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A family working with flax into the 20th century

Revised September 29th, 1999. Your comments and suggestions about this page would be appreciated. 

  Not all rural families involved with flax suffered. Some people like Gustaaf Van De Wielle (born 1872) and his wife Maria Vermeir (born 1876) were lucky to arrive on the flax scene in the late 1800s. They remained in it until World War II, so they must have made an adequate living that way (or found it impossible to escape a way of life they had inherited from their ancestors). Their youngest son Robert (born 1913) recently described this family's way of life around 1880-1881 to his daughter-in-law.1
 They grew flax in Zele in East Flanders. They used age-old methods of flax processing for their own crop and also that of other growers. They processed flax which, although necessitating hard unpleasant labor in the 'vlasroot', was more profitable for them than more intensive farming would have been because their sandy soil was relatively poor. They also bought flax for processing in nearby Oudegem, Lebbeke and Baasrode from farmers who, because their soil was more fertile, found it better to put their efforts into more intensive farming rather than into processing the flax. In many ways the methods of the Van De Wielles were those used in the early and mid-1800s but some improvements had been introduced.
   In the winter the fields used for flax were put into "winterbeds" by spreading manure and digging small drainage ditches to prevent water-logging of the soil. In mid-March they sowed rows 15 cm (6 inches) apart to make later weeding easier. In the ever-frugal way of rural people who had long family memories of the miseries of the early and mid-1800s, carrots were sown in the space between the flax, to yield a second food crop and keep the weeds down. This was in some ways an improvement over sowing flax fields by the broadcast method and decreased the need for later
weeding which threatened damage to the tender new plants as the weeders moving over them. (However, sowing thickly in the old way had the advantage of making the young plants to grow straight and tall towards the light and air, encouraging the development of the desired long fibers.)
   Around St. Peter's Day, June 29th, the flax was usually ready to be harvested by pulling it up by hand ('vlas trekken'), a physically demanding task, painful and tiring work requiring a lot of manpower. The pulled flax was collected into
bundles and stacked in small 'kapelletjes' ('little chapels' = 'stooks'). After drying in the fields for a few days the flax was ready for further processing. The bundles were then taken home or sold to others for the processing.
   Two varieties of flax were grown, white-flowering called 'spreivlas' (from 'spreiden'= to spread out) because after pulling it was spread in the fields to allow bacterial and fungal action in the moist mild conditions to loosing the pectins holding the fiber bundles to the woody core of the stems ('dew retting'). White-flowered flax produces coarser fibers and more seeds than the blue flax. In contrast, the bundles of blue-flowering flax were taken home and deseeded by 'repelen': pulling it through a
'cam' (comb) to remove the seed bolls. These later were crushed by walking over them or by beating to release the flax seeds (linseed) that was collected to make 'lijnkoek' (flax seed cake for cattle feed) and 'lijnoil' (linseed oil). After 'repelen' the stems were tied into bundles ready for 'retting' (rotting) to release the fibers from the central woody core. For this they were put into vlasrooten, holes 3 meter wide and 6 meter long, filled with water from the Durme, a branch of the Schelde river. Two men would go into a vlasroot, barefooted in their worst working clothes. Others standing on the bank threw them them the bundles of flax. Those in the hole laid down the bundles in rows upon rows , very close together so as to leave each row with only 10 cm left uncovered by the next row. After 3 or 4 rows had been placed, they scooped mud from the bottom of the "rot" and put it on to the flax. Then they repeated, laying down three or four more layers at a time, each time covering the flax thoroughly with mud until all the flax was in the hole. Robert Van De Wiele, now in his 86th year, recalls how important that mud cover was. because it assured a final product of good quality and color.
After 5 to 7 days the flax had rotted enough to allow a separation of the woody core from the flax fibers. To continue the processing, two men went back into the 'vlasrooten', took the bundles out of the mud and sluiced them with the water to get rid of the mud. The bundles were thrown onto the banks of the 'vlasroot' where the others stacked them in 'kapelletjes' (stooks) to let the water drain out. The stems in the bundles were then separated and spread out on the field to dry. There they produced a terrible smell that spread over the nearby countryside and stuck to the workers who could only sluice themselves with cold water from the pump. To prevent it getting stuck in the grass growing up from under it the flax was turned over from time to time with a long stick, sometimes mounted on a wheel, until it was completely dry. It then was bound together and brought home. When the flax of other growers was available it was put into a vlasroot as soon as the previous batch had been put to dry in the field. So processing lasted a month or more, using multiple vlasrooten, as successive crops were 'pulled' when ripe and delivered to them.   
   Scutching is then done to break the woody core of the stems and this is followed by heckling to complete the separation of the fibers from the woody core. The highest quality fibers collected after scutching was collected in bundles for spinning. The tow (shorter fibers) was used for coarser yarns and later in the paper industry. The other byproduct was chaff ('kaf') was used to fill mattresses ('kafzake') in the 'old days'; nowadays the chaff is used as cattle feed.

Other tasks

   During the time between the 'pulling' of the flax until it was back in the house after it was dried there were other things for the father, Gustaaf Van De Wielle to do. From the middle of June till the middle of July, he would get on his bike and look around in the region at the flax of other farmers ripening on the fields. If he found a field that looked go he would buy the 'green' flax where it stood. When it had ripened to the 'yellow' stage and had been 'pulled', the farmer brought it to the 'vasrot', where Gustaaf, his older sons and wife retted the flax.
   In season they would start at 3 o'clock in the morning and work till it was too dark to see, day after day for as much as a month until all the incoming flax had been processed. This was a busy time of the year for the adults in the family but also for Robert too. At the time of his story he was 7 or 8 years old and so too young to help at the ' vasrot' so he stayed home from school to make dinner. He would go to a farmer to get 'labberdas' (skimmed milk) to make ' pap' (porridge). Then he would dig potatoes in the garden, wash, peel, and then boil them. But he was still too small to be able to pour off the water when they were cooked. So he had to pick the potatoes out of the pot with a spoon. Then he would slice and fry the potatoes in lard. Then he would carry the 'pap' and and the fried potatoes to those working at the 'vasrot', a trip that took him about 15 minutes.
  In the afternoon, when it was very hot weather, he also would get beer from a local café and bring it to the ' vasrot'. Around 4 o'clock he made coffee and sandwiches to take to them to the workers.

 1 This story of the Van De Wielle family was told to and provided here by Sandra Vancauwenbergh <>.

Read about other aspects of

life in West Flanders