The Flax and Linen Industry

Revised October 14th, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

    Fortunately there are some good historical accounts of the importance of flax to the rural people of West Flanders.
One of these histories that covers the Roeselare-Tielt district of West Flanders describes the flax industry prior to the industrial revolution and during the subsequent changeover to mechanization that started between 1820 and 1840.
   For centuries the working of flax and linen here and elsewhere in Flanders had been mostly in the hands of small farmers. They and their families planted, weeded, harvested, retted, rippled, scutched, hackled, spun, wove the product into linen cloth and sold it. The farming of various crops, including flax and its processing, melded into one another as a way of life. These one family working units were based in the countryside where most people in the 'flax trade' lived. For example, the census of 1846 counted 11,810 inhabitants in
Tielt, of whom 4,143 lived in the countryside. Within the town of Tielt itself there were 816 spinning wheels and 88 looms. However in its surrounding countryside there were another 2,886 spinning wheels and 941 looms. The census findings were similar in Roeselare, Izegem and other close by municipalities. (Note the major tools of the flax trade were considered important enough to be counted separately from the people in censuses.)

   The method of
weaving had not changed for centuries: even by 1846 fewer than half the looms had been updated to using the new faster 'flying shuttles'. The daily wage of the weavers ranged from 0.50 to 0.70 Francs; their product sold at between 0.75 and 1.75 Francs per 'el' (0.7 meters), depending on its quality. Assuming an average daily wage of 0.60 Francs, a weaver could buy roughly 3.5 kg ( 7.7 lbs.) wheat. After grinding it would yield flour for 2-4 loaves of bread. This high price may explain why most people, except for the rich, ate 'roggebrood' or 'masteluinbrood' rather than wheat bread.

  The 'new ways' came in slowly. But by 1838 farmer-weavers had begun selling their linen cloth to outside 'dealers', thus starting the dissolution of the traditional bond between farming and the linen industry. In 1840 a commission investigated the decline of the flax-linen trade and described, with examples, the way various people were involve in it:

(1) The farmer who with his family, a hired 'landknechten' and 'meiden' worked up mostly flax grown on his farm but also bought 'green' flax if his crop was too small. Spinning and weaving began about October 1st and continued during the winter in his home. Their linen ('linnengoed') therefore still came mostly from one farm and one group working together.
   For example, F. Werrebrouck in
Izegem rented a plot of 5 hectares (about 12.5 acres). Of this he seeded 1 hectare (about 2.5 acres) with flax. He had 8 children , the oldest 14 years. He also hired a couple as helpers ('knechten') who together with the family members spun and work on the loom in the winters. He sold any excess flax he grew that was beyond the ability of his 'family' to process and weave.

(2) Pius Vercruysse of Kachtem near Izegem, who seemed not to be doing well since he lived on a property owned by the 'Benevolent Society" of
Roeselare, requested permission to instal 2 looms in his home, suggesting that he wanted to try becoming a weaver-manufacturer. Such people bought 'green' flax still in the field and at first processed and woven at home. With time they would buy already threshed ('zwingled') and sometimes spun flax. If they prospered they might end with a many as 60 looms, all worked by family members, knechten and dagloners.
   P.A. Martens of
Lichtervelde was such a weaver-manufacturer. He had two looms and paid his weavers as customary 1/4 of the selling price of the cloth they produced. He also employed spinners and bought his flax in his village's market. He sold his cloth to dealers ('ketsers'} who canvassed villages and countryside looking for bargains.
   P. De Jonckheere was a linen manufacturer in
Moorslede. He had 6 looms, bought his spun flax from spinners who lived in the village and paid his weavers the 'going wage' of 1/4 the price he obtained selling their product.

(3) Charles Desnoeck of
Ardooie was a weaver who worked for one linen dealer. He could weave 4 ellen (about 4 yards) per day and received 1/6th the selling price obtained by the dealer, thus earning 0.70 to 0.80 Francs per day. But in 1840 the Commission investigating the flax-linen industry found Desnoeck was working only half-time.

(4) The largest group of weavers in the Roeselare-Tielt district were transients ('kortwooners'). They rented a cottage on small plot of land and owned a loom, often inherited from father to son. Made of oak, these looms could withstand the wear-and-tear of centuries of use. These weavers bought threshed ('geswingled') flax on credit from a farmer. Around Easter they sold their linen cloth to repay the farmer for his flax so that he could get more from him in the new year. But by 1840 most of them could no longer pay cash according to burgemeester Beeckman of Ardooie. In the summer they and their families cultivated their rented plot for a few months until harvest. Then they would work for farmers as 'dagloners' to pay off the debts incurred for food and fuel purchased in the winter months when their wives spun and they weaved.

During these 'bad times' employers continued to try to lower the wages to maintain their profit margin. One way was not to pay spinners for a day's work but per length of flax spun to a specified diameter to be used for either the warf and or the woof in weaving. However, there was no standard wage for either spinners or weavers. As times became worse the expected weaver's wage of 0.75 to 1.20 Francs per day was rarely paid and slid to 0.5 Francs per day and then, as more and more weavers were paid by the piece, the price sank to 0.2 Francs per 'el' (about 1 yard). In Moorslede weavers no longer could earn enough to buy, even if they had wished, their own product!

   The investigating Commission reported that by 1840 in some districts the daily income of spinners had dropped to 0.16 Francs/day. Thirty years earlier it had been 0.75 Francs/day!

   The world of the dealers was quite different. They lived in the cities; there were 50 in Gent alone. Biggest dealer in Tielt was J.Byck who bought threshed flax from smaller dealers, of whom there were 7 to 8 in Tielt. In earlier good times Byck employed 100 weavers. By 1840 he had only 40 weavers in his service.
   There were peculiar, somewhat unsavory, characters in the flax-linen industry who were storekeepers and 'manufacturers': the ('
winkler-fabrikanten'). They provided spun flax on Mondays to weavers who delivered the finished cloth on Saturdays and was paid. If the weaver happened to have a drink 'while in town' on a Saturday and was short of money to buy food and other necessities the 'winkler-fabrikanten' often would 'allow' the weaver to buy exorbitantly priced goods in his store on credit, promising to pay with future deliveries of cloth! On Mondays the weaver would come back to pick up another batch of yarn. Again, if short of money, he could buy on credit what he needed at the store of the winkler-fabrikanten.

But how did all the above conditions actually affect the people ?

To find out on March 30th, 1840 an Investigating Commission began touring the countryside around Tielt visiting the poverty-struck weavers. The first place they came to was that of a Mr. Derock:

Derock with his brother and sister owned their house although it was mortgaged. The 25 year-old Derock was their spokesperson during the hearing and was obviously the oldest of the three. He said he had been weaving for 6 years; during that time conditions had been consistently bad. He did piecework and received 0.2 Francs per 'el' (about 1 yard). He could weave 4 to 5 'ellen' per day, working from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night; but he did not always have work. When he had no weaving to do he spun or worked on their plot of land. In the summers he also worked for farmers as a 'dagloner' for 0.40 Francs per day plus food. With this variety of jobs, three years ago he was still earning 0.50 to 0.6 Francs a day. But weaving was not going very well and spinning was worse.
  He and his siblings never ate meat nor they did they drink coffee in the mornings but rather tea with goat milk, without sugar. Their midday meal consisted only of rye bread ('roggebrood'), potatoes ('aardapplen') and buttermilk ('karnemelk'). But now the price of the bread had gone up by a quarter. Still, sometimes they bought a bit of
'smout' to smear on their bread. Otherwise they lived very soberly. Their neighbour was worse off and recently Derock had given him a shirt.
   In the house there was just one bed: a sack of straw with no blankets but a thin coverlet. There were two rooms: in one stood the loom and the bedstead. In the other room was a table, their spinning wheel and the hearth on which they burnt whatever dry wood they could find.

The next weaver the Commission visited was Clement Dekeyser:

He worked from 5:30 in the morning to 9:30 in the evening, without a break at midday and wove 5 ellen a day for 0.1 Francs per 'el'. He could not afford to buy enough flax to be able to work the year round. Of his 6 children, two helped their mother spin but the smaller ones were too young to even help by putting the spun flax on bobbins, ready for weaving. Flax was now so expensive he reckoned they earned practically nothing for their hard work!
   They too lived on roggebrood, potatoes (aardapplen) and buttermilk (karnemelk). Meat and beer never came into the house. There was only one small bed and the Commission members dared not ask where the children stayed at night. But looking around they found a dark nook near the loom and kitchen. There was no furniture in it, not even a sack of straw for a mattress. Now they knew where the children slept!

In considering the budget of another poverty-struck weaver and his family in Wingene the Commission reported:They never ate wheat bread nor even 'masteluinbrood'. Nor did they eat meat, eggs or drank beer (the common beverage). They kept a goat ('geit') for milk but their basic food was rye bread (roggebrood') and they were 'potato eaters'. The prices of salt and vinegar were high. Heating with purchased fuel averaged 0.3 Francs a week, but when the fuel's price doubled they started burning only whatever dried leaves they could find. The upkeep of their house was just the cost of lime for coat of whitewash yearly. They could not afford the the church's tithes or the cost of educating their children. Fortunately the latter was provided free and instruction in lacemaking at Sunday school also was covered by the municipality. The weaver never visited the local inn for a drink but he smoked occasionally, this requiring about 0.18 Francs per week.
   There were many variations of this story of misery in Wingene. André Deblaere expands on his
shorter story of his great-grandfather Karel Deblaere as follows: Karel was born in 1803 but was already in his 50s when he married. People were nearly all poor at the time; most could not afford to marry because they had no farmstead or money to start a family. Also, around 1850 there was a famine in Flanders, so people emigrated, starved or died of typhus. But Karel Deblaere was by that time a relatively old affluent man with a lot of money in the bank. So it occurred to much younger Barbara Lebrez in 1855 to marry him, not for love, but to assure herself a good living. They had seven children: Felix who died of typhus, August, Peter, Louise, Julie, Romanie and Ivo.
   But alas! During the economic depression the Belgian Franc suddenly lost its value and the 'Reiffeisenbank' in Brugge failed so Karel managed to salvage only about half of his savings. He also never saw anything back of the money he had deposited in a community-bank. So, at a relatively advanced age for that time, Karel became a woodcutter in the forests around Wingene and they lived in a hamlet called Bluehouse hidden in the woods. By law they were part of the Wingene
municipality, but people in Bluehouse were baptized and buried in the hamlet as if they were cut off from the world.   According to the Deblaere family tradition the first wattle-and-daub hut was built in one night.  Karel's youngest son Ivo said it was just a little hovel, built so low that it was difficult to stand up in it. Nevertheless nine people: Karel, Barbara, seven children, their goat and chickens lived and all slept there in one room under the most unbelievable conditions. Karel himself died of cancer at age seventy, a miserable pain-wracked old man. His first hut was only replaced by a new home after his death in 1870.

   A sample budget for a weaver and his family of six in

The mother spun and did other home-based crafts. The two oldest children made lace and worked for a farmer. They also work on a rented plot of 27 'aren' (about 0.67 acres or 1.65 hectares) and kept rabbits ('konijnen') and a goat ('geit'). Yearly income in Francs: father 143, mother 64, oldest daughter 76, 12 year-old son 2, crops 109, sale of rabbits 26, sale of goat milk 13, sale of scraps of linen 1, for a total income of 434 Francs. Expenses: 497 Francs. Deficit: 63 Francs.

The Commission reported the budget of an average weaver's family with 5 members. Assuming 3 of them worked, namely 1 weaver and 2 spinners, the household's average daily income would be about 0.92 Francs. But the price of food continued rise.
   By 1846 the cost (in Francs) of a loaf of wheat bread was 0.26, rye bread 0.21, potatoes 9.13 for 100 kg and 1 kg of pork cost 1.00.
The Commission found that none of the weavers they visited were members of Benevolent Societies that might have providing them with a way of saving money or receiving sickness benefits or, in later life, pensions. Nevertheless better-off people continued to defend the traditional home-based industry of the processing and weaving flax saying it "protected morals, religion and peace of mind".
   Nevertheless things grew progressively worse throughout Flanders and this was aggravated by the loss of a greater part of the potato harvest in successive years from 1845 through 1848. Many people became undernourished and more susceptible to twin plagues,
typhus and cholera, which had high mortality rates. As a result the population dropped and those in need of assistance rose to a record 43% of the population in 1847!
   Some relief came from the appearance "the right person at the right time".
Constant Vanden Berghe was installed as the municipal secretary of Tielt in 1835. One of his early acts was to help start up "De Thieltenaer", a newspaper in Tielt in which he proclaimed his ideals of obtaining better recognition of Flemish as a language and of improving social conditions. When he was appointed Commissioner for the whole district in 1847 it became possible for him to translate some of his ideals into reality. Under his direction Tielt survived with difficulty but the crisis worsened in the next decade. Encouraging lace making as a cottage industry to replace the flax and linen processing was not a great success and Tielt remained a provincial town populated for the most part by spinners, weavers, lace makers, daylabourers, servants, maids and small farmers. During the last half of the 19th century it became less important than it had been before France conquered the country in the late 1700s. Things in fact did not improve much there until after the second World War.

   Karl Marx who spent a few years in Brussels around 1850 recognized
that the above conditions were creating a rural proletariat!

   However, signs of a new way of doing things first showed itself by the increasing use of flying shuttles to speed weaving. This and other improved ways of working flax and linen were introduced in what is nowadays called trade schools which were promoted by the Commission in various towns. The reporter of "De Thieltenaer" wrote that he had seen:

In the home of Window Arteel there were two daughters, one 20 and the other 14 years-old, and their two brothers. All were adept at weaving with flying shuttle. The mother and the oldest daughter spooled the bobbins in preparation for the weaving. They told the reporter that the family could weave 360 'ellen' of cloth in only 9 days!

In 1853 there were still 2,080 homes processing flax and only 335 people working in the factories like those of Byck described above. However the industrial revolution was well on its way: There had been 300,000 home-based spinners and weavers in Flanders at the beginning of the 19th century but there were only 152 spinners and 721 weavers still working, mostly in their homes, in 1896.

1 By Josef Devogelaere "De Slechte Jaaren 1840-1850 in het arrondissement Roeselare-Tielt"
("The bad years in the district of Roeselare-Tielt 1840-1850").
Photocopies of selected sections were provided by Paul Callens.

Read how it was possible to survive in home-based flax industry
even towards the end of the 1800s