This section is from the book "Clothing And Health. An Elementary Textbook Of Home Making", by Helen Kinne. Also available from Amazon: Clothing And Health.
What is the story of our linen materials ?
Where do they come from? Would you like to know ?
Mollie's Stark's Uncle John has just come to Pleasant Valley. He is her father's brother and has been in the linen business in Ireland. He told the Girls' League the other evening about flax and about how it is made into cloth. This is the story he told. It has also been printed in the " Pleasant Valley News." Have you read it ?
Where does flax grow? Ireland is a cool country, and flax is a plant which grows well in cool places. Cotton, we have learned, is grown in warm countries. Do you know that Russia produces about half of the world's supply of flax? Find your map of Europe, and see if you can locate all these countries. The Russian flax is rather inferior in quality. Ireland and Belgium produce the best quality of fiber. Flax is also grown in Holland and France, and in Egypt and Italy. The United States grows some flax; but it is a rather coarse fiber used for crash and for bagging. The United States grows very little flax and only for the coarser purposes. This is for the reason that labor is very expensive ; and flax, like silk, needs much care if weeded and grown for fiber. The care of the worms makes silk expensive. Flax grown for seed or coarse purposes does not require so much care.
What is the flax plant? Perhaps your teacher will buy some flax seed which you can plant in the school garden. The Pleasant Valley girls did, and it grew quite tall. Then you can really see how the growing plant looks. Your teacher will have some dry flax to show you. Do you know how a waving field of wheat or oats looks? Flax is planted thickly when it is grown for its fiber. It comes up straight like the wheat and does not branch. When it is planted for its seed, it is not planted so thickly because it must have more room to branch and bear seed. Flaxseed is used for many purposes. Flaxseed, or linseed, oil is used for paints and varnishes, and even for food, in some countries. Like cotton seed, the dry cake, or meal, left is a valuable food for cattle. Has mother ever used the oil or the meal for anything at home?
Fig 103. - The flax plant grows 20 to 40 inches in height.
The flax plant as it grows is from 20 to 40 inches in height. It has lovely little blue flowers on the stems which branch at the top. Uncle John knew a little girl at Pleasant Valley who thought the flax came from the little brown seed pods on top, just as the cotton comes from the seed pod, or boll. It does not; for the flax fiber is the part of the long stem which grows just inside of the outside woody portion. So, you see flax fibers can be from 20 to 40 inches long, according to the height of the plant. The wonderful part of the story is how the fibers are removed from the long stems.
How is flax grown? Flax requires much hand labor in its care while growing. The women and children in Europe weed it and care for it, on their hands and knees. When it is full grown and the flowers have come and gone, the tiny seed pods grow where the flowers have fallen, just like the seed pods your peonies or poppies grow. Before the seeds are quite ripe, and while the stalks are brownish yellow, the flax is ready to be pulled. It is not cut like wheat with the reaper and gathered into bundles, but must be pulled up by the roots. This is done in clear weather, by hand. The pulled flax is laid on the ground with the roots together and the stalks parallel. The stalks are then bound something like the wheat, and stacked in stooks. You have often seen oats or wheat so stacked.
Courtesy of United States Department of Agriculture. Fig. 104. - The stooks of flax.
What is rippling and retting flax? The next process is to remove all the seeds without injuring the long fibers. The machine for this looks like a comb made of iron teeth set in a wooden frame. This frame is placed on a cloth so as to collect all the seed as it falls. This is called rippling, and is done in the fields. The seed pods are drawn across the teeth which remove the seeds. Then the flax is bound in bundles for the next process, which is retting. This is really the most important part of all, for it means rotting the outside woody portion of the stem so as to get the flax fiber. This woody portion is of no value. The flax is sometimes retted by dew; just left on the ground at night. You know how wet the grass can be early in the morning. So the dew, rain, air, and sunshine decompose the outside woody bark. This is a very slow process. More often flax is retted in water. The bundles are placed in crates or boxes, and left for about two weeks under water. If you grow some flax, you can ret it also and remove the fiber. Do you know what takes place when the woody part decomposes? It is called fermentation. What have you learned about fermentation? (See Food and Health.) After retting, the flax is spread to dry in the fields and is then ready for the next process, called breaking. Just think of how many things have been done to the fibers of our linen towels and napkins and dresses, which we use every day. Jane Smith said she never realized before how many hands prepare our clothing and other materials. What is meant by breaking flax? Breaking means removing the dry wood portion which has been decomposed by the retting. This is sometimes done by means of a hand break. In the picture (Fig. 107) you will see a little girl of Pleasant Valley breaking flax by hand. Sometimes the woody part is broken away by passing the flax between rollers of a machine which is run by power. These power mills are called scutching mills; scutching means cleaning and breaking. After this process the flax lies in long bundles of parallel fibers, something like a girl's hair as it is ready to be braided. The flax varies in color; sometimes it is gray or of a greenish tint, and sometimes pale yellow.
Courtesy of Speyer School, New York.
Fig. 105. - This little girl is rippling flax by hand at school. Can you see the seeds ?
Courtesy of Woolman & McGowan, Textiles. Fig. 106. - Flax retting at Courtrai, Belgium.
Courtesy of Speyer School, New York. Fig. 107. - Flax breaking done by hand.
If you have a microscope or a glass at school, examine the flax fiber. See how it looks, rough and woody. It also looks something like the silk fibers, straight. It has tiny markings or spots called nodes. Flax is principally cellulose. Do you know what cellulose means? Look it up in the dictionary.
So you see that the long fibers are freed from the stem of the flax plant and are ready for the manufacturer to spin into yarn to be woven into cloth, or to make it into cord, rope, twine, lace, or thread for many useful purposes. Isn't this an interesting story? Flax cultivation is one of the most ancient industries. Think how very useful it is, both for fiber and for seed. It has been grown for at least 5000 years in Egypt and in Assyria. Do you remember reading about the ancient mummies which have been found wrapped in linen in the tombs of Egypt?
Fig. 108. - Flax fibers magnified.
Fig. 109. - The mummies of Egypt are found wrapped in linen cloth made from flax long ago.
In the Bible, chapter xlii of the book of Genesis, we are told that Pharaoh arrayed Joseph in vestures of fine linen. Do you know of any other Bible references which tell of the use of linen in ancient times? Have you ever heard of the Swiss lake dwellers? Perhaps your teacher will tell you about them, or you can look it up in the encyclopedia. They too used linen long ago, for pieces have been found and are in the museums in Switzerland. Next lesson we shall make a large chart for the schoolroom, which will tell the story of flax. You may bring anything which you think will help to illustrate that story. We shall also mount on the chart the most common linen materials which we use in our homes.
1. Examine a flax fiber with a microscope or a magnifying glass. What do you see ?
2. Look up references which prove the age of flax culture.
3. Perhaps some one near your school has been in the linen business in Ireland. Perhaps he will come to the school and tell the boys and girls about it. Try to find some one.