A short history of linen – part 3
Flax is the raw material of Linen. A beautiful, unique plant that produces high quality fabrics.
The Properties and Description of Flax
The botanical name of the flax plant is Linum usitatissimum. The English word, linen, is derived from the generic name, linum, and the term lint, from the old Scottish word, lin.
Today flax is a prestigious, expensive fiber and only produced in small quantities. It has a long “staple” (individual fiber length) relative to cotton and other natural fibers.
Flax blooms in clusters of bluish, navy-blue, and, more seldom, violet, rosy and white flowers that open up at dawn and close and fall at around noon when heat sets in. Each flower blooms for a few hours. Bees collect close to fifteen kg of honey from one hectare of flax field.
Flax fibers vary in length from 2 to 36 inches and average 12-16 micrometers in diameter. There are two varieties: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and line fibers used for finer fabrics. Flax fibers can be identified by their typical “nodes” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric. The cross section of the fiber is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric.
The flax plant is an annual and is grown both for its fiber and the seed. The stem of the fiber plant is slender and tall and the fiber consists of the skin surrounding the woody core of the stem. Flax-seed is used for making linseed oil and also linseed meal for feeding purposes. Flax seed has also been found to be very beneficial in healthy diets.
The flaxes grown for fiber and seeds are the same family, but they have developed different habits of growth. For fiber purposes the seed is sewn thickly to prevent it from branching which would ruin it for fiber. The linseed type of flax has lost its capacity to produce worth-while fiber and the fiber type produces on a limited amount of seed. The flax flower is either blue or white and a flax field in bloom is a very pretty sight.
The quality of the finished linen product is often dependant upon growing conditions and harvesting techniques. To generate the longest possible fibers, flax is either hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or stalks are cut very close to the root. After harvesting, the seeds are removed through a mechanized process called “rippling.” The fibers must then be loosened from the stalk. This is achieved through “retting” which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. There are natural retting methods that occur in tanks and pools or directly in the fields. There are also chemical retting methods which are faster but are typically more harmful to the environment and to the fibers themselves.
At this point, the stalks are ready for “scutching” which takes place between August and December. Scutching removes the woody portion of the stalk by crushing them between two metal rollers so that the parts of the stalk can be separated. The fibers are removed and the other parts such as linseed, shive, and tow are set aside for other uses. The short fibers are separated by”hackling” or combing them away, to leave behind only the long, soft flax fibers. After the fibers have been separated and processed, they are typically spun into yarns and woven or knit into linen textiles. These textiles can then be bleached, dyed, printed on, or finished with an umber of treatments or coatings.
The finest quality flax is produced in Western Europe, with Belgium growing, without question, the highest quality fiber produced anywhere. Used primarily for handkerchiefs, damask table linen and in fact for everything requiring the finest texture. Italy also produces a quality product.
Irish flax can be very good and is particularly strong, but quality due to the damp weather can be irregular. For that reason the seed from the Irish crop is rarely saved. Since about 1950 Canadian seed has the preference for Irish Linen. The dry climate of Canada, while not good for producing fiber, seems to impart an added vitality to the seed, which is then shipped to Belfast.
Russia and the Baltic States, by far, produce approximately 90% of the total flax crop of the world. Russia grows the low, coarser grades of flax and the Baltic States produce more of a medium quality fiber. Recently flax production has moved to Eastern Europe and China.
Germany, France and the Czech Republic are producers of flax, but mainly for home use. Holland also produces flax, and Dutch flax-seed has been famous for years.
The growing of good flax is expensive and the growing conditions must be suitable if satisfactory results are to be obtained. The climate and soil are very important, as, with the same seed and different types of land, different results will be obtained. The flax crop is pulled, not cut, because if it was cut it would be injured and valuable fiber would be lost. Hand pulling is therefore essential for the larger proportion of the total flax crop, and it is a tedious, expensive operation. (There are now mechanical pulling machines, but they are only suitable for large fields and for early harvest with no rains. Rain will “lodge” portions of the crop so that the machine will not be able to get hold.)
Flax thrives on poor soil, and even when using conventional methods of cultivation, it requires only small amounts of fertilizer. In fact, it reacts to overdoses of fertilizer by producing fibers of reduced quality. Mono cultures, with their negative consequences for the quality of the soil and for the animal world, are automatically prohibited: flax can only be grown twice on the one field before signs of “flax fatigue” begin to appear. An interval of seven years is necessary before flax can be cultivated on the same field again. Pesticides – with just one exception, which is in cases of acute fungal infestation – are not necessary. Absolutely no chemical medium is required in order to loosen the fibers from the stem. This can be achieved after the harvest either through the traditional method of rotting or “retting” the flax on the ground(which means allowing the natural rotting of the woody sections of the plant through fungi and microbes to take place) or through applying modern techniques which achieve the same thing by utilizing high pressure steam.