Flax and Linen

Revised Oct 16th,1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.  

  Flax is the common name for an annual herb of the Linaceae family, especially members of the genus Linum, and for the fiber obtained from such plants. The stem varies from 60 to 120 cm in length and consists of fiber bundles lying between the outer bark and a woody core. The individual fibers, 10 to 40, are held together in the bundles by pectins. The bundles lie around the core and are attached to it and one another by pectins. Flax requires a temperate, moist climate and good soil to flourish. It is sown around the end of March, and the plant starts to bloom at the end of May. Because it is a 'heavy feeder', it cannot be grown on the same land year after year and so it is be rotated with other crops. It must be weeded often. There are two main types: the blue-flowered and the white-flowered flax. The latter produces coarser fibers and more seeds than the blue flax. The fibers, after processing, are spun and woven into linen cloth.

Harvesting flax:  Most flax matures in 90 to 120 days and usually is ready in August. There are three degrees in the ripening of the flax grown to make linen: green, yellow and brown. The yellow has proved to be the most suitable for fiber production. Flax that is pulled too early -green - produces very fine but weak fibres. On the other hand , in overripe flax - brown - the stems are strong but brittle but produce too high a proportion of undesirable short fibers ('tow'). When the flax is yellow, the fibres are long and supple, and therefore ideal for further processing. The mature yellow stems were harvested by careful pulling from the soil by hand ('vlas trekken' = flax pulling) to avoid damaging the fibers in the stem. The pulled flax was stacked in bundles ('kapelletjes' = little chapels) in the field. The next steps in the processing described below are those used for centuries before the industrial revolution, early in the 19th century, introduced mechanization and destroyed the home-based flax industry.
   The stems were walked repeatedly or beaten with a flail ('swingle') to remove the seed
bolls. More commonly their top ends of a bundle of stems were pulled through a 'ripple', a comb-like ('kam') tool consisting of a row of 20-30 vertical steel pins fixed in a piece of wood which looked like the 'heckling' comb shown below. This process was called 'rippling' ('repelen') in Flemish). The seeds were then released from the bolls by walking over them or beating with a flail.
The stems were then
'retted' by the action of molds and bacteria which removed gums and resins. Retting sometimes was done by simple exposure of the stems to the weather in the fields for 2 to 8 weeks, the time required depending on the weather. This process dissolved the pectins holding the bundles to the central core of the flax stem and to one another. Care is needed to stop the process before the pectins holding the individual fibers in the bundles together were dissolved. It was important to keep the bundles intact for later spinning. During this period the dew and rains washed away the digested pectin, leaving the bundles lying within the stems. More commonly, retting was done by soaking the stems in a nearby stream or river such as the Leie, near Kortrijk and surrounding villages. Elsewhere the retting was often done by soaking the flax, covered with mud, in water-filled pits for 1-2 weeks. The stems were then rinsed and dried in 'kapelletjes'.
   Retting loosened the bast (flexible fibrous bark) from the bundles, facilitating the next step,
'scutching' by beating with a stick a shown to the left or with the tool to the right . Both crushed the inner woody core of the stems leaving the desired bundles of long fibers intact. This produced about 60% linen flax (long fibers -60 to 90 cm long) 33% tow (short fibers - 10 to 15 cm long) and 'shiv', woody waste formerly used for fuel, nowadays to make chip board.
   The stems were then drawn through a
'heckling' comb shown below to remove remnants of the fibrous core and outer bark and aligned the bundles of fibers ready for spinning.
   Except the planting and weeding, all the above labor-intensive steps began to be replaced in the early 1800s by mechanized processes associated with the industrial revolution. Harvesting machines replaced ''vlas trekken' (see above). Nowadays water retting in streams is rarely used because of its cost and the pollution it causes. It has largely been replaced by soaking the harvested flax in tubs of warm water for about a week. Scutching by hand was replaced by mechanical beaters called zwingeling machines; hackling was mechanized and, of course,
hand spinning and hand weaving were replaced by adaptations of the English-designed 'Spinning Jenny' that was imported (actually smuggled into Belgium by Lieven Bauwens in the early 1800s to speed the production of thread to feed the looms.) But that's a different story . . .

Many of the pictures were modified from "The Linen House", an excellent source
of information on flax and linen.

Ivan Beernart and Jules Vanhaelemeesch also provided information and valuable insights into the above processes.
Learn more about the flax industry