This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Flax. [The common name for the plants of the genus Linnum] The term flax is employed at once to denote the fiber so called, and the plant from which it is prepared. Like most plants which have been long under domestic cultivation, it possesses numerous varieties, while the wild or parent condition is not known. As cultivated the plant is an annual, with an erect stalk rising to the height of 20 to 40 inches, branching only at the top into panicles of bright blue flowers. The stem by various processes described hereafter, is freed from all useless matter, leaving the elongated inner part in the form of a soft, silky fiber. The cultivation and preparation of flax are the most ancient of all textile industries, reaching back to the very earliest periods of civilization. Its use was most extensively and variously applied in the lake dwellings, even in those of the stone period. But of the mode in which it was planted, steeped, heckled, cleansed, and generally prepared for use, no idea can be formed, any more than what can be derived from the tools unearthed employed by the settlers in the cultivation. Rough or unworked-flax is found in the lake dwellings made into bundles, or what are techincally called heads, and, as much attention was given to this last operation, it was perfectly clean and ready for use. That flax was extensively cultivated and was regarded as of much importance at a very early period in the world's history there is abundant testimony. Although flax is to be found in a semi-wild state in many parts of Great Britain, it is very doubtful whether for many ages our British ancestors were aware of the use of this plant for clothing purposes: they would otherwise have left behind them some shred of linen in one or other of their many graves. Following, as they did, the usage of being buried in the best garments they were accustomed to, or most loved when alive their bodies would have been found dressed in some small article of linen texture, had they ever worn it. We must go to the valley of the Nile if we wish to learn the earliest history of flaxen textiles. Time out of mind the Egyptians were famous as well for the growth of flax as for the beautiful linen which they wove out of it, and which became to them a most profitable, because so widely sought for, article of commerce. Long before the oldest book in the world was written, the tillers of the soil all over the land of Egypt had been heedful in sowing flax, and anxious about its harvest. It was one of their staple crops, and hence it was that in punishment of Pharoah, the hail plague, which at the bidding of Moses fell from heaven, destroyed throughout the land the flax just as it was getting ripe. Flax grew also upon the banks of the stormy Jordon, and in Judea generally; and the women of the country, like Rahab, carefully dried it when pulled, and stacked it for future hackling upon the roofs of their homely huts. For many ages, even down to the early part of the 14th century, Egyptian flax occupied the formost place in the commercial world, being sent into all regions with which open intercourse was maintained. Among Western nations it was, without any competitor, the most important of all vegetable fibers till towards the close of the 18th century, when, after a brief struggle, cotton took its place as the supreme vegetable fiber of commerce.
From the earliest periods the inhabitants of ireland were acquainted with the valuable qualities possessed by the fiber of the flax plant, and manufactured it for clothing. By whom, however, or from what country it was introduced, there exists no satisfactory record. The Irish name for flax is "Ihin," which word is also applied to thread, while the term "anaint" is used to express coarse linen cloth. For many years past the production of Irish flax has been on the decline. It is one of the most distressing facts of that distressful country, that while the linen industry of Belfast has been growing and prospering, the native cultivation of the raw material has been steadily and miserably diminishing. Russia, Holland, Belgium and Germany each send their quota of flax to the manufacturers of Belfast.
According to competent authorities, this state of things does not arise from the national inferiority of Irish flax, or to the unsuitability of soil or climate. It is even stated that the soil of no country in the world possesses the properties for the production of fiber equal to the soil of Ireland. The failure of Irish flax to be accepted and encouraged by the manufacturers of Belfast is on account of the defective way in which the crop is cultivated; due to the ignorance and lack of skill on the part of the Irish farmer. There is this all-important difference between the flax industry of other European countries and that of Ireland: In Ireland, the farmers produce the crop and prepare it for the cloth manufacturer. In Belgium, in Holland, and in Russia, on the other hand, the farmer concerns himself solely with the cultivation of the crop. The preparation of the fiber is in the hands of persons specially skilled and trained in this particular line of 10 work, consequently they have a much better prepared fiber to offer the manufacturer than that of the Irish farmer, and at the same price. The continuance in Ireland of the old system is known to entail much loss and waste, and while it is seemingly on account of a better soil and higher quality of flax, the difference in reality arises from the superior preparation of fiber that the Belfast manufacturers prefer the foreign to the home-grown article.
In all countries, after the farmer has sown the seed and gathered the crop, several processes remain before the flax can be used in the cloth mills. Flax is always pulled up by the root, and under no circumstances is it cut or shorn like cereal crops. The pulling is done in dry clear weather, and care is taken in this, as in all subsequent operations, to keep the root ends even, and the stalks parallel. At the same time it is desirable to have, as far as possible, stalks of equal length together - all these conditions having considerable influence on the quality and appearance of the yarn when spun. The next operation, termed rippling, immediately follows the pulling, and consists in removing the head and seeds of the flax. Retting, or rotting, is the operation the flax next undergoes, for the purpose of separating the fiber from the woody core and softening it in order that it may be fitted for spinning. This is an operation of the greatest importance, and one in connection with which in recent years numerous experiments have been made, and many projects and processes put forth, with a view of improving on the primitive method or altogether supplanting it. From the earliest times two leading processes of retting have been practiced, termed respectively "water retting" and "dew-retting," and as no method has yet been invented which satisfactorily supersedes these old-time operations, they will first be described.
Water-retting. - For this (the process by which flax is generally prepared) pure soft water, free from iron and other materials which might color the fiber, is essential. The ponds in which this operation is conducted are of variable size, but are uniformly about four feet in depth. The rippled stalks are tied in small bundles and packed roots downward in the water; over the top of each upper layer is placed straw or rushes fastened with stones of sufficient weight to keep the flax submerged. Generally in from ten days to two weeks the process is complete, and when it is found by being frequently examined that the fiber separates readily from the core, the bundles are removed from the water, and spread evenly over a grassy meadow, where it is left for two weeks to dry. At this point the peth will be ready to remove by the process of "scutching."
Dew-retting is the process by which the larger portion of Russian flax is prepared. By this method steeping in water is entirely dispensed with, and the flax is, immediately after pulling, spread on the grass where it is for two or three months subjected to the influence of air, sun-light, night-dews and rain. The process is tedious, and the resultant fiber is brown in color, though peculiarly soft and silky in structure.
Scutching is the process by which the fiber is finally freed from its woody core and rendered fit for market. For ordinary water-retted flax two operations are required; first breaking and then scutching, and these are done either by hand labor or by means of small scutching mills, driven by steam power or water power. The breaking is done by passing the stalks between grooved rollers, and the broken cores are beaten out by suspending the fiber in a machine fitted with revolving blades, which, striking violently against the flax, shake out the rotten and broken woody cores. The inferior parts of the flax removed by these operations is called " tow."
In regard to the process of retting, it may be said that different methods prevail in different countries, according to local circumstances. In Holland, stones are scarce, so that the flax has to be laid on the surface of the water and then covered with mud raked up from the bottom of the pond. To a large extent retting continues to be conducted in the primitive fashions above described, though numerous and persistent attempts have been and are, at present, being made to improve upon it, or to avoid the process altogether. The latest invention is by an expert in Minneapolis, Minn., who, with the aid of the microscope, has discovered that the rotting is performed by a microbe that devours the glue, which makes the fiber adhere to the wood. He claims it is possible to breed a great number of these microbes in an inconceivably short time. The results expected is that months will be reduced to hours in linen production, and that it will be only a matter of a few years when linen cloth will be as cheap as cotton, yard for yard. It is needless to suggest that it is highly improbable that the inventor's views will be borne out by the lapse of time.
Flax, after undergoing the operations of breaking and scutching, are shipped to the linen mills where it is prepared for weaving by the processes of roving and spinning. These do not differ greatly from the processes used in the spinning of cotton (which see). Spinners make up their yarn into " bundles " of twenty hanks, each hank containing ten " leas " of 300 yards each - 3,000 yards. The quality and size of all linen yarn is denoted by the number of "leas" (300 yards)in a pound; thus, 50-lea yarn indicates that there are fifty leas of 300 yards each in a pound of the yarn so denominated.
No. 60 yarn
= 60 leas of
300 yards each,
yards to the pound.
" 100 "
= 100 " "
" " " "
" 200 "
= 200 " "
" " " "
" 500 "
= 500 " "
" " " "
Commercial qualities of yarn range from 8- up to 160-lea. Much finer yarn, even up to as high as 550, may be spun by machines found in many factories, but these fine counts are used only for fine thread and the making of lace. Exceedingly high counts have sometimes been spun by hand. For the preparation of the finest Brussels lace, it is said the Belgian hand spinners must work in damp cellars, where the spinner is guided by the sense of touch alone, the filament being too fine to be seen by the eye. The lace made of this is reported to have been sold as high as $1200 per pound. [See Lace]. In the great Exhibition in London in 1851 yarn of 760-lea -equal to 130 miles to the pound of flax - was shown which had been spun by hand by an Irish woman 84 years old. The various operations connected with linen weaving, such as winding, warping, dressing, and beaming do not differ materially from cotton weaving, the looms being the same.
It is an error to suppose that Ireland grows more flax than other countries. The latest correct statistics show as follows: Flax grown on the Continent of Europe 5,700,000 acres; Ireland 123,000 acres, and in the United States 1,318,658 acres. Of this Minnesota raised 167,264 acres; Dakota, 488,993; Iowa, 265,000; Nebraska, 150,922; besides a large acreage in Wisconsin. Ireland in 1892 produced only 25,000 tons of fibre, and imported 90,000 tons from Russia and Belgium, and this imported fibre, as before stated, is better than they produce at home. The average annual production of flax is as folllows: Russia, 270,000 tons; Austria, 53,000; Germany, 48,000; Belgium and Holland 38,000; France, 37,000; United Kingdom, 25,000; Italy, 23,000; United States, 12,000; Scandinavia, 4,000 - total, 510,000 tons. In no country in the world does the cultivation of flax attain such large dimensions as in Russia. Russia alone produces more flax than all other countries of Europe combined. Out of the total area sown in Europe in 1891 with flax, and amounting to about 5,700,000 acres, more than 3,700,000 acres were sown in Russia. Notice must at the same time be taken of the fact that while in all European countries without exception the area of land under the cultivation of flax is being annually more and more reduced, it is in Russia, on the contrary, being increased. The total quantity of flax fibre produced in the whole of Europe is estimated to be 1,354,000,-000 pounds. The share which Russia has in the total quantity produced in all Europe is exactly two-thirds. About one-half of the flax fibre produced in Russia is exported abroad, the other half remaining in the Empire, being worked up by the peasants at their farm-houses into thread and linen for their own use, as well as for sale. The home trade is entirely in the hands of small dealers, who drive from village to village and make their purchases in small lots. The flax thus collected is then sent in considerable quantities to the towns which serve as centres to the flax trade.
The finest flax in the world comes from Courtrai, Belgium, and is the most valuable staple in the market on account of its fineness, strength, and particularly bright color. There the flax is dried in the field and housed during the winter succeeding its growth, and in the spring of the following year it is retted in crates sunk in the sluggish waters of the river Lys. For many miles both sides of the river are used as steeping grounds, presenting a curious sight to the tourist. In all the operations necessary to prepare flax the greatest care is taken, and the cultivators being peculiarly favored as to the soil, climate and water, Courtrai flax forms a staple of unap-proached excellence.
The census report of 1890 shows the total area of land devoted to the cultivation of flax in the United States to have been 1,318,658 acres, and the production of flax-seed 10,250,410 bushels, the amount of flax sold 207,527 tons, and the total value of all flax products $10,436,228. Although flaxseed is reported from thirty-one states, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska produce 80 per cent. of the total amount. Throughout the greater portion of the principal flaxseed producing regions, flax straw is of little or no value, and much of the so-called fiber is only an inferior quality of tow, used chiefly for upholstering purposes. There are indications, however, of the revival in the United States of a linen industry that will afford a market for fine flax fiber of domestic production and revive a branch of agriculture and manufacture that for many years has been almost extinct. [See Linen, Crash, Bleaching, Weaving],