26 June 2013

Flax Culture


Flax in flower (photo link)

Flax was a common crop in the Agrarian Nation, especially in the northern states. Flax produced seeds for oil and fiber for cloth.

Cloth made with flax has a remarkable coolness to it. Hold a piece of cotton cloth to your cheek on a hot day and it will be warm. But a piece of flax cloth will be noticeably cooler. Someday I'd like to buy a shirt made of flax (linen cloth) just to experience the coolness of it.

The following excerpt comes from The Cultivator & Country Gentleman of March 26, 1874.


Your correspondent G., on page 168 (March 12) asks for some instruction as to raising flax, time to sow, and the manner of harvesting, threshing, &c. 

In this locality, it has been our practice invariably to sow at the last quarter of the moon in May. For one acre, one bushel of perfectly clean seed is plenty.

Sow evenly. To do this, sow both ways, taking a still time when there is no wind. Be careful not to fill your hand too full; otherwise you may lack seed at the cross sowing.

The land should be a sandy loam, that was planted to corn or potatoes and well manured the previous year, and kept clean from weeds; plowed fine and smoothed evenly with a fine-tooth harrow; then sowed as directed and covered with a light brush.

Flax bolls (photo link)

The time to harvest is when the bolls are well filled and begin to turn yellow. Pull and keep the buts even; tie up in small bundles; set up in small stooks; and when perfectly dry, draw to the barn and put away in the stables adjoining the barn floor, threshing at some time before your second harvest comes on.

Stooking flax (the buts don't look even to me)

Have your barn floor swept perfectly clean; take a five-pail iron kettle or an empty barrel; place it in the middle of your barn floor, and set the boys to whipping the bound bundles over the edge of the barrel or kettle, keeping the buts even; throw the threshed bundles out in your yard, and if it rains on them before spreading, all the better.

Rotting by spreading is our practice. (We have never tried water-rotting in ponds.) Draw out on a smooth, dry meadow, well protected from stock of all kinds; then commence spreading on the upper part of the meadow. One man to unbind and "handful" out, and one man to follow and spread, are sufficient. Keep the buts even and spread smoothly; no lapping of one gavel or row on another is allowed.

Dew-retting (a.k.a., "rotting") a field of flax in France.

When rotted nearly enough, turn over the gavels with a pole eight or ten feet long, running it under the tops and and turning it over.

If grown for seed, we get twelve bushels from a bushel of seed sown. 

Flax seed (photo link, with good flax-growing information)

When rotted enough, rake up in good sized bundles and bind; keep the buts even and draw to the barn on a very dry day; pack away over your barn floor under the roof.

A word as to "getting out flax," as they call it here. When March comes, have your "break" and "swinging board" and "swinging knife" ready, and go at it (a dry day is best); unbind and "handful out," and let the sun shine upon it a little. Finish it all if you can this month. A barn full of flax and no hay the first day of April is rather a poor sign in this locality.

R.M. Berkshire County, Mass.

A flax break. Click Here to see more flax tools.


Jenny said...

But the oil was used not for eating, but for varnish or shellac. ;)
Yes,linen is excellent for keeping cool!

Herrick Kimball said...


Here's an interesting little bit of information... shellac is made from the lac bug.... an insect. Do a Google search on it.

I know that linseed oil was once commonly used in oil-based paints. And it was part of the original "recipe" for linoleum. It was also, I'm pretty certain, part of various waterproofing coatings, like in "oilcloth."

I'm not sure about linseed oil in varnish.... probably.

But a lot of people (me included) these days consume linseed oil as a nutritional supplement. I wonder when that started to happen?

Ulf said...

Flax produces four main products. The long fibres called Linen, the short fibres called Tow, Linseed oil and finally linseed cake.
The linen fibre was used for cloth making as everyone knows. Tow was used as a stuffing for cushions as well as caulking the hulls of ships. Linseed oil has many uses and is indeed a component of traditional varnishes as well as being used straight for finishing gunstocks. Linseed cake is the by product of pressing the seed for oil and makes excellent stock feed.
Flax was indeed a useful plant.

Anonymous said...

It has been my understanding that flax oil is the fresh oil. Linseed is flax oil that has gone rancid and is no longer fit for human consumption but makes excellent wood oil and other things.

This was a very interesting article. It is very eye opening to consider how many times the fibers must pass through the hands before it is ready to wear. Same goes for wool.