Flax – A Most Important Commodity

Today few people in Canton have ever seen flax growing, yet there was a time when it was arguably the most important crop of our local farmers. As soon as land was roughly cleared of trees (the stumps remained to be removed later), in late May the farmer plowed the land and sowed his flax seed in a broadcast manner similar to grain. When weeds sprang up among the tender shoots of flax, the farmer’s wife and children set to work to remove them. The children were cautioned to walk barefoot in the flax field facing the prevailing wind, so that young plants when trod upon would be more likely to be blown back into an upright position. By late July the flax was ready for harvest and the women and children pulled it up, roots and all, and neatly bundled it for drying. The next step, usually performed by men, was to remove the seeds by drawing small bundles of flax through a hetchel, a cluster of long spikes nailed through a heavy board. The seeds were a valuable item for trade. The botanical name for the flax plant is Linum usitatissimum, and the ‘linn’ seeds contain a fine oil that has many uses, including as a base for paint and as a rust preventive. Flax seeds can also be eaten in bread and cereal and are good fodder for animals. Bundles of raw flax in the early days could be exchanged for other desirable goods as well. After seed removal, “retting” took place. In England this was done by immersing the flax bundles in a pond or stream, but in New England the preferred method was to spread it out on the ground to allow the dew to moisten the husks of the stems and start the rotting process in preparation for “braking” or “swingling.” “Braking” required considerable brawn and the men usually did this with a simple machine consisting of a narrow plank or several planks (resembling fence pickets) hinged at one end to a heavy board. Flax spread on the lower board was crushed by pressure on the upper planks and the woody husks thus fractured. The fine, tough inner fibers were unaffected by this process. “Swingling” involved beating the retted flax with wooden paddles and this was often a family or neighborhood affair involving all ages. The end result of “braking” and “swingling” was the same. Women then “hetcheled” the product by drawing it through a series of finer and finer clusters of hetchel nails to remove remaining fragments of husks. With the finest hetchels, short flax fibers, or "tow,” were removed and saved to use in making coarse cloth. The long fibers were most desired. Combing or “carding” was the next step, a process necessary to align the fibers so they could be spun into thread. The cards were used in pairs and each consisted of a flat piece of board about 5 by 8 inches in size with a short handle attached midway on the long side. On the board was a piece of thin leather perforated by hundreds of thin stiff wire fingers. When the woman placed a handful of hetcheled flax on the wires of one card and dragged the other card across it with its wires also facing the flax, the fibers became all aligned in the same direction. Spinning was traditionally done by women, although men did most of the weaving until the mid 1700s. The time-consuming process of spinning went on morning to night, year around. It took about ten spinners to produce the thread used by one weaver in the same amount of time. Hand-spinning with a rotating “drop” spindle (resembling a large wooden top toy) was available to everyone, but the pedal-operated small flax wheel was so much more efficient that nearly every household acquired one by the time that Canton was settled. The whirr of the flax wheel was a true sign of domesticity in the 18th century, and all women then were “spinsters”. Water-powered carding mills in the early 19th century did away with the tedious carding by hand, but spinning and weaving continued in the home. Home production of cloth, predominantly linen, continued well into the 1800s. Linen and woolen cloth could be exchanged for almost any commodity needed by a farmer's family. By the mid 1700s most of the weaving was done by women, although their husbands usually received the credit for the family’s productivity. Spinning and weaving in pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary times was considered a commitment to liberty, as it by-passed the dependence on imported cloth from England. Large quantities of "linsey-woolsey,” a cloth combining linen and wool threads, helped to clothe the Revolutionary Patriots. A very important contribution to independence was thus made by females at their flax wheels and looms. “Fulling” was a process applied to woven cloth. After weaving, the cloth was washed and placed in a trough and pounded with an oak hammer under soapy water or fuller’s earth and water. Then the nap was raised using teasel or thistles. The cloth then was dyed and placed on tenter hooks to dry. Linen required several more processes to bleach it to pure white. "Fustian" was made with a flax or tow warp and coarse slack-twisted cotton or down filling. Until well into the 19th century the best duck cloth for sails was made of flax. New England duck canvas was considered inferior to Russian or Scandinavian duck. The difference appears to have been in the retting process. Instead of "dew" retting, the Russians used immersion in flowing streams. Local duck had to suffice during wartime, when European sources were cut off, however. The invention of the cotton gin in 1792 resulted in plenty of cheap cotton available for the New England mills and ultimately caused the end of the home production of linen. Flax was still grown for its seeds and their valuable linseed oil, however. Today, New England-grown flax is a distinct rarity, but we should remember its important role in the development of our country.