Flax is an annual plant that produces long, strong fibres that have been used to make linen textiles for at least 8,000 years.
Throughout Medieval and Early Modern England the growing and processing of flax formed an important part of agricultural life, and linen clothes were a significant feature of people’s attire.
The flax grown here at the Museum is an early type called “Riga Child”. It is sometimes used for animal feed or linseed oil, but we use the stem fibres to produce linen fibre.
We pull it (by hand) from the ground to preserve the length of the fibres. These “bast” fibres run from the root to the tip of the plant and will eventually become linen cloth.
Turning flax into linen cloth is a long, labour intensive task that involves many processes:
After being sown in late-March or April, flax is usually ready in August. If it is harvested too early, the fibres will be fine but weak, whereas if it is harvested too late the fibres will be strong but brittle, and often too short.
When picked at the right time the fibres are long and supple. The flax stems are pulled from the ground in order to preserve the length of the fibres and tied into bundles or “beets”.
The seed pods are removed from the stems by pulling them through a rippling comb, and the seeds are released by walking over them or by beating them with a flail.
Flax seeds are edible and can be used to produce linseed oil, but their foremost importance was always as seed for next year’s crop.
The stems are then ‘retted’ in water to allow the undesirable woody bark and core of the plant to separate more easily from the fibres, by dissolving the pectin that binds the different parts of the plant together.
This can be achieved using a flax pool, by soaking in a river, or simply by laying the flax onto the fields to let the daily dew do the same thing.
When it is retted enough, the flax is then dried thoroughly before storage.
When the flax is dry and brittle, the woody parts of the plant are broken into smaller wooden splinters on the breaker, using a chopping motion.
These woody splinters are then brushed away using a flax knife or flax beater, a tool that is shaped like a very large wooden knife.
As well as clearing away the woody shards, this also starts to soften the fibres, removes some of the unwanted waste matter and straightens the long bast fibres.
Hackling or heckling
The hackles are pointed spikes of iron set into a wooden board. These spikes are arranged from coarse to medium to fine.
The long fibres are pulled through the spikes starting at the coarse spikes working down to the finest in order to align the fibres ready for spinning, as well as remove any final remnants of the woody bark and core.
To make the fibres more pliable and increase their softness, further beating and combing on wood carders can be carried out.
Lay the fibres in the sun, to bleach to an even, light colour.
Finally, the fibres are spun into linen yarn, which can be woven into linen cloth.
The long fibres are called line and they are spun on a drop spindle or a spinning wheel. The line can also be finger-spun and plaited to make string.
We often do this here at the Museum to provide our interpretation team with linen string to use in our houses or historic gardens.