Know Your Fiber: Flax
Posted on May 01 2018
Flax is one of the oldest fibers used by humans. First sourced from wild plants, the oldest evidence of humans using flax comes from the Republic of Georgia. Spun, dyed and knotted wild flax fibers dated to 30,000 years ago were discovered in a cave there, which places the first physical evidence of use in the Upper Paleolithic era. However, chances are good that this does not mean it was the first time it was ever used by humans – just that it is the earliest evidence that we have discovered so far. Likely, it was used even before the Upper Paleolithic.
Flax was first domesticated from its wild ancestor by the Mesopotamians in the Fertile Crescent more than 8000 years ago. Used mainly by those who could afford it, flax had already become a treasured crop in this region of the world. A fiber that required quite a bit of work to turn into clothing, the resulting linen accounted for only about 10% of their textiles. Still, it was an enormously important part of their culture, both as a product to be used and as a trade item. It also made its way into their mythology, as in a Sumerian poem of the courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi (also known as Tammuz). In this poem, Inanna’s brother, the sun god Utu, describes the process by which he will turn flax into a linen bridal sheet, a gift for his sister Inanna.
While linen was traded for quite a long time, the earliest written records of an actual linen industry come from tablets from Egypt. Worn as clothing by Egyptians on a regular basis, linen was valued for its breathability and ability to wick away moisture in Egypt’s hot climate. Linen was considered “pure”, and was used for mummification and burial shrouds, as well as Egyptian priests’ and priestess’ clothing. By 4000 BCE, the Mediterranean linen industry was in full swing. Substantial commercial production allowed for Egypt to meet the region’s demand for linen for sails, clothing, and other linen goods. Linen, in fact, was critical to its own trade. The sails of Mediterranean ships were made from linen, which is over three times stronger than cotton. With strong and resilient linen sails, the legendary Phoenician traders were able to establish trade routes not just in the Mediterranean, but up the European coast of the Atlantic and throughout North Africa. It was not just textiles that Phoenicians put on their linen-sailed boats for trade; they were known as well for their trade in metals, dyes, foods, glassware, wine, and other luxuries. Thanks to linen (and perhaps a few more products), the Phoenicians were a naval and economic powerhouse for many centuries.
Once the linen trade in the Middle East and the Mediterranean was well established, Phoenician traders began to look outside the area for new markets. By around 900 BCE, the first linen was introduced to the British Isles. It is likely that the Phoenician traders traded Egyptian linen for tin, which was used to make bronze. A nascent linen industry in Ireland is thought to have been established in Ireland by about 2000 years ago; evidence of retting (the process that separates the woody and soft parts of the flax plant from the fibers) has been found in bogs and dated to that time. That said, linen and linen processing was not widespread in the British Isles until the late Middle Ages. However, even as linen production started to increase in the British Isles during the late Middle Ages, it was Flanders that was considered the center of the European linen industry during that time. This would change in the late 1600s.
In 1685 Edict of Nantes was revoked, which essentially made Protestantism illegal in France. The French Huguenots, a Protestant sect, fled France for the British Isles and Ireland, with many of them settling in Lisburn, about 10 miles from Belfast. New methods of linen production were introduced to this area by these new immigrants, and the industry began to boom. Linen making was so associated with Lisburn, that it soon gained the name Linenopolis. While laws of the time prevented Irish wool and woolen goods from being exported to anywhere but England and Wales, linen could be exported anywhere, which was quite the boon for the linen industry in Ireland. This confluence of events and export laws was the birth of the Irish linen industry, which is still well known to this day.
Within about a century, linen had even bigger developments in production methods. In 1787, the first flax mill was invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of England, right at the birth of the British Industrial Revolution. These gentlemen built mills of their own, and sold the rights to the new technology to others. Soon, linen mills based on their developments began to spread to the rest of Europe, and further out to other parts of the world.
The popularity of linen over cotton would start to change around the mid-1800s. While European colonists to North American brought flax with them, but it was cotton that turned out to most successful. It was such a successful crop that by the late 1800s, inexpensive cotton available from the United States (and a few other countries) began to cause a decline in demand for linen. At this point in history, linen production began to move to Russia, who quickly began to produce the most linen of any country in the world, albeit still far less than the increasingly massive cotton production of the United States and the rest of the world. Still pockets of additional linen production would remain in various counties around the world.
Today, Russia is still one of the top suppliers of linen in the world, although Belgian linen is thought to be of the highest quality. Linen has also taken root in some of the central northern states of the United States, as well as in Canada. Much of the flax in North America is produced for seed, however. Interestingly, many flax growers whose crops are intended for linen do not harvest their own seeds. This is because younger flax is considered the have the finest and best fiber. However, to get this superior fiber, the plants must be harvested before they produce seeds.
Linen comes from the bast fibers of the flax plant. To get to these fibers, the woody and soft parts of the plant attached to them need to be removed. If the flax has seed heads, it must first be rippled, a process that draws the flax through combs to remove the seed heads. Then the linen is retted – essentially soaking the plant until it rots just a little bit. By soaking the flax like this, some of the softer cells burst and allow bacteria to break down the pectin that attaches the bast fibers to the rest of the flax plant. Flax can also be retted chemically to break those cellular bonds, but it is not the preferred manner as it can be more harmful to the fibers than retting by water.
Once the flax stalks have been retted, they are dried. The flax is then dressed to remove any remaining plant material that isn’t linen fiber. The stalks are either crushed between rollers (most common these days) or scraped with a wooden knife (less common these days) to remove any bark or other tough remaining material, a process known as scutching. Then the fibers are heckled (also known as hackled), which means they are drawn through something similar to a metal comb to split the fibers and remove the shorter ones from the finished product. At this point the fiber can be spun by machine or by hand. If spun by hand, he separated fibers, called strick, are spun using a distaff to keep the fibers from getting tangled. The fibers are typically wetted while spun, to help create a smooth yarn.
Flax is a very breathable and light fiber, with superior resilience – clothing and other items made with flax will keep their shape well, and will remain in good condition for a very long time. Antique linen pieces more than one hundred years old can be found that are still as beautiful and usable as when they were first created. While many spinners, knitters, crocheters, and weavers have noted that flax fibers and yarn can start off feeling rather stiff, with wear and washing it soon becomes very soft and comfortable. It is a popular warm-weather fiber for its lightweight feel, good drape, and its ability to wick moisture away from the skin. Available blended with other fibers, or as 100% linen, flax is has been making huge strides in becoming a very popular fiber once again.
Check out our flax blends and linen yarns here at Northwest Yarns! El Linio, 100% linen, sport weight yarn by Schoppel-Wolle will make any linen project look great. We also have Studio Linen by Erika Knight, a great sport/DK weight linen yarn made from 85% recycled linen and 15% new linen – unlike other linen yarns, this one starts off nice and soft due to the use of recycled linen. We also have Milo by Manos del Uruguay, a 65% wool and 35% linen blend in sport/DK weight. Weavers, knitters and crocheters alike will also be interested in our cones of Euroflax Lace by Louet, a wet-spun, lace weight, 100% linen yarn by Louet. We look forward to seeing you!
Flax flowers photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson. Creative Commons Image License 3.0