This section is from the book "Scientific Sewing And Garment Cutting", by Antoinette Van Hoesen Wakeman. Also available from Amazon: Scientific Sewing And Garment Cutting: For Use In Schools And In The Home.
A cotton field, with its opening pods, or, as they are called where cotton is raised, bolls, is a beautiful sight; so also is a field of blooming flax. The one is like a sea of gleaming silver, the other like a sea that is as blue as the sk.y. The blossom of the flax plant is a delicate and beautiful shade of blue. Unlike cotton, flax, from the fiber of which linen is made, grows best where it is cool. When it blooms, the plant is between two and three feet high. It requires a great deal of moisture, and it is therefore most successfully cultivated in the lowlands of Holland and Belgium.
Flax is, so to speak, a delicate plant, and it therefore requires a great deal of work to raise it. It will not grow well if there are any weeds near it, and for this reason they must all be pulled up. In Europe, where the best flax is cultivated, women and children weed the flax fields, going through them on their hands and knees.
When the leaves of the flax plant begin to fall, and the stock to turn yellow, it is harvested. This is done by pulling the plants up by the roots, and laying them evenly together, as the fiber of which the linen is made is injured if they are twisted or doubled. This fiber lies between the bark and the inner, woody pith of the plant; and it is rather a long and tedious process to separate it.
When the flax has been pulled, the first thing done is what is called "rippling" it, which is removing the seed-pods. The next thing to be done is the "retting," which is a fermentation that loosens the gummy substance which binds the fiber to the wood. This is accomplished by exposing the flax to the dew in the fields, or by immersing it in water.
To put it into water is better than to depend on the dew; in fact, it is the only way to get really fine fiber. The flax stalks are kept wholly under water, but are not permitted to rest on the bottom of the pond or tank.
This retting process, which separates the fiber from the rest of the plant, requires both skill and care. If the stalks are left too long in the water after fermentation has taken place, the fiber is weak and lacks gloss. If it is not left long enough, it is dry and coarse. Again, the water used must be pure, soft, and free from lime, iron, or other substances of a similar nature which color and injure the fiber.
The water of the river Lys in Belgium is expressly suited to retting flax, and for this reason the flax grown near it is the finest in the world.
The next thing after the retting, is to remove the woody pith. This is called "scutching," and is accomplished by beating the flax until the wood drops out and the fiber is left. Sometimes this is done by machinery, and sometimes by hand.
After all this has been done, the flax is "hackled," and it is then ready to spin. The hackling is a combing process by which the chaff and the coarse, rough fiber, called the tow, is removed, and only the clean linen fiber is left, white, straight, and ready for the spinner.
Sometimes flax is cultivated, not for the fiber, but for the seed, which is used for making linseed oil. It is then permitted to get thoroughly ripe, much riper than when the fiber is to be used. The seed only is gathered then, and the stalks are thrown away.
So long ago that there is no written account of it, flax was cultivated for the fiber, which was used, as it is now, for clothing. We know this because pieces of linen have been found in tombs and other places where it had been lying thousands of years. Although the art of making linen from flax is so old, there has been very little change in the way in which it is prepared for spinning; and the process is much the same as it was when the children of Israel were in bondage in Egypt. Until very recently it has been almost wholly a domestic art. Even now there are small farmers in Scotland and Ireland who raise flax; and it is prepared for spinning, spun, woven, bleached, finished, and made ready for market, by the farmer's wife and children.