Jessie Raymond: Growing flax puts new spin on linen
This year, I’m growing flax. Not for flowers, not for flaxseed, but for fiber to make linen; you know, like they did in the olden days.
Humor me. This is the kind of thing I do.
I’ve always had this weird fascination with learning obsolete skills once used on the homestead. According to my psychic, this isn’t surprising; in a past life I was assistant manager of the Sturbridge Village gift shop.
I just feel that, as a society, we’re too disconnected from history. I like to try things the old-fashioned way; it helps me learn about the past and makes me appreciate the easy life I have today. I don’t need to spin yarn, or make my own beeswax candles, or render lard over an open fire. I just like to. In other words, your hell is my fun Saturday afternoon.
Nobody who lives in the 21st century (or who has the faintest semblance of a social life) grows flax for fiber; most people don’t even know this was once a thing. All I knew until recently is that for hundreds of years, pretty much every rural family grew flax to make linen thread, which could be woven into rope or into cloth for sails, clothes and — obviously — linens.
I wouldn’t have given flax another thought if, a few weeks ago, a friend hadn’t given me a mysterious antique tool.
The thing looked like a small bed of nails: a very old board, two feet long by about five inches wide, with a square section in the middle studded with an array of upward-pointing 3-inch iron spikes about a half-inch apart. I had to get a tetanus booster before I dared to look directly at it.
I accepted it enthusiastically because I like anything old and worn out (insert husband joke here) and anything that looks vaguely fiber-related. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
A quick Google search revealed it to be a flax heckle (sometimes called “hetchel,” because English used to be a lawless free-for-all). How sad that I didn’t know what a flax heckle was for; just a century or two ago, any Vermonter would have. And here was this well-used, once-functional item that I would have no opportunity to ever use.
Unless, of course, I grew flax.
JESSIE’S NEW ANTIQUE flax heckle has inspired her to take on another ridiculously strenuous and time-consuming task from the 19th century. Photo by Jessie Raymond
Online, I found a vague but intimidating overview of the traditional linen-making process: people would grow flax all summer and then, at harvest, pull up the plants by their roots and, weather permitting, let them dry.
Then, over several weeks, they would go through a series of exhausting steps to break down the woody stems surrounding the long, nearly unbreakable fiber inside. This involved rotting the stems in water or dew and then re-drying them; scraping and smashing them with various implements of torture; and telling them that they would never amount to anything and that everyone was embarrassed to be seen with them.
Once they had thrown their backs out reducing the flax stems to bundles of emotionally damaged but intact fiber several feet long, they’d switch to a new grueling process: dragging the strands through a series of ever-finer flax heckles (like mine!), until the fiber became smooth and hairlike. At this point, if they had any remaining energy (or upper-body strength), they’d spend the winter spinning the fiber into linen thread and then weaving it into cloth.
It sounds like a ridiculous amount of work for a dish towel or two. I can’t wait to try it.
Upon reading this, you may have thought of how today, with just a few clicks, you can get factory-produced dish towels for $1.99 apiece (including free two-day shipping), which seems like a better deal than 10 months of unrelenting labor.
I, on the other hand, immediately ordered a large packet of flaxseed, which I found on an obscure website for people who refuse to accept that certain practices went out of fashion for a reason.
Resources about growing and processing flax, however, are hard to come by, and I think I know why: The last people to process flax probably burned all of their books and tore up their notes so future generations would never have to endure what, for them, was a grueling part of an already rough life.
Yet here I am, hoping to recreate their hard labor just for fun.
This, in case you missed it, is the kind of thing I do.
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