Nature Bulletin No. 321-A November 16, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
was one of the first plants discovered by prehistoric man as a
source of fibers for string and ropes, or for thread and yarn which could
be woven into fabrics. Next to cotton it is still the most widely used.
Remnants of flax fiber ropes have been found among the Stone Age
dwellings in Switzerland, and linen wrappings on Egyptian mummies
over 4500 years old. "Purple and fine linen" was the raiment of princes
in Biblical times.
Its wild ancestor is unknown but flax is supposedly a native of the
Mediterranean region. It was brought to America in about 1630 and was
a favorite crop to be sown the first year a forest clearing or a strip of
prairie sod was plowed. It is now grown in temperate and sub-tropical
regions throughout the world, thriving best in a moderately cool, damp
climate. There are many cultivated varieties divided into two main
groups: tall sparsely-branched plants raised for fiber, and short much-
branched kinds raised for their seed. Depending upon the variety and
how thickly it is sown, the slender woody stems grow from one to four
feet tall, with narrow pointed alternate leaves a little over an inch long.
The dainty five-petalled flowers are sky blue, rarely white, and a field
of flax in full bloom, softly rippling in a breeze, is a heavenly sight.
The flowers are followed by capules, each bearing 10 dark-brown shiny
slippery seeds. Of about five million acres now grown in the United
States, most of it is for seed. A bushel yields from 17 to 20 pounds of
linseed oil used in the manufacture of paint, varnish, linoleum, oilcloth,
patent leather and printer's ink. A by-product, linseed cake and linseed
meal, is rich in protein and highly valued as a feed for dairy and beef
cattle. When we were boys, flaxseed was a favorite ingredient in
medicines for colds, as a poultice applied to a boil or carbuncle, and a
flax seed helped remove a cinder from your eye.
is commonly sown in spring -- on Good Friday in pioneer days
when most families raised a small patch of it. If grown for seed it is
mowed and threshed when ripe in late summer. If grown for fiber, the
plants are pulled by hand or by machine before they are quite mature,
tied in bundles and left in shocks to dry. Later, the seeds are combed
out and the stalks "retted"' by various methods, usually by soaking in
tanks, pools or streams until decay has loosened the fibers from the
woody "bark" and core. The stalks, when dried again, are first crushed
and broken, then cut lengthwise ("scutched") and finally combed
("hackled" or "heckled") to produce long straight fibers called "line",
and short coarse tangled fibers called "tow". Line is spun into thread
which is woven into the linen so desirable for shirts, handkerchiefs,
tablecloths, napkins and towels. Because of its high tensile strength it is
also used for making sails for boats, fishnets, and the finest lace.
In pioneer times these various operations were done by hand. During
winter, the retted stalks were flailed with a "brake"; then scutched with
a wooden paddle or "swingle". After being soaked and pounded until
soft and pliable, the women folks drew the fibers repeatedly across the
sharp teeth of a "hackle" or "hatchel" to remove the tow. The long fibers
were spun into thread and, with tow as filling, woven into coarse "tow
linen" for everyday wear. With linen thread as warp, and wool yarn as
weft or woof, they wove a warm durable cloth, called "linsey-woolsey",
worn on Sundays and special occasions.
Many a Tow-headed young'un got swingled for heckling his ma.
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Update: June 2012