in this way and it was often just one person in the village who had the job.
A simpler way to dry flax was to place it in a thin layer towards a south wall on a sunny spring day and turn it several times. This was not as efficient as drying over a fire.
Immediately after drying the flax should be broken. A handful of straw was held crosswise between the over- and under jaws of a breaker and while the flax was turned and moved it was beaten so the chaff or shives became loose from root to top.
After breaking the fibres were bundled and stored in a dry place.
In earlier days each farm grew flax on a piece of land and several farms would cooperate in the work. When the work was done a party was held with extra good food and perhaps a dance.
The chaff that fell off in breaking could be used as fuel in next years drying, as fuel in the kitchen or for storing apples during the winter.
After breaking, the loosened chaff had to be removed. This process is called scutching.
The flax was placed on a scutcher and the chaff was beaten off with a scutching blade. The work was done outside or in a porch as it was a very dusty job. It was women’s work but it took good strong arms to swing the scutching blade for a whole day.
It was often done as team work by the girls of the village and when the job was done a small party was held.
The chaff could be used as bedding for the livestock or as fuel.
Some of the short fibres came off in the process and, as nothing was wasted, it was often used for very rough yarn or ropes. They could also be used for upholstering furniture.
Scutching blades had different forms according to what part of the country they came from. The slender blade is east Danish while the broad blade is known in Funen and in Jutland.
They could be beautifully carved and were popular as presents.
In many places scutching was mechanised after the mid 1800s. A scutching machine had 4 or more wooden blades which were rotated by turning a handle. Such a machine was often a joint venture in the village. Later the dressing of the flax was taken over by professionals who travelled from one village to another using their own machinery.
Hackling was the last process before spinning. To hackle is to comb the scutched flax so that it becomes fine and shiny, and to remove the rough and short fibres.
A hackle is a board with several rows of pointed steel pins. At least two hackles of different fineness were used. During the work they were attached to a table or a bench.
First a lock of flax was drawn through the rough hackle and then through the finer one. It was important to have a good hold on the lock when it was drawn through the hackle otherwise too much would be left between the pins.
The finer the hackle was the finer the thread could be spun. If the process was repeated several times through the finest hackle, flax could be spun to sewing thread.
The rough and short fibres were called tow and it could also be spun but it wasn’t as strong and smooth as flax.
Before spinning the hackled flax was held in a bundle with a piece of paper around it. One could also twist a little head in each lock of flax and tie these in a wreath which was hung in the sitting room as a sign of wealth.
“A hackle” has been used about an ill-tempered old woman. “It has to be done whether it becomes flax or tow” was an old saying about an unpleasant case.
Spinning is a twisting of fibres to make a thread. This is easiest done on a spinning wheel with a treadle to drive the wheel round so that both hands can be free.
It was a habit in earlier days that wool should be spun before Christmas so that you could start on flax after Epiphany.
It is an old saying that: “Flax becomes silk but wool becomes soil at storing”.
Experience had taught that flax was better when it was left for a while so that the fibres could suck up moisture from the air and thereby regain some of the flexibility which was lost in the process of drying before the breaking.
Until the end of the 1800s it was normal at the farms to spin their own yarn. It was the work of the housewife, but she had an obligation to teach the maids to spin. “It’s better a thread is spoiled rather than a maid is not taught” was an old saying.
When the girl had learned to spin wool she was allowed to practice on the tow from the hackle. She practised that for 4 to 5 years before she was allowed to try flax.
Spinning sewing thread was the most difficult task. It had to be twisted of two fine threads. It was twisted to the right, opposite spinning flax, which was spun to the left.
The sewing thread had to be very smooth or it would be difficult to pull through the linen when sewing even if it were waxed.
When the flax was spun it had to be bleached. First the yarn was washed in lye. The yarn was placed in a tub and over the tub a cloth was suspended, fine pure ash – beach wood ash was best – was placed on the cloth.
Boiling water was poured over so the water sieved over the yarn. The process was repeated many times. Then the yarn was beaten well with a batlet.
When the yarn was rinsed it was hung on a frame for bleaching. The frame was placed so that it could be seen from the road, indicating a diligent housewife.
The yarn should be ready for bleaching in March, as the spring sun was best for bleaching. In June bleaching time was over.
Also the linen should be bleached, this too was best in the spring. Straps were sewn to the sides of the linen before bleaching.
First the linen was washed the same way as the yarn then placed on a grass field and kept down with wooden pegs at the sides.
The linen was lying in bleach for a long time and geese and chicken had to be kept off the fabric and one had to look out for thieves.
In many places maids and farmhands kept watch so that it wasn’t necessary to bring the fabric in at night. That was a boring job.
Growing flax today
In the 1920’s flax growing was mechanised.
It was sown in rows so that mechanical weeding could substitute the demanding hand weeding. More reliable seeds were introduced and machines were invented for harvesting. These machines laid the flax out on the ground so that it could dry.
From the 1920’s contracts were made and it was often part of the contract that a harvester was available.
During the First world war, flax growing prospered and because of several research schemes, the yield was increased.
From the mid 1950’s flax production receded again. From the 1980’s there has been an interest in flax as a non food crop related to the set aside schemes.
In most places, though, the crop is oil seed flax because no special harvesters are required for that.
The oil from the flax seed is called linseed oil, which is used in the medical industry and in colour and paint production.
The chaff can be used in the paper industry, for chipboards or it can be used as fuel.
In 1987 there was about 150 hectares of spinning flax and 8500 hectares of oil flax in Denmark.
The mechanised treatment of flax is shown in the exhibition about “The Flax Weaving Factory in Tommerup” in the main hall.