Sunday, July 12, 2015

Flax: as Beautiful as it is Useful

Blog Entry by Joanne Ranck-Dirks

Flax is one of the historic field crops grown at Landis Valley each year.  Before cotton was widely available, colonial farmers grew flax to make linen cloth for clothing, bedding and even the covers for Conestoga wagons.

In April, flax seeds are broadcast by hand and raked into the soil.  By June the field is in bloom with a display of small, delicate blue flowers (at left).  It’s now July and the flax has formed seed heads and is almost ready to harvest (below right).

Flax is a grain crop but the greater value is in the fine fiber that is part of the stalk.  At harvest time, the slender stalks are gathered by hand, pulling them up by the roots to preserve the long fibers.  Handfuls of flax are spread on the ground to dry, then gathered into sheaves and set up to cure.  When thoroughly dry, the seed balls at the top of the stalk are combed off and the seed is saved.

The stalks are then soaked in trough of water for several days to dissolve the gummy mucilage that holds the fiber to the stalk.  This process is called “retting.”  Two hundred and fifty years ago, flax was often retted in a shallow pond or stream, weighted down by rocks.  The retted flax can then be crushed using a brake to release the fiber from the woody core then the fiber is scutched and heckled.  Each stalk is slender and the amount of fiber from each appears to be only a few strands.  It takes a lot of flax and a lot of processing just to produce this rough fiber!

In past centuries, cleaning and processing the flax fiber so that it could be spun into yarn and woven into linen cloth was work for the fall and winter months.  Demonstrations of “scutching,” and “heckling” the flax fiber are part of our Harvest Days here at Landis Valley, to be held this year on October 10 and 11.  Join us then to watch rough flax being processed step by step until it comes off the loom as linen cloth.

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