Growing and Preparing Flax for Spinning

“Of linen cloth
“The next thing to this, which our English housewife must be skilful, is in the making of all sorts of linen cloth,
whether it be of hemp or flax, for from these two only is the most principal cloth derived,
and made both in this, and in other nations”

– Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (1615)

For more than 8,000 years, flax has been cultivated as an important crop for food, medicine and textile production as linen. During medieval times, linen was the most important plant-based cloth available in Western Europe. For millennia, growing flax and processing it for spinning and weaving was one of the major tasks in any woman’s life. This fiber provided the fiber for clothes for the family, the coverings for the bed at night and the grave-clothes for wrapping the dead. It also provided strong fibers that could be used to weave the sails for fishing vessels and trading ships, as the fibers of flax increase in strength when they are wet. Flax was (and, in many ways, still is) a valuable and much-needed commodity.

Growing flax

Flax seeds are tiny – approximately 4mm x 2mm (3.16″ x 3/32″). They are sewn very densely in the field, so that the plants grow quite close together. This forces the plants to grow straight, with little branching, thus producing long, straight fibers in the stems. The fibers in the flax plant are just under the outer surface of the stem, and run from the top of the stem down into the roots. Seeds planted too far apart allow the plant to branch during growth, creating shorter and weaker fibers in the branches.

Flax requires a soil that is broken up as finely as can be managed, as it is sown shallowly, and does not root deeply. Flax grows best when the temperatures do not exceed 80oF, yet it also requires mild weather and moderate rainfall, and should be planted after most danger of frost is past. Plan for a growing season of 90 to 100 days from sowing to harvest. In Ohio, I generally plant in late April to early May, and harvest at the end of July or early August.

Harvesting flax

Flax plants are harvested by being pulled up by their roots, not cutting. This preserves the long fibers in the plant. Harvesting can be back-breaking work, with all the bending and tugging needed. (As much as possible, I try to use a rolling garden seat so I can stay closer to the ground.) Once harvested, the plants are bundled together and left standing on end in the fields to dry them, until they can be processed further.

Rippling the seeds

Once the flax bundles dry, the seeds are removed by rippling — combing the seed pods off the stems using a wooden or metal comb with a single row of teeth. As soon as the seed pods are loose, especially if the seeds are being saved for oil or the next year’s crop, they are winnowed, to break apart the pods and blow away the surrounding covers and chaff, leaving the seeds behind. (Two varieties of flax developed early on in the domestication of flax, with seeds from fiber flax being smaller than those from oil flax – understandable, since the seed is where the oil is located. Both varieties have been highly valued through history.)

“The watering of hemp or flax”

Now for the watering of hemp or flax, the best water is the running stream, and the worst is the standing pit;
yet because hemp is a poisonous thing, and infecteth the water, and destroyeth all kind of fish,
it is more fit to employ such pits and ditches as are least subject to annoyance,
except you live near some great broad and swift stream,
and then in the shallow parts thereof you may water without danger.”

– Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (1615)

Retting the flax

Once the seeds are removed, the fibers in the flax stem need to be freed from the plant stem. This is done by a process called “retting” — literally rotting away the non-fiber parts of the plant. 

This can be done in one of three ways: 

1) dew retting

2) still water retting or

3) running water retting.

Dew Retting

Dew retting is the simplest method for rotting away the non-fibrous sections of the stem, as mold does most of the work. The success of this method depends on humidity from rain or dew during warm weather months. Traditionally, the flax straw is lain out in flat, uniform layers, all facing the same direction, with the heads of one row of plants overlapping the roots of the next row. (This saves space and helps prevent the wind from moving the straw.)

As soon as the stems change from the yellow-brown of freshly-harvested straw to a gray-blue, they are ready to be turned over. This is done at least once during the process, so that both sides of the plant are exposed. The time needed for dew retting can be anywhere from two weeks to three months, depending on the moisture in the air and the temperature at which it is attempted. If conditions dictate, it may be necessary to dampen the flax to continue the retting.

The color of the stems is the best indicator that the retting is sufficient. Once they turn a silvery gray, and fibers are bursting out at the tips of the stems, they are ready for further processing. To test, take a stem, break it in several places, and run it back and forth between the nails of your thumb and forefinger. The straw should fall away easily from the fibers.

Still Water or Running Water Retting

Water retting, the other form of rotting away the plant material and freeing the fibers to be spun, submerges the flax straw into some sort of container or body of water. This method, while taking less time, is generally regarded as requiring more work. It produces a blonder color in the fiber than the gray fiber produced by dew retting.

Water retting can be done in any body or container of water. Small quantities of straw can be retted in small tanks or barrels, moderate amounts can be done in small ponds, behind dams or in still backwaters, or larger crops can be weighted and done in a flowing stream or river. It should be noted, though, that retting large amounts of fiber at one time does pollute the river, making the water unfit for drinking or fish.

Submerging flax requires weighting down the fiber bundle, as retting will produce gasses that force the plants toward the surface. In a barrel or other small container, simply weighting the straw should be sufficient, though more weight than you might at first consider may be necessary. In ponds and larger still bodies of water, platforms may need to be placed over the bundles, and weights placed on the corners to hold everything down.

In running water, either anchors are needed, to tether the bundles and their weights in place, or containers that allow the water to flow through must be used. When I water-rett my flax in a flowing stream, we use a chicken-wire cage with the sides tied to each other to keep the shape reasonably flat. We insert rocks, bricks or cement blocks to make sure everything stays submerged. When the flax is fully wet and the retting is in progress, the bulging cage, pushed upward by the gasses produced by the retting process, can be an impressive sight.

Dew retting can take anywhere from two weeks to three months, depending on how much dew or rain wets the retting flax. Water retting in standing water can take up to five days, depending on the temperature of the standing water. Water retting with flowing water will usually take only three days from start to finish. To test the progress in retting, take a piece of straw, dry it thoroughly, then break it and see if the fibers pull away easily from the plant material in the center. 

Once the flax is properly retted, it is once again dried, to stop the retting. The average weight loss by retting is 20% of the starting weight. 
(Oh, I should add a caution if you are water-retting in a creek or stream. Be sure to check for native fauna when you pull the flax out of the water. I have had to evict crawdads twice, so far, and found a small snapping turtle near my flax on another occasion.)

Breaking the flax

Once the flax is fully dried from the retting, it is now ready for the actual freeing of the fibers from the stems, in preparation for spinning. 

The first step is to break the flax — literally breaking the stems in several places. This was traditionally done by striking the bundles with a grooved wooden mallet, or by using a more elaborate flax break. 

Either way, the idea is to break the husk of the stems and the pith at the center of the straw, loosening the fibers running through the stem without breaking those fibers. The fibers we want for spinning are just underneath the outer surface.

Scutching the flax

Once broken, the straw bits must be knocked off the fibers. This is done by holding bundles of fibers, hanging through a slot cut in a vertical board (to protect the hands during the process), and striking the bundles an oblique blow using a scutching sword. To make the finest fiber, the bundles are often scutched twice, shaking the first round of tow fibers out before proceeding to beat it a second time.

The first beating knocks away the outer covering of the straw and softens the inner pith of the stem. The second cleans out much of the remaining tow, so that the straw is ready to be hackled. The tow knocked out of the bundles of fibers in both rounds is often saved, to be combed later and used for rougher cloth. Viking combs seem to be particularly useful for knocking more chaff out of the tow, and the cleaned tow can be drawn off the combs to produce a pencil roving from the shorter fibers.

Hackling the flax

The final step in cleaning the fibers is hackling — dragging the fibers through a series of combs, each finer than the last, in order to separate the individual fibers that might still be sticking to one another. This also cleans out the last of the straw bits that may be clinging to the fibers, and eliminates some of the shorter tow fibers, leaving the long fibers aligned and ready to be dressed on the distaff. 

The final bundle of fibers will be 20″ – 30″  long, and will taper at both ends. This is line flax, ready to spin.

The tow flax, combed out by the hackles, can once again be saved and spun. It will still have some of the straw included in it, and will have more knots than the line flax, but it can be spun for weft. The thread will not be as smooth as that from line flax, as the fibers will vary from an inch to ten inches in length. Cleaning out the last of the chaff and remaining plant stem material is best done with Viking combs, thanks to their single row of tines. It may take several passes with the combs to finish the cleaning, and the remaining fiber may need to be pulled out through the tines of the comb. The resulting fibers, while much shorter than the normal line linen, are still spinnable.

Conclusion

While today we are no longer forced to grow our own fibers in order to create our own cloth, it can be an interesting (and fun) challenge to do so. One definitely gains a greater appreciation for the many skills and activities needed in medieval life to produce the materials and cloth we take so much for granted.

Go and enjoy yourself as you take control of your fiber production.

Further Resources

Baines, Patricia, (1989), Linen: Hand Spinning and Weaving, London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 208 pp. ISBN: 0-934026-52-1, OCLC: 24513653. A very detailed description of the spinning and weaving of linen, with not only descriptions of the modern processes in great detail, but also a thorough review of historical practices. Somewhat dated now, but this has been a standard source of information for this topic — useful, if you intend to concentrate on working with linen.

Barber, E.J.W., (1991) Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, xxxi + 471 pp. ISBN: 0- 691-00224-X. This work is a well-written and thorough coverage of its topic. Flax, as an important early plant fiber for textiles, is given a large section of the first chapter, along with hemp, nettles and other bast fibers. Excellent overview of many early textile crafts, as well.

Ejstrud, Bo, Stina Andresen, Amanda Appel, Sara Gjerlevsen, and Birgit Thomsen, (2011) From Flax to Linen: Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Centre, Esbjerg: Ribe Viking Centre & University of Southern Denmark, 86 pp. ISBN: 9788799221462. The experiments at Ribe included the entire process from growing flax to working it into fibres and finally spinning, weaving and sewing. Through this, the project investigated the broad range activities important in textile production a thousand years ago. https://www.ribevikingecenter.dk/media/10424/Flaxreport.pdf

König, Martina, (2020), “Flax Fibre Extraction Techniques in the Late Middle Ages,” EXARC Journal v. 2020 (2): 1-11. An account of the author teaching herself the steps for processing flax, and noting that “It is now possible to trace all the work steps and associated tools used in the Middle Ages. The most notable fact is that the devices used in non-industrial fibre extraction remained essentially unchanged over many centuries, which indicates that these early techniques had proven themselves to be optimal.” https://exarc.net/issue-2020-2/at/flax-fibre-extraction-techniques-late-middle-ages

Markham, Gervase, (1986), The English Housewife: Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banquetting-stuffe, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household, edited by Michael R. Best, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, lviii+321 pp. ISBN: 0-7735-0582-2. One of the many books on housewifery to come down to us, this work gives us a good feel for how typical chores were handled in Period times.

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Retting pits for textile fibre plants at Danish prehistoric sites dated between 800 B.C. and A.D. 1050

Stina Troldtoft Andresen, Sabine Karg (2011) Retting pits for textile fibre plants at Danish prehistoric sites dated between 800 B.C. and A.D. 1050, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6), p. 517–526, doi:10.1007/s00334-011-0324-0

Seeking Nettle Textiles – Utilizing a Combination of Microscopic Methods for Fibre Identification

Jenni A. Suomela, Krista Vajanto, Riikka Räisänen (2018) Seeking Nettle Textiles – Utilizing a Combination of Microscopic Methods for Fibre Identification, Studies in Conservation 63(7), p. 412-422, Taylor and Francis Ltd., url, doi:10.1080/00393630.2017.1410956

Some Evidence for 12th- and 13th-Century Linen and Woollen Textile Processing

Mary C. Higham (1989) Some Evidence for 12th- and 13th-Century Linen and Woollen Textile Processing, Medieval Archaeology 33, p. 38-52

Technical Report Experimental Archaeology Part 2-1 Spinning Flax, 2006

Linda Mårtensson, Eva Andersson, Marie-louise Nosch, Anne Batzer (2006) Technical Report Experimental Archaeology Part 2-1 Spinning Flax, 2006, p. 18 pp.

Textile Production Tools From Viking Age Graves in Gotland, Sweden

Barbara K Klessig (2015) Textile Production Tools From Viking Age Graves in Gotland, Sweden, p. xii + 120 pp., url

Textile production and clothing.

Hero Granger-Taylor (2003) Textile production and clothing., Technology and tools in ancient Egypt. University College London, url

The Joint Prehistoric Project

Robert J Braidwood, Linda S Braidwood (1992) The Joint Prehistoric Project, Oriental Institute Annual Report, p. 40-43, pdf

The first plant bast fibre technology: identifying splicing in archaeological textiles

Margarita (Cambridge University) Gleba, Susanna (University of Glasgow) Harris (2019) The first plant bast fibre technology: identifying splicing in archaeological textiles, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 11(5), p. 2329-2346, url, doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-018-0677-8

The use of local fibres for textiles at Neolithic Çatalhöyük

Antoinette Rast-Eicher, Sabine Karg, Lise Bender Jørgensen (2021) The use of local fibres for textiles at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Antiquity 95(383), p. 1129-1144, pdf, doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.89

Tradition and transition : the technology and usage of plant-fibre textiles in Estonian rural areas in the 11th – 17th centuries

Riina Rammo (2014) Tradition and transition : the technology and usage of plant-fibre textiles in Estonian rural areas in the 11th – 17th centuries, Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland 3, p. 102-115, pdf

Ueber den Flachs und die Flachskultur im Alterthum: Ein kulturhistorische Skizze

Oswald Heer (1872) Ueber den Flachs und die Flachskultur im Alterthum: Ein kulturhistorische Skizze, p. 26, Zürich: Zürcher und Furrer, url

Underrated: Textile Making in Neolithic Lakeside Settlements in the Northern Alpine Foreland

Johanna Banck-Burgess (2020) Underrated: Textile Making in Neolithic Lakeside Settlements in the Northern Alpine Foreland, The Competition of Fibres: Early Textile Production in Western Asia, South-East and Central Europe (10,000-500 BC), Wolfram Schier, Susan Pollock (ed.), p. 153-163, Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books

Variation of cultivated flax (Linum usitatissimum L. subsp.usitatissimum) and its wild progenitor pale flax (subsp. angustifolium (Huds.) Thell.)

Axel Diederichsen, Germany Hammer, K. Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, D-06466, Gatersleben (1995) Variation of cultivated flax (Linum usitatissimum L. subsp.usitatissimum) and its wild progenitor pale flax (subsp. angustifolium (Huds.) Thell.), Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 42(3), p. 263-272, doi:10.1007/BF02431261

Viking and early middle ages northern scandinavian textiles proven to be made with hemp

G. Skoglund, M. Nockert, B. Holst (2013) Viking and early middle ages northern scandinavian textiles proven to be made with hemp, Scientific Reports 3, p. 1-6, doi:10.1038/srep02686

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