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Flax: The Stubborn Crop

Author Photo
By Leslie C. McManus

Converting flax into linen was a complex, time-consuming and labor-intensive process.

man
Harold Eddy with a portable fence-weaving machine in his collection. His interest in antique fence makers may be genetic. “My granddad told me that when he was a kid, he rode 10 miles in a wagon to see a picket fence maker in use,” he recalls.

It’s easy to romanticize rural life 200 years ago. Old lithographs show bucolic farm scenes of horse-drawn plows, blacksmiths at the forge and women running spinning wheels. In reality, it was a time when literally every aspect of life demanded inordinate and nearly relentless amounts of labor.

Things we take for granted today – say, clothing or bedsheets – were rarely purchased. Although modern consumers are enticed by the word homespun, that word once described the cloth of daily life. And until the late 1800s, much of that cloth was linen, produced from farm-grown flax, in a complicated, lengthy and labor-intensive process.

tub

This iron tub was used more than 100 years ago to
transport men in and ore out of an Arkansas manganese mine.

The echo of that toil reverberated across two centuries when a Missouri man obtained the primitive tools once used by a farm family to produce the homespun fabric they depended on. “At one time, flax was commonly grown in Missouri,” Harold Eddy says. “And this was the kind of equipment they used to process it to make it ready to spin.”

Collection takes all comers

When it comes to farm antiquities, Harold – who lives in Slater, Missouri – is like a moth drawn to the flame. “I don’t have any favorites,” he claims. “If it’s old, I like it.”

machine

Harold’s threshing sledge. “This kind of thing goes back to Biblical times,” he says. The piece, which is studded with flints, would be dragged by oxen over grain piled on a threshing floor. Workers stirred the straw constantly with forks until nearly all the grain had been separated and the straw was finely chopped. The crop would then be shoveled aside, heaped and winnowed.

His collection defies definition. Although it numbers 50 or 60 corn planters and 100 plows, it also includes hay tools, fence-building equipment, local treasures (like a hollow log, one of many long used as part of a local city’s water distribution system), ice harvesting tools, barbed wire, early wheat harvesting tools, a hog scalding box, a horse hair picker (used in furniture upholstery and buggy seats), household pieces, bone mills, broom-making equipment and what he believes to be the last buggy built in Boonville, Missouri.

threshing sledge

Detail of the threshing sledge.

An enormous iron tub wearing the patina of decades was used during the early days of manganese mining in Arkansas, beginning in about 1860. “That was my wife’s grandfather’s,” Harold explains. “He’d get in it and they’d lower him down 60 feet into the mine, and then they’d bring loads of ore back up in it. I’m partial to family stuff, if I can get it.”

Tools used two centuries ago to be on display at September show

The flax tools were discovered when a northern Missouri house was torn down. As demolition proceeded, it became increasingly apparent that the house had been built around a two-room log cabin. In the cabin’s loft, workers uncovered a pile of primitive tools like none they’d ever seen. Harold was called in for a consultation, and ended up making an interesting addition to his collection.

flax seed ripper

Harold built this authentic reproduction of a “ripper,” which is used to separate the head from the seed pods.

Since bringing the tools home, Harold has studied them closely and cleaned them, and built reproductions of missing pieces. He’s also done extensive research on growing flax and converting the crop into linen.

It’s more than idle curiosity. If all goes according to plan, Harold will have a new display for the 2021 Mid-Missouri Antique Power and Collectible Show in September. “We’re going to plant flax seed and at least have a display of the crop and the tools,” he says.

Complex, time-consuming and labor intensive

Harold’s first flax crop was to be planted after danger of frost has passed, reaching maturity in about 100 days. “It’s ready to harvest when the leaves start to dry,” he says. Because fibers run from the root to the tip of the stem, the plant is pulled out by the root, rather than cut, and bundled.

rippling

The upper part of the flax bundle is drawn through coarse combs to remove seeds in a process called “rippling.”

The upper part of the flax bundle is drawn through coarse combs to remove seeds in a process called rippling. After the seeds are removed, the long, silky fibers that will be the end product must be separated from the straw and inner pitch.

The process of retting, in which unwanted fibers are loosened and then decompose, is achieved in several ways. The flax can be left in the field, where exposure to the elements – especially moisture in the air – will do the work. A pond or trough can be used to achieve the same effect in much less time, but with an unappealing odor. Ideally, flax is retted through exposure to constantly running water, like that in a stream. The root – which is particularly tough – may then be hammered, to break it down.

brake

The brake is used to separate linen fiber from unwanted plant material.

No rushing the process

When the straw comes away easily from the few bent fibers, it is time to grass the flax: the bundles are untied and laid in a field for a few days until they are dry on one side, then turned to allow the other side to dry. When the crop is totally moisture-free, it is stacked inside to age for a few more weeks.

machine

Flax plants would be placed inside the open jaws of the brake to break down the trash material and loosen it from the desirable fibers.

Next, a series of steps free the linen fiber from the boon (unwanted plant material). The brake, a large wooden device, is used to break down the trash material and further loosen it from the end product.

wood peg

This photo shows detail of the brake’s wood peg construction, as well as a bit of decorative accent in its scalloped edges.

Then the flax is scutched (beaten against a board with a blunt wooden knife). The final step in the process is hackling, in which the fiber is drawn through a series of metal combs to remove the last of the boon and shorter fibers. The end result is a strick, a half-pound bundle of long, light grey fibers that resemble human hair. More than 85 percent of the plant will have been removed before the strick is produced.

machine

Here the flax would be scutched – beaten against a board with a blunt wooden knife.

At that point, the fiber is ready to spin into thread, which will then be woven to form cloth. Both Europe and North America relied upon linen for vegetable-based cloth until the late 19th century, when it was replaced by cotton, which was both easier to process and cheaper to produce due to enslaved workers.

hackles set

Two sets of hackles are used to separate the last remnants of plant material from the fiber.

Something for everybody

Assuming the September show proceeds as planned, some 200 school children will visit on the first day to see tools of the past. Demonstrations will include horse-powered corn grinding, a working chuck wagon, mining and fence-making. Plans call for the state cornhusking competition to be held at the same time.

Visitors will have no shortage of things to see as they view Harold’s collection, from a grass seeder dating to 1900, to a collapsible plow designed to hang on the side of a Conestoga wagon, to wheat-harvesting tools dating to the 1700s – and much, much more.


flax seeds

Flax seed.

  • Flax is the oldest cultivated plant fiber used by man; linen was the first cloth produced from plant fiber.
  • American colonists, farmers and plantation owners grew small amounts of flax into the 1800s for their own use.
  • After ramie, flax has the greatest tensile strength of any natural fiber.
  • Flax is 20 percent stronger when wet.
  • Flax is long-lasting. If not exposed to synthetic bleaches or mechanical drying, a regularly used linen sheet can survive for a century or more.
  • In unplundered Egyptian tombs, mass quantities of linen are often found as part of the deceased person’s riches.
  • Like tobacco, flax quickly depletes nutrients from the soil where it is planted.

Sources on flax processing: Use of Flax in America, Donna C. Parker, Western Kentucky University, and Flax Production in the Seventeenth Century, National Park Service.

For more information: Mid-Missouri Antique Power and Collectible Show, Sept. 17-19, Saline County Fairgrounds, Marshall, Missouri. Feature: Oliver tractors and primitive farm equipment. Contact Harold Eddy, (660) 631-2708; email: HaroldEddy06@gmail.com

Published on Jun 3, 2021

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment