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Flax Linum usitatissimum L.

Common flax is a member of the Linaceae family which includes about 150 plant species widely distributed around the world. Some of them are grown in domestic flower beds, as flax is one of the few true blue flowers. (Most "blue" flowers are really a shade of purple.)

L. usitatissimim is grown both for seed and for fibre. The seeds produce linseed oil which is one of the oldest commercial oils and which has been used for centuries as a drying oil in painting and varnishing. The use of flax seed and flax seed oil (high in omega-3 linolenic acid[?]) as a nutritional supplement is increasing.

Flax fibres are amongst the oldest fibre crops in the world and the use of flax for the production of linen goes back 5000 years. Pictures on tombs and temple walls at Thebes depict flowering flax plants. The use of flax fibre in the manufacturing of cloth in Northern Europe dates back to pre-Roman times. In the USA flax was introduced by the Pilgrim fathers[?]. Currently all flax produced in the USA and Canada are seed flax types for the production of linseed oil or flaxseeds for human nutrition.

Flax fibre is soft, lustrous and flexible. It is stronger than cotton fibre but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damasks[?], lace[?] and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine and rope. Flax fibre is also a raw material for the high quality paper industry for the use of printed currency notes and cigarette paper.

The major fibre flax producing countries are the former USSR, Poland, France, Belgium and the Czech republic.

Cultivating flax From the 1881 Household Cyclopedia

The soils most suitable for flax, besides the alluvial kind, are deep friable loams, and such as contain a large proportion of vegetable matter in their composition. Strong clays do not answer well, nor soils of a gravelly or dry sandy nature. But whatever be the kind of soil, it ought neither to be in too poor nor too rich a condition, because in the latter case the flax is apt to grow too luxuriant and produce a coarse sort, and in the former case, the plant, from growing weakly, affords only a small produce.

When grass land is intended for flax, it ought to be broken up as early in the season as possible, so that the soil may be duly mellowed by the winter frosts, and in good order for being reduced by the harrows, when the seed process is attempted. If flax is to succeed a corn crop, the like care is required to procure the aid of frost, without which the surface cannot be rendered fine enough for receiving the seed. Less frost, however, will do in the last than in the first case, therefore the grass land ought always to be earliest ploughed. At seed time, harrow the land well before the seed is distributed, then cover the seed to a sufficient depth by giving a close double time of the harrows. Waterfurrow the land, and remove any stones and roots that may remain on the surface, which finishes the seed process.

When a crop of seed is intended to be taken, thin sowing is preferable, in order that the plants may have room to fork or spread out their leaves and to obtain air for the blossoming and filling seasons. But it is a mistake to sow thin when flax is intended to be taken, for the crop then becomes coarse, and often unproductive. From eight to ten pecks per acre is a proper quantity in the last case; but when seed is the object, six pecks will do very well.

Flax should be pulled when the lower part of the plant begins to turn yellow, and when, on opening the pods, the most forward of the seeds are found in a soft state, and the middle of the seeds is green; while the seed is quite soft, the flax should be spread on the ground in bundles of about as much as a woman can grasp with both hands, and it should remain so till the upper part is dry; in fine weather it will be dry in twenty-four or forty-eight hours; the bundles should be then made up, with the dry part inside, and set up in stocks of ten bundles each, to stand on the ground till the whole is dry, pods and all; the seed will then be ripe and the flax in the best state, and may be stacked, housed or worked; great care should be taken to keep the root ends even.

When flax is pulled it ought to be immediately put into the water, so that it may part with the rind and be fit for the manufacturer. Standing pools, for many reasons, are most proper for the purpose, occasioning the flax to have a better color, to be sooner ready for the grass, and even to be of superior quality in every respect. When put into the water it is tied up in beets, or small sheaves, the smaller the better, because it is then most equally watered. These sheaves ought to he built in the pool, in a reclining upright posture, so that the weight placed above may keep the whole firmly down. In warm weather, ten days of the watering process are sufficient; but it is proper to examine the pools regularly after the seventh day, lest the flax should putrefy or rot, which sometimes happens in very warm weather. Twelve days will answer in any sort of weather; though it may be remarked, that it is better to give rather too little of the water than too much, as any deficiency may be easily made up by suffering it to lie longer on the grass, whereas an excess of water admits of no remedy. After lying on the grass for a due time, till any defect of the watering process is rectified, the flax is taken up, tied when dry in large sheaves, and carried to the mill to be switched and prepared for the hackle.


The process is divided into two parts: the first part is intended for the farmer, or flax-grower, to bring the flax into a fit state for general or common purposes. This is performed by three machines: one for threshing out the seed, one for breaking and separating the wood from the fibre, and one for further separating the broken wood and matter from the fibre. In some cases the farmers will perhaps thrash out the seed in their own mill and therefore, in such cases, the first machine will be, of course, unnecessary.

The second part of the process is intended for the manufacturer to bring the flax into a state for the very finest purposes, such as lace, cambric, damask, and very fine linen. This second part is performed by the refining machine only.

Take the flax in small bundles, as it comes from the field or stack, and holding it in the left hand, put the seed end between the threshing machine and the bed or block against which the machine is to strike; then take the handle of the machine in the right hand, and move the machine backward and forward, to strike on the flax, until the seed is all threshed out.

Take the flax in small handfuls in the left hand, spread it flat between the third and little finger, with the seed end downwards, and the root-end above, as near the hand as possible; then put it between the beater of the breaking machine, and beat it gently till the three or four inches, which have been under the operation of the machine, appear to be soft; then remove the flax a little higher in the hand, so as to let the soft part of the flax rest upon the little finger, and continue to beat it till all is soft, and the wool is separated from the fibre, keeping the left hand close to the block and the flax as flat upon the block as possible. The other end of the flax is then to be turned, and the end which has been beaten is to be wrapped round the little finger, the root end flat, and beaten in the machine till the wood is separated, exactly in the same way as the other end was beaten.

See also New Zealand Flax, Phorium tenax[?]

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