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Flax Processing:

Flax is usually planted very densely to minimize branching. The best quality flax comes from plants grown in poor circumstances (very crowded, not quite enough nutrients) because they result in a slender, straight stem with very fine lignins. Plants may be harvested before or after the seeds mature. Young plants tend to produce finer fibers.

Harvesting - plants are pulled up by their roots

Rippling - plants with mature seeds are drawn through a rippling comb to remove seeds.

Retting - plants are allowed to rot in water to free the tough fibers. The minimum time is four days in running water [Markham] Dew Retting is done on the grass with dew and results in grey fibers. Pond retting is done in still water and results in yellow-brown fibers. Stream retting is done in running water and results in light yellow fibers ("blonde").

Breaking - retted plants are allowed to dry and then beaten with hammers, wooden swords, or a flax break to loosen the remaining woody portions of the stem.

Scutching or Swingling - stems are scraped with a wooden or metal blade to remove woody portions. Flax may be beaten with mallets (beetled) after this step

Hackling - fibers are drawn through a series of hackles (combs) to remove short pieces, remaining wood, etc. Hackles start out coarse and may go to extremely fine.

At this point there are two kinds of fiber resulting: line and tow. Line is the bunch of long fibers all aligned together. Bundled together they are called a strick. Tow is what got stuck in the comb; shorter fibers of lesser quality. Either may be used for spinning, but line will make stronger, finer threads.

Spinning - fibers are twisted to form thread. Thread may be "S" spun or "Z" spun depending on the direction of the twist. Flax fibers naturally spiral "S" when wet, but most European Linen was spun "Z" [Baines]. Linen for cloth is not usually plied.

Reeling - Thread is taken from the spindle and reeled into skeins on a reel or niddy-noddy.

Scouring - Skeins are boiled in washing soda or soap to get rid of pectins, waxes, and impurities.

Bucking or Mercerizing - Skeins are treated with lye to strengthen and further clean and whiten them.

Beating or Beetling - Skeins are pounded with a hammer while wet to soften fibres.

Bleaching - Skeins are bleached; traditionally with lye or wheat bran, and modernly with hydrogen peroxide or bleach. After weaving, bleaching may also be done by laying the fabric on the grass in the sun. The combination of chlorophyll and sunshine bleaches it.

Weaving - thread is warped on a loom and woven into cloth, usually plain weave (tabby) but sometimes twill, huck, or damask.

Finishing - Cloth may be laundered and finished by mangling or beetling. Mangling tools include wooden rolling pins or glass "rubbers" which exert pressure on the surface of the wet cloth lying on a hard surface. In the 1600's at St. Gallen marble balls were rolled on the cloth while two people held the ends [Baines]. In other places the fabric was beaten with mallets. This processing breaks up the surface fibers and evens them so the fabric takes on a sheen.

**Hint on processing fibers: Always remember that Animals are Acidic and Botanicals are Basic. Dyes and washing treatments that require acidic solutions (like vinegar) are best on wool, silk, and other hairs. Basic solutions (like washing soda and lye) work best on linen, cotton, and other plant fibers. If you process a fiber in a solution that is a different alkalinity, rinse it very thoroughly afterwards.

**Hint on caring for linen fabrics: Heat breaks down the fibers but they are stronger when wet than when dry, so DO wash your linen in hot water to make it soft, but DO NOT dry it in a hot dryer. The dry heat turns the fibers into lint. Dry it in a dryer on the "fluff" or "air" cycle or hang to dry. Hanging outside in the wind is best - the movement due to wind keeps it from stiffening up. Iron linen often with a steam iron; if you do not have a steam iron, use a damp pressing cloth between the iron and the fabric. Freezing damp linen and then ironing it also makes the fabric nice.

Related Pages

A Short History of Flax

Dressing a Distaff with Flax

Fiber Bibliography

All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created May 4, 2001

Last updated August 02, 2005