Flax and Linen Through History (DRAFT)

The “History of Flax/Linen” class: a discussion of *all* the different places that evidence of flax preparation has been found (backed up by an issue of “Vegetation History and Archaeobotany” that I bought — it’s *all* flax history, with examples from Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, China and Israel — and that’s just one of my sources), leading into a discussion of what sort of evidence has been found to establish all these locations. That will then lead into the hands-on Flax Prep class, as everyone gets to see and use all the equipment that produced the fibers, seeds and chaff that has been found worldwide and stretching back to 8000 years ago and more.

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

In 1872, Oswald Heer wrote a ground-breaking essay concerning the role of flax and flax culture in prehistory, referring to it as a “culture-historical outline” (‘Ueber den Flachs und die Flachskultur im Alterthum. Ein kulturhistorische Skizze’). In it, he described the original cultivation of flax (Linum usitatissimum, L.) by the prehistoric settlers around the Mediterranean, as its wild progenitor, Linum augustifolium Huds. (a synonym for L. bienne, L.) grew naturally in this region. He saw flax as one of the major trading exports (and by extension, one of the major industries) of some of the ancient regions and cultures, and compared the archaeological finds of Egypt with those of Europe. Due to the many finds of mummies (human and animal) wrapped in linen cloth, he presumed that there was major flax production by the 4th and 3rd millennia B.C., backing this up with quotes from ancient authors describing the fine linen coming as a major trade item from Egypt. (This information is from Karg, 2020.)

Helbæk, Hans (1959) “Notes on the Evolution and History of Linum,” KUML (Journal of the Jutland Archeological Society) 1959, 103-129.

In 1959, Hans Helbæk wrote another major essay on the history of flax, after another extensive study of its evolution and cultural history. He concentrated on seed size, and compared measurements for seeds from Iraq (“the Near East”), sub-alpine Central Europe (particularly Switzerland and the Danube Basin), Western Europe, and Denmark, trying to sort out the history and development of Linum, the genus that has produced the modern plant L. usitatissimum from the two earlier Linum species, the sub-Alpine Austrian flax, L. austriacum L.,, a summer-annual plant, and Pale flax, L. bienne Mill., winter-annual plant, whose fossils and imprints of which had been found in the mid-1950s in the area around Iraq, Egypt and Kurdistan. While he clearly saw the split of the seeds into two size groups, he did not associate that with the cultivation of two types of flax — one favoring the production of linseed oil for cooking, and the other favoring the production of internal fibers of flax for linen. One item of note: asa he pointed out in 1969

Earliest finding of wild flax(?) fibers — The Controversy

Since these early publications on the importance of flax in prehistoric social development, archaeological exploration and research on flax has continued, and expanded through the years. Any number of examples can be found, depending on what you might be looking for.

Georgia (Caucasus)

Kvavadze, Eliso, et al., (2009) “30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers,” Science v. 325 (5946): 1359

In 2009, the discovery and identification of wild flax fibers in an archaeologically-studied cave in Georgia — in the area of the Caucasus Mountains near Iraq — flax fibers were identified in layers of dirt dated to 30,000 years before present, indicating that the hunter-gatherers who had occupied the cave during the Upper Paleolithic had been making cords for stone tools, weaving baskets or sewing garments using flax grown near there. This is one of the earliest finds of flax fibers at this point.

Bergfjord, Christian, et al. (2010) “Comment on ‘30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers’”, Science v. 328 (5986): 1634-b.

Upon publication of the find, other researchers came forward to contest the identification, arguing that the method of identification used was not precise enough to conclusively identify the fibers as flax. Instead, they argued, the most that could be said at this point was that bast fibers of some sort had been discovered, possibly even tree-bast fibers. Any more precise identification of the fibers would require the application of other techniques.

Kvavadze, Eliso, et al. (2010) “Response to Comment on ‘30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers’” Science v. 328 (5986): 1634-c.

The response to this Comment (published simultaneously with the Comment), argues that the techniques used to identify the flax fibers were indeed suitable for this purpose. Previous research to identify bast fibers to species used these techniques, and they have proven sufficient to compare the internal structure of the flax stems with that of other plant stems, allowing the viewing of morphology needed to identify the segments as coming from flax. (This, by the way, is an excellent example of the sort of discussion that goes on within scientific fields all the time, and is how the research field grows and matures.)

Turkey

After this early discovery of flax remnants, other impression and chaff have been discovered throughout the many sites of human habitation during the Paleolithic, usually in caves or other sites where the hunter/gatherers of the time would rest for a short period. As civilization moved past this hunter/gatherer period and began to settle into more permanent communities and settlements, they domesticated the plants and animals they needed to thrive. Cereal grains, of course, were some of the first plants to be domesticated and planted in fields by these Neolithic farmers, Flax was also included, because of its importance as a source of linseed oil for cooking. The fibers in flax we also valued, but they were used as a byproduct of the plant. From archaeological discoveries, it seems thatLinum bienne, an earlier species, was the most likely flax to be domesticated first.

van Zeist, W. & J.A.H. Bakker-Heeres (1975) “Evidence for Linseed Cultivation Before 6000 BC”, Journal of Archaeological Science v.2 (3): 215-219.

Stewart, Robert B. (1976) “Paleoethnobotanical Report Çayönü 1972”, Economic Botany v.30 (3): 219-225.

Braidwood, Robert J. & Linda S. Braidwood (1992) “The Joint Prehistoric Project”, Oriental Institute Annual Report 1992, pp. 40-43.

Harris, Susanna, “Flax fibre: Innovation and Change in the Early Neolithic A Technological and Material Perspective” (2014). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. Paper 913. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/913

The settlement into farms and communities did not take place simultaneously throughout the Old World. The first areas where agricultural cultivation and animal domestication is evident are in that region often called the Fertile Crescent, the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers around the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, in present-day southwest Turkey and Iraq. It then trends around the Mediterranean, and eventually up through the Alps, and on to the Baltic countries. Two archaeological sites, Çayönü Tepesi, a prehistoric site in the southeastern Turkish Province of Diyarbakir near the town of Ergani, dating from about 7,000 BC and and Ali Kosh, in southwestern Iran, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and dating as early as 7500 BC, seem to be the places where signs of agriculture are first seen in archaeological digs. Flax seeds are found at both sites, though the remains at Ali Kosh are tentative, and the likely growing conditions there are too dry for the growth of flax in that region, and the deposits probably result from trade that imported them from the mountains north of that plain.
The Çayönü seeds, on the other hand, have been identified as being from the species Linum bienne, due to their size, and while there are only scattered reports of this species being found in this region, it’s quite possible that it might be native to the area. (Helbaek, 1959, reports “L. bienne occurs in the foothills north and east of the Euphrates-Tigris plain”.) (van Zeist & Bakker-Heeres, 1975). Stewart (1976) also reported finds of flax seeds at Çayönü in his report on excavations there in 1972, and Braidwood & Braidwood (1992) report a confirmation of a linen textile wrapped around the haft of an antler, found in 1988, placing the cloth at 7000 BC, one of the earliest finds of woven linen reported.

Current researchers continue to push the “date” of domestication backward, especially for flax. Ofer Bar-Yosef (2020), in his keynote review article for the “Competition of Fibres” conference, sees the domestication of flax as beginning with the flax plants growing taller, probably c. 9500 BC, followed by the specialization for oil production c. 7000 BC. Supporting this scenario is the discovery of a small comb from the caves of Wadi Murabba’at, in the Judean desert, dated to 10,000 BC, with strands of flax yarn twined in the tines. (Even more remarkably, speculation as to the use of the comb suggested the possibility that it might have been used for as a combing or hackling tool, or as a beater for weaving. Schick, 1995)

Egypt

Anyone with any awareness of Egyptian society is familiar with the importance of flax and linen there throughout the millennia, both ancient and medieval. Not only did flax serve as a major source of clothing for the living, and wrappings for the mummies of the dead, it was also a major part of the economic sector throughout Egypt, and served as a major export for Egyptian ports for centuries, no doubt due to the quality of the flax grown and processed in the region. (Even today, the quality of the fiber processing compares favorably to the flax processing today. (Melelli, et al., 2021))

Marthot-Santaniello, Isabelle (2020), “Flax Growing in late antique Egypt: evidence from the Aphrodito papyri” in Egyptian textiles and their production: ‘word’ and ‘object’ (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods), ed. by Maria Mossakowska- Gaubert, Lincoln, NE: Zea Books.

Surprisingly, very little is known about flax cultivation in the Nile Delta and Valley. One explanation offered is that few papyrus records have survived from the Egyptian Delta, although this is discounted in that, where the records do survive, very few mentions are made of flax. One explanation currently being argued is that the “work of flax was carried out by an illiterate population”, and thus was considered so commonplace that it wasn’t worth noting (Marthot- Santaniello, 2020). Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello (2020) cites Ewa Wipszycka’s 1965 study of the textile industry in Roman Egypt to support this theory. Wipszycka explains that weavers had three options for acquiring their linen thread: 1) by growing it themselves and processing it end-to-end — a very good way to control the quality of their thread completely; 2) by receiving it from their customer; and 3) by buying it. She was even able to point to texts where the weaver is, indeed, growing his own flax.

For the most part, though, it seems that flax was grown as a crop associated with subsistence farming. When it was being grown on a large scale, though, flax had some rather specific conditions that had to be maintained. A major requirement was that flax could not be grown repeatedly in the same place — it needed to be part of a crop rotation so as to not wear out that particular plot of land. From a landlord’s view, though, flax growing seems to have been lucrative, and the rivalry among landlords for tenants willing to grow flax provides us with a view, today, of the significance of flax as a crop in a village.

Frantz-Murphy (1981) suggests that the prominence of government officials as producers and consumers of flax (indeed, many government officials controlled the sale of the flax to merchants during the Fatimid period) was a major factor in the expansion of flax and linen production in Egypt. The fact that this was a renewable commodity also helped Egyptian trade, as linen could be used in lieu of currency when trading with foreign markets. (Frantz-Murphy,1981, p. 292)

Elsharnouby, Rehab Mahmoud Ahmed (2014) “Linen in Ancient Egypt” JGUAA (Maǧallaẗ Al-Itiḥād Al-ʿām Lil Aṯārīyin Al-ʿarab/Journal of the General Union of Arab Archaeologists) v. 15 (2): 1-22

Udovitch, A. L. (1999) “International Trade and the Medieval Egyptian Countryside”, Proceedings of the British Academy: “Agriculture in Egypt: From Pharaonic to Modern Times” v. 96: 267-285

An unlikely, and unexpected, source of information on Egyptian rural history are the business letters of the Cairo Geniza (Hebrew for “text repository”), the files of Jewish merchants and traders who traveled the Mediterranean from the eleventh century to the late nineteenth century. These files of roughly 400,000 pages came from all shores of the Mediterranean, Saharan Africa, trans-Alpine Europe, Central Asia, and much of the Indian Ocean basin — all areas where the very extensive network of traders traveled. The truly amazing extent of these files is best illustrated by the fact that they cover more than just the major trading centers, but also extend into the small villages and towns within the region — the very place where the merchants purchased the raw flax freshly harvested from the fields, which made up a large portion of the commercial exchange within the trading network. Flax and linen were in demand throughout the medieval Islamic world for many centuries, and this resulted in entire villages developing specializations in the processing and manufacture of textiles for trade throughout Egypt, and figured prominently in the expanding trade between the Islamic Fertile Crescent and Egypt, and the trading ports of Northern Africa, Spain, Italy and many other parts of Christian Europe. (Goldberg, 2012)

Israel

Kislev, M, et al. (2011) “Flax Seed Production: Evidence from the early Iron Age site of Tel Beth-Shean, Israel and from written sources,” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6): 579-584.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s cultivation and use of flax has often been tied to that of its much larger (and often dominant) neighbor, Egypt. Archaeological finds, particularly those from the periods when Egypt occupied the territory now known as Israel, show that flax was often grown in large quantities, presumably for fiber, and then exported by Egyptian supervisors and traders. Large quantities of flax seeds were stored in caches found in the archaeological site of Tel Beth-Shean, but with no signs of storage vessels for linseed oil, it was concluded that the seeds were being saved for planting for the next spring. (See Panitz-Cohen, 2009, 254ff.)(Kislev, et al., 2011)

Greece

The presence of flax cultivation in Neolithic (pre-3500 BC) and Bronze Age (3500-1050 BC) Greece has not been heavily researched, although there are plenty of charred plant remains, including many seeds, that have been discovered and examined, confirming the presence of flax in both periods.

In Bronze Age Greece, textile production modes can be delineated into several levels: household production from flax grown in the family fields; individual production beyond that needed for one household, with the excess being sold in the city market; independent specialization/non-domestic production (e.g. ship sails for both private trading ships and the triremes of the military); ritual production in association with temples; and palace-controlled production to supply the needs of the elite and their servants and slaves. (Ulanowska and Siennicka, 2018) Much of Greece is mountainous and not suitable for large-scale farming of flax, so while there were no doubt small fields suitable for producing the linen needed for the normal Greek household, Much of the rest of this production points to the wholesale importing of massive amounts of raw fiber, thread, cloth and finished linen products.

By the time of Classical Athens, importing was not the only mode of exchange the Greeks used with flax and linen. The Greek countryside was rough, and the roads were narrow and poorly-developed, so that movement of goods by land was greatly limited outside cities. Greece, however, had developed an extensive network of colonies around the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and there were many port cities, both Grecian colonies and foreign ports, all filled with trading ships carrying the raw materials and textiles, and the other luxury goods craved by the elite. While there are relatively few textiles that have been preserved, there are plenty of textual sources and tax/duty records from the major ports: Athens, Corinth, Samos and others. Textiles and related goods went to the colonies, and foreign textiles came into Greece. (Among the textiles that have been preserved, it’s possible to differentiate the foreign textiles from the Greek-produced by the twist used in the threads: Egyptian and other foreign threads were S- twisted — the natural twist of flax — while Greek thread had a Z-twist.)(Spantidaki & Moulhérat, 2012, p. 195; Spantidaki, 2016b, p. 114)

Ulanowska, Agata and Małgorzata Siennicka (2018) ”The Economics of Textiles in Bronze Age Greece”, pp. 39-48 in Textiles and Dyes in the Mediterranean Economy and Society, edited by Maria Stella Busana, Margarita Gleba, Francesco Men and Anna Rosa Tricomi, Valencia, Spain: Libros Pórtico. (Purpureae Vestes, vol. 6)

Valamoti, S (2011) “Flax in Neolithic and Bronze Age Greece: Archaeobotanical evidence,” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6): 549-560.

Spantidaki, Youlie and Christophe Moulhérat (2012) “Greece”, pp. 186-200, in Textiles and Textile Production in Europe: From Prehistory to AD 400, edited by Margarita Globe and Ulla Mannering, Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, Ancient Textile Series v.11.

Spantidaki, Stella (2016a) “Textile Trade in Classical Athens: From Fibre to Fabric”, pp. 125-138, in Textiles, Trade and Theories: From the Ancient Near East to the Mediterranean, Kerstin Droß-Krüpe and Marie-Louise Nosch eds., Kārum – Emporion – Forum 2, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Spantidaki, Stella (2016b) Textile Production in Classical Athens, Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, Ancient Textile Series v.27

Neolithic Circum-Alpine Lake District — Pile Dwellings

The pile dwellings of the circum-Alpine Lake region and wetlands of southwest Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy are remarkable in the extent and detail of the preserved findings of the Neolithic culture of the region. For our interest in flax, the extensive investigations around the region of the flax remains, tools and and evidence of products helps reveal the importance of flax cultivation and processing in the area. UNESCO has declared the area, with well over 100 excavation and settlement areas sites, a World Heritage Site, due to the importance of the many findings in all sorts of areas that have come from there.

One reason for the remarkable preservation of the archaeological finds is the oxygen-free underwater preservation of so many of the dwellings within the waters, along the banks of the lakes and bogs. These optimal conditions preserved flax processing tools (rib spikes, hackling combs, and spindle whorls, with and without spindles), finished flax products (nets, threads and fabric, and even waste products (flax seeds, seed capsule fragments, and broken stems and roots from processing). (Maier & Schlichtherle, 2011)

Many flax seeds have been found throughout the settlements, and due to the extensive archaeological investigation of the region, it is possible to precisely date the ages of many of the sites. Thanks to this, the seeds have been measured for size, and it has been revealed that seeds from the early phase of the late Neolithic (4000-3400 BC) are considerably larger when compared to the seed from the later phase of the late Neolithic (3400-2800 BC). Experts have theorized that the larger seeds represent the domestication of flax for oil happening earlier, with another flax species being introduced later (represented by the smaller seeds) that was more suitable for producing flax fiber. (Herbig & Maier, 2011)

Karg (2022b) conducted a thorough review of earlier morphometric studies on the varying sizes of flax seeds, adding on yet more studies from other sites throughout France, southwest Switzerland, southern Germany, western Austria, Slovenia and Italy. She concluded that the data confirmed and extended the conclusions from earlier chronological and stratigraphic studies, enabling her to describe the timeline of the various flax varieties of flax used throughout the region, with the conclusion that “[f]lax seeds were constantly (re-)imported to the Alpine region over more than 1500 years (ca. 4300–2800 BC), most probably from the Mediterranean region” — as the flax seeds often had the seeds of a common Mediterranean weed for flax, a weed not native to the circum-alpine region (Karg, 2022b, 104).

The pile-dwellings, collectively, also showed a shift from the previous use of tree bast to a use of flax as the main source of bast fibers, due to changing conditions in the surrounding forest ecosystem and the ramping up of agricultural activity around the dwellings. There is evidence for the use of tree bast fibers — bast fibers, much like those of flax, found under the bark of the tree — for many common purposes extending back as far as the findings of a fiber rope in the Lascaux caves, dated to 15,000 BC, (Karg, 2020, citing Rast-Eicher & Dietrich, 2015). Originally, the use of flax was concentrated in fishing nets and other fishing-related purposes, due to its strength when wet, with bast from lime trees being used for more functional textiles.

Neolithic man in the circum-Alpine region became very familiar with the techniques of stripping bast fibers from under the bark of lime trees (called linden trees in the Americas), whose bast fibers were the softest, most pliable and strongest of the trees available there. Lime trees have 10-12 layers of solid bast fibers directly underneath the tree bark — unlike flax, where the fibers are in small clusters around the stem of the plant. To harvest the bast, wide strips of bark are stripped from the trunks of young lime trees, and from the thicker branches of older trees. If done in the early summer, the bark requires retting in order to release the bast. If done in the early spring (when the saps rising) or in the winter when the bark can be stripped from the tree and then warmed in stoves for 24 hours — these two techniques produced strong, stiff fibers that could be spun without further treatment.

Like flax, the bark and bast fibers of trees must be retted by submersion in water, to separate the bast layers from the bark and from each other. Unlike flax, tree bast requires 4-6 weeks of retting in either fresh or salt water. Current practice in Norway, where lime bast fiber is still used, is for using seawater as the preferred medium, as the bast, composed of short sclerids and long lignified fibers with thick cellulose walls, loses some of the lignin, and is weakened by the retting process. (Seawater retting produces less loss of lignin than freshwater retting.) Ultimately, the individual layers of bast are separated, then thin strips of bast are cut from the layers, and used for spinning. (Myking, et al. 2005)

Due to the many common objects that Neolithic man left behind that were made using lime bast fibers, it rapidly becomes obvious that many trees would have been required to supply the need. Eventually, the number of lime trees near the Neolithic villages must have declined, with the trees being forced back further into the surrounding forests. Looking at diagrams of the distribution of lime tree pollen found in archaeological sites, it’s possible to see the lime trees pulling back further between the 4th and 2nd millennium BC throughout Europe. Archaeological research also shows that villages throughout the Neolithic wetlands were each generally only used for a decade before being abandoned for another site, possibly due to the depletion of raw materials (such as lime bast) needed by the villages at those sites. (Karg, 2022a)

This depletion of raw materials may also have led to the domestication of flax for fiber purposes in the region. The importance of flax rose as the use of tree bast declined. (Just as, later, the importance of flax and other native plant bast fibers would decline in importance, thanks to the complex collection of steps needed to process those fibers, when the domestication of sheep and goats made bast fibers obsolete.)

Sweden

One of the early findings of the cultivation of flax for two purposes via the flax seeds that showed the difference between oil flax and fiber flax, and the roles they played in Swedish life during that period. Prehistorical evidence is almost exclusively from the study of charred seeds found in settlement hearths and postholes from the Swedish Iron Age (ca. 500 BC – AD 1050) These flax seeds are often associated with other seeds known to be good sources for oil — thus we can conclude that oil flax was an early crop.

Later, 12th -16th centuries, Sweden was a major exporter of flax to other parts of Europe.

Viklund, Karin (2011) “Flax in Sweden: The archaeobotanical, archaeological and historical evidence”
Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6): 509-515

Denmark

Another study (and validation of methods) for flax processing during this era through the discovery of retting pits for flax — verified by the seeds and plant parts found in the sediments at the bottom of the pits. This shows water-retting of flax, instead of dew retting.

Andresen, Stina Troldtoft & 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): 517-526.

Novgorod (present-day Russia)

Sherman, Heidi M. (2015) “The Flax and Linen of Medieval Novgorod,” Textiles and the Medieval Economy: Production, Trade and Consumption of Textiles, 8th – 16th Centuries, Ancient Textiles Series, v. 16, pp. 104-112.

Great Britain and Ireland

EVIDENCE/CITATION NEEDED FOR FLAX USE IN UK AND IRELAND

Evidence to establish all these locations Retting pits

Andresen, Stina Troldtoft & 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): 517-526.

Flax fiberspage8image55649280

Leuzinger U, Rast-Eicher A (2011) Flax processing in the Neolithic and Bronze Age pile-dwelling settlements of eastern Switzerland. (Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6): 535–542)

Flax seeds Fiber Flax

Herbig, C & Maier, U (2011) Flax for oil or fibre? Morphometric analysis of flax seeds and new aspects of flax cultivation in Late Neolithic wetland settlements in southwest Germany (Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6): 527-533)

Oil Flax
Chaff and Plant Material

Flax Preparation: Hands-on Class

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.

Andersson-Strand, E. (2012) “The Textile Chaîne Opératoire: Using a Multidisciplinary Approach to Textile Archaeology with a Focus on the Ancient Near East”, Paleorient 38 (1): 1-40.

Discussion About 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 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.)

Drying

Once harvested, the plants are bundled together and left standing on end in the fields to dry them, until they can be processed further.

Harvesting/Rippling 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.)

Retting

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:

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.

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.

Still water retting

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.

Running water retting

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, I use a chicken-wire cage with the sides tied to each other to keep the shape reasonably flat. I 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.

(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.)

Drying (again)

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.

Breaking the Flax plants, and chaff

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 and even more chaff

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.

Hackles

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.

Long fibers/Line flax

The final bundle of fibers that you will come up with are line flax fibers are the long, smooth fibers — 20-30′′ long — that you have processed through your break and hackles. These are the fibers on your distaff, and they are likely to average 30′′ or so in length. This is easy to spin, so long as you account for that length. Line flax doesn’t need much twist to hold the thread together, and it can be taken up quickly on a wheel. If you spin it on a spindle, it will need more weight than you might be used to with a wool thread of a comparable size, and it will need a long shaft, thicker than normal, to keep the spindle stable for any sort of extended spinning. Flax fiber is stiffer than wool, and will need a firmer twist and more speed to keep the spindle spinning than you might be used to. You may find rolling the shaft of your spindle down your leg is much more effective for getting a long spin from the spindle.

Tow flax

Tow flax is the dregs and noils of your processing, the pieces that are left in the hackles when you have the line flax finished. Tow, by its very nature, has an irregular staple length and is of variable quality, to put it kindly. It’s usually coarse and stiff, but if you can sort out the fibers by length, you can card it into rolags and spin quite nice, attractive thread from it. You will want to spin thin threads — thicker yarns will be tricky, given the texture of the fibers. Spinning it damp, as with all flax, makes the fibers much easier to smooth out and control. If you don’t want to spin directly from the rolag, you can roll several into a towel and tie that to a distaff. This is an easy way to control the rolags, and keep them from getting damp before you actually spin from them. 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.

Flax sliver

Flax sliver usually comes in a staple length of 3′′ to 7′′ — there is a shorter form that has a staple of only 1′′, but that is rarely available to the hand spinner, as it is intended for the mechanized spinning market, and is processed on machines originally used for spinning cotton. The 3′′ to 7′′ sliver, by contrast, is processed on carding and spinning machines that are usually used for wool fibers. If the fibers have been combed and have a smooth, consistent staple, this type of fiber is called “top”. If it is more random, and has a variable staple, it is sliver. Spinning, it resembles wool in some ways due to the staple length, but the texture will be stiffer, and it is best spun as a thin thread. Treat it as a worsted thread, and keep all of the twist ahead of the hand you are using to control the twist.

An experiment with Viking Combs v. Hackles

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 spinable.

The Distaff and Why You want to Use One

Preparing flax for spinning is *all* about getting the fibers clean and aligned. The challenge with spinning is to pull the fibers from the strick, the bundle of organized fibers, without tangling them. Tying them on a distaff makes it much easier to pull just a few strands at a time, in order to spin a fine, smooth thread. There are a multitude of different types of distaffs, so it is often just a matter of finding the type you find most comfortable to use, as you sit down (or not – some people prefer to spin as they are moving around) to spin. Here is a brief survey of the types of distaffs available, so that you can make a preliminary decision.

Freestanding Distaffs

Freestanding distaffs can range anywhere from a simple pole with feet at the base to a cone or large basket mounted on a pole. One of their advantages is that they can be placed as close to or far from the spinner as might be needed to allow for drafting out the full staple of the flax before more is pulled out, making the resulting thread much easier to spin smoothly. One of the disadvantages of a freestanding distaff on the other hand, is that it limits the ability of the spinner to move around and adds to the footprint needed by the spinner for spinning.

Wheel-mounted Distaffs

A wheel-mounted distaff is usually rather short, and attached to one side of the flyer arm. It is designed to put the fiber off to one side, and slightly above, the wheel’s orifice. This arrangement is good at limiting the space a spinner will occupy, but it has the disadvantage of not moving the fiber far enough away from the wheel. Drafting out fiber can be challenging, as the spinner is too close to the wheel orifice to make it possible to draft out the full length of the fiber’s staple.

Belt Distaffs

These distaffs are great for those who like to spin while they are moving around. The distaff’s lower end (~5-7 inches) is inserted through a belt at the waist and rests against the hipbone, so that the upper part of the distaff leans against the non-dominant shoulder with the bulk of the fiber above the spinner’s head. This allows the spinner to draft out fiber easily, while walking, bending or working on chores that don’t require constant use of the hands.

Handheld Distaffs

These distaffs (often 18′′ – 22′′ long) are useful for shorter line flax — line flax that might be less than 36′′ long — as well as for rovings of tow flax. The hand holding the distaff also helps manage the drafting zone of the thread from time to time.

Other Ways to Manage Flax for Spinning

Using a distaff, as such, is not strictly necessary for spinning flax, so long as the organized flax fibers can be easily controlled and drafted into the thread while spinning. This can also be accomplished by laying a towel in your lap, and wrapping the strick in the towel, leaving the last few inches exposed. Alternatively, you can tie the hackled strick at your back waist, and draw the fibers over your shoulder, using your body as a distaff, as it were. There are even wrist distaffs that allow you to wrap the fiber around the wrist of your non-dominant hand and draft out the fiber you need as you spin with the dominant hand. Any way that lets you comfortably control the flax is viable in the end.

Dressing a Distaff

To “dress” the distaff is to attach the flax to the distaff in a way that secures it for drafting and spinning. There are as many different types of tops available to put at the top of a distaff as there are styles of distaff.

Straight Distaffs

A straight distaff requires some sort of smooth ribbon — approximately 2 to 3 yards — with a loop slipknot in the center. Use this slipknot to loop over the bundle of flax and the upper end of the distaff (often a knob) and tighten it enough so that the flax will slide out as it is gently tugged on. Criss-cross the ribbon back and forth around the flax and distaff, down to the lower end of the mass, then tie the ribbons so that the lower 4′′-6′′ of the fibers are easily reached for adding to the thread while spinning.

Comb Distaffs

These distaffs spread out the bundle of flax — a good way to ad-lib a comb distaff would be to insert s broom into a Christmas tree stand so that it stands with the broom end upright. Again, using a smooth ribbon, loop around the top mass, leaving some space below the broad part of the distaff, before criss-crossing the ribbon around the lower part of the flax and distaff. Once again, tie at the bottom leaving 4′′-6′′ of fiber free for incorporating into the spinning. Yet another type of distaff, the Cage Distafflooks much like a small birdcage stuck onto the end of a pole, and have much the same intent as a comb distaff – spreading the fibers out for easy drawing from the strick into the spinning.

Short Fibers

Often you will have fibers that are shorter than full line flax that need organizing and spinning. These fibers can still be spun from a distaff, but may take a bit more organizing than those on the other styles of distaff mentioned. One way is to rehackle the bundles of shorter fibers, then lay them side-by-side on a towel. Wrap this towel onto a shorter distaff, such as a belt or hand distaff, tie on gently but firmly, and use like any longer fibers from other distaffs.

Spinning Flax (Wet vs. Dry)

No matter what you are spinning with, you will probably find that you will get a smoother, better thread if you keep the fibers moist, so that they are more likely to stick together. With long fibers on a wheel, you will probably want to have a small bowl of water nearby, so that you can regularly dip your fingers into it. With shorter fibers, you may need to work out the best arrangement for controlling how damp the fibers get before you actually incorporate them into your spinning. Allowing them to get damp too quickly may result in a thick, lumpy thread.

Splicing v. Spinning: research into a different yarn-making technology has developed based on the Pharaonic Egyptian textile finds—it is known as splicing, a term that in fact subsumes a variety of related techniques (Leuzinger and Rast- Eicher 2011). (Gleba & Harris, 2018, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences)

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