Flax To Linen

Linen is produced from fibres extracted from the stems of flax, a pretty blue-flowering crop used as a source of both fibre and food. When intended for food use, the seeds of the same plant are referred to as linseed, and the oil extracted from them as linseed oil, but our interest is in the varieties that are grown for their fibre content. Both linen and linseed derive their names from the Latin name for the flax plant, which is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae

The process of producing linen from flax was very labour-intensive, and therefore required the entire family to work on it. It is an industry with a long history in Ireland, and is mentioned in many historical records pertaining to Headford as far back as the mid-1300s. The historical context will be examined separately; here we explore the various steps involved in producing linen cloth from the flax crop.

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Dried flax and linen thread

Growing & Harvesting

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Flax flower & seed heads

In Ireland, the flax crop would typically be broadcast sown in late April and harvested at the end of August or early September. Seeds are sown close together to encourage tall, straight growth. The crop is harvested by pulling, rather than cutting, to preserve as much length of stem as possible. This was back-breaking work that would leave the labourers' hands badly cut. The flax would then be tied in bunches called beets and stacked upright to dry in bundles called stooks

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Flax plants

Rippling

If the seeds were to be collected, they would be removed by pulling the stalks through a wide-toothed iron comb in a process known as rippling. Some seed would be set aside for the following year's crop, and the rest could be used as cattle feed or processed to make linseed oil. 

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Rippling dried flax to remove the seed heads

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Flax seeds (linseed) extracted from seed heads

Retting

A cross-section of a stalk of flax would show three layers: an outer bark covering bundles of fibres, all surrounding a woody core.Baines, Patricia (1985). Flax and Linen. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd., p. 2. The fibres are tightly bonded together with pectin - a strong gum or glue-like substance'The Cultivation of Flax'. Cork Examiner, Saturday 06 August 1864, p.4. - which must be removed in order to extract the desired fibres. As this gum is not water-soluble, the only way of removing it is to encourage its decay by rotting, or retting the flax. A lint dam would be constructed in a local waterway or pond and the beets placed in up to 120cm (4 feet) of water. Over the next 8-14 days, the stems would ferment, thereby degrading the pectin and separating the fibres. Unfortunately, this process reduced the flax to a stinking slimy state, making the task of wading into the putrid water to retrieve it particularly unpleasant work. 

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Steeping Flax, Ballynahinch (Co. Down). Stones were used to keep the flax underwater. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Grassing

Once the beets were recovered from the dam, they were grassed; that is, laid out in the fields to dry. This allowed the flax to cure, further breaking down the bonds between the fibres and the stem.

Breaking & Scutching

At this stage, the fibres can be removed from the stems through a two-step process known as breaking & scutching. In its simplest form, breaking is done by beating the beets of flax against a stone with a wooden mallet, but flax breakers were later developed that chopped the stems with wooden planks or metal rollers. Either way, breaking fractures the stems and sheds the brittle outer bark layer. 

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Flax stalks after breaking

The flax was then twisted into handfuls called stricks and the woody straw, called shoves or shous, was removed entirely by hacking the stems with a wooden blade, known as a scutching blade.."Flax to Fabric: the Story of Irish Linen". Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum. Market Square, Lisburn, Co. Down, BT28 1AG, Northern Ireland. 12 May 2017. The discarded shous could be used as heating fuel in the home.  

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Scutched flax fibre

Scutching Mills

In some places, this labour-intensive work was done in a scutching mill, with a water wheel used to turn a wooden paddle that could be used to flail the flax stems. Before processing, the bundles were carefully marked because the farmer would be paid at market according to the quality of the fibres, which depended on the growing conditions as well as the way in which it was harvested. 

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Newmills Flax Mill, Co. Donegal.

Scutching mills were unhealthy and dangerous places, and the scutching itself was hard work that made hands and wrists tired and sore. The mill was always noisy, and was freezing cold in winter because fires were forbidden due to the dry shous being such a fire hazard. The dusty environment caused numerous respiratory diseases, and the machinery could amputate fingers or hands in an instant. There were even reports of fatalities caused by injuries sustained from the scutching blades. 

Workers were paid on a piece work basis according to what they produced. The scutcher, for example, would get paid about a shilling (5 pence) per box of fibre, which would weigh about a stone (14lbs or over 6kg).Newmills Corn and Flax Mills. Churchill Road, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, F92 F205. 11 September 2016. Typically, that amounted to about £5 per week which, according to the CSO, was about twice the average industrial wage at the time.'CSO reviews 80 years of historical earnings - Real average industrial weekly earnings increase by 319%' by Stephen Rogers. Irish Examiner, Wednesday, 03 May 2017. Accessed 01 June 2017.

Hackling - Line & Tow

At the end of this lengthy process, the raw linen strands have finally been extracted from the plant. The flax fibres were then hackled (a kind of combing) to align the strands. This separated the long smooth fibres, referred to as line, from the short coarse fibres, called tow. When this process took place in a mill, the miller always kept the tows, which he could sell to produce coarse yarn.Newmills Corn and Flax Mills. Churchill Road, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, F92 F205. 11 September 2016.

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Hackling demonstration at Wellbrook Beetling Mill, Co. Tyrone

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Finished flax fibre

Spinning

The flaxen threads are spun into linen thread. The fibres are brittle, but are more elastic when wet, so must be kept damp to prevent breakages. The spinner would keep a little dish of water on her spinning wheel so that she could wet her fingers as she worked the threads.

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Once spun, the linen thread would be wound onto a large wooden wheel, called a clock reel, and then loosely twisted into hanks to make it easier to transport and handle.

Weaving

The linen thread can then be used in the lace industry, or woven into cloth. Linen cloth is very varied, from coarse canvas once used for ships' sails, to finely-woven and intricately-patterned Damask (see image below). The Jacquard loom, invented in 1804 (but based on earlier designs), enabled the production of these Damask patterns to be mechanised, and is considered a predecessor of modern computer programming. 

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Reconstruction of an 1850s weaver's cottage from Ballydugan, Co. Down, at the Ulster Folk Museum.

Bleaching

The finished cloth would be laid out on a south-facing slope to bleach in the sun, and such areas were referred to as bleaching greens. This is remembered in placenames derived from the Irish word tuar, such as Toorard, a little north of Headford.

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Linen Bleach Green (Rostrevor, Co. Down). Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

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Unbleached and bleached linen

Beetling

Fine linens would then be subject to a process known as beetling to give the cloth a lustrous soft sheen and a softer hand ('hand' describes how a cloth feels). Beetling basically involves pounding the finished cloth to flatten the fibres. This would traditionally have been done using a wooden bat (similar to a wide baseball bat), but where production was particularly intensive, such as in Northern Ireland, beetling mills were established to perform this task. The linen would be wound onto large drums and then large water-powered hammers, or beetles, would be dropped onto it. The drum holding the cloth was fixed to a walking axle, which oscillated back and forth as the drum turned to ensure that every part of the cloth would be evenly beetled.

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Wellbrook Beetling Mill, Co. Tyrone.

damaskAntique Damask linen (from a house in Co. Limerick) featuring vine leaf and Greek key patterns.

There is no evidence of Damask being produced in Headford, but coarse linen was collected by peddlar merchants throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and taken for sale on the Dublin market.St George, Richard St. George Mansergh (1790) 'An account of Galway by Richard St. George Mansergh St. George'. IE TCD MS 1749/2, Trinity College Dublin.

Can You Help?

Headford Lace Project research into the flax and linen industry in Headford and the surrounding areas is ongoing. If you have more information, please do contact us as we would love to hear from you.