Flax Production in the Seventeenth Century

detail of NPS artist Sydney King's painting, depicting a woman spinning flax before the fire
woman spinning flax in a 17th-century Jamestown home

detail of painting by NPS artist Sydney King

When Sir George Yeardley returned to Jamestown in 1619, one of his instructions from the Virginia company of London was to promote flax harvesting. The stockholders hoped that, as with silkworm cultivation, viticulture and glass production, the colonists would use this ancient crop to both realize a profit and diversify their labors.

Ultimately, none of these ventures was a commercial success. The labor involved was either too intensive or required too much skill, the climate and soil of the Chesapeake region did not cooperate, or plain bad luck attended the operations. That did not mean, however, that wine, silk or linen were never produced in Virginia. Although flax, the plant from which linen is derived, never rivaled tobacco as a cash crop in the Chesapeake, most farmers and plantation owners grew small amounts will into the 1800's for their own use.

The plant which provides the raw material from which linen is made is an annual which grows two to three feet high on a slim, little-branching stem. It is this woody stalk, hollow when dried, which is harvested and ultimately manufactured into linen.

Spinning flax into thread is facilitated by properties inherent to the fiber, including its length (two to three feet when will prepared), its high pectin content (when wet, the pectin acts as a glue to further bind fibers together) and the nodes which appear along the length of the fibers (similar to those found on bamboo) which incline them to join even more readily.

Additional properties of flax make it a desirable finished product. Other than ramie, it has the greatest tensile strength of any natural fiber, and is 20% stronger when wet. It is highly absorbent and dries quickly, and its high wax content gives it linen's characteristic luster. It is also long lasting. If not exposed to synthetic bleaches or mechanical drying, a regularly-used linen sheet can survive for a century or more. Making flax an even more valuable crop, the seeds can be harvested and linseed oil (used in wood treatments, paint and animal fodder) extracted.

Flax has been with humankind long before Europeans' discovery of the Western Hemisphere. Linum angostifolium, the wild ancestor of flax, can be found from the Black Sea to the Canary Islands. L. usitatissimum (meaning "of greatest use"), is the oldest cultivated fiber plant, with evidence of its growth and use dating back to the fifth millennium BC in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. While the former concentrated on wool production, the latter, employing the fertile fields of the Nile Delta, became experts at the creation of linen textiles which cannot be rivaled in strength and fineness of weave today.

Egyptians turned the coarser, low-grade flax into rope and string; the finest quality was reserved for clothmaking. Workmen's wives set up makeshift looms in the doorways of their dwellings to weave linen for household use. Female serfs and slaves worked endlessly in crews on large estates; in unplundered tombs hundreds of sheets are commonly found, stored up in anticipation of the departed's return. Linen fabric, millennia before coinage was invented, served as a medium of exchange and a measure of wealth.

L. angustifolium grows wild in Briton and was employed as early as 3000 BC by the Swiss Lake dwellers. Because these people centered their communities over swampy areas, many wooden and fiber artifacts have survived from their culture. Tools for flax preparation, hanks of spun thread and cloth of complex weave have all been found in the alkaline lake mud.

L. usitatissimum is believed by many historians to have been introduced into England by the Romans; by the 16th century, laws were enacted requiring that a quarter of an acre (one rood) of flax be planted for every sixty acres under cultivation. Linen and wool were the two most common fibers, often combined in linsey-woolsey, a fabric with warp threads of linen for strength and weft threads of wool providing bulk and warmth.

Although flax has many advantages as a fiber crop, its overwhelming disadvantage is the amount of labor, skilled and otherwise, required from sowing to harvest.

Flax needs a deep, rich soil, and, like tobacco, quickly depletes the nutrients from the land where it is planted. In early settlement days in Virginia, that meant it could only be raised on newly-cleared ground. After two or three years of a flax crop, a farmer needed to sow a less nutritionally-demanding crop, such as wheat. Later in the colonial period, farmers could incorporate flax into a rotation process which included heavy dunging or the sowing of cow peas a year or two before the next flax crop was to be planted.

After plowing in November, February and March, the ground was harrowed and raked fine. The small, oily flaxseeds were sown broadcast in April and a final harrowing took place. The closer the seeds were spaced, the less branching took place in the resultant plants and the higher the quality of the crop. If flax is sown properly, weeding is unnecessary because there is no space for unwanted plants.

Flax takes about a hundred days to mature. When the leaves yellow and the seed turn brown, the flax is pulled from the ground by the roots, spread to dry for a few days, and, if time was not a factor, stored until the next year to age.

Processing flax is an extremely labor-intensive process, providing skilled and unskilled employment for both adults and children. First, the upper part of the flax bundles are drawn through coarse combs to remove seed in a process called rippling.

After the seeds are removed, it is necessary to separate the long, silky inner fibers which constitute the end product from the straw and inner pitch. Retting, in which the unwanted fibers are loosened and decomposed, can be achieved in several ways. The flax can be left out in the field, where the exposure to the elements, particularly the moisture in the air, can do the work. A pond or through can be used to achieve the same effect in much less time, but with a prodigious odor. The ideal way to ret flax is to expose it to constantly running water, such as a stream. The amount to time this step requires depends on the quality of the flax, the temperature and numerous other variables.

When the straw comes away easily from the few bent fibers, it is time to grass the flax. The bundles are untied and laid in a field for a few days until they are dried on one side, then turned so the other side can be dried. When the crop is thoroughly moisture free, it is stacked inside to age for a few more weeks.

Next, a series of steps free the linen fiber from the boon (unwanted plant material). The brake, a large wooden machine, is used to break down the trash material and loosen it further from the end product. Then the flax is scutched (beaten against a board with a blunt wooden knife). The final process is hackling, in which the fiber is drawn through a series of metal combs to remove the last of the boon and shorter fibers. The end result is a strick, a half-pound bundle of long, light grey fibers which resemble human hair. Over 85% of the plant has been removed before the strick is produced. Some of the shorter fibers removed during hackling can be used as tow for sacking or inferior cloth.

Since flax is such a long fiber, special care must be given before spinning to keep it from tangling. A distaff is a tool which keeps the fibers separated and properly aligned during spinning. Thread is produced using the small wheel often called a flax wheel. An experienced spinner has little difficulty creating a fine, strong thread with flax. In order to produce a smooth yarn, however, she must also be able to moisten the flax continuously as she is spinning.

After the thread is spun, it must be stretched and boiled to set the twist put into it by spinning. Bleaching can be done either before or after weaving, by exposing the fiber to sunlight for prolonged periods or using such chemical treatments as chloride of lime, soap and soda or lye water.

Today, Eastern Europe produces 80% of the world's flax crop. France, China, Egypt, Holland and Belgium provide flax as well. Due to increasingly efficient mechanical harvest and processing, this ancient fiber is becoming more popular than a generation ago.

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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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