Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 321-A   November 16, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Flax 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.

Flax 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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