The Ladies Page: Growing and Weaving Flax

A regular contributor to this publication recounts the amount of work that went in preparing flax fibers before farm wives of yore could start weaving flax cloth.


A picture of Dorothy B. Smith, Ontario, N.Y. and her recently restored Coldwell Cub gas engine. It will be at the 1968 Reunion of the Pioneer Gas Engine Association, Inc. at Fairville, N.Y. on July 26, 27, and 28, 1968. (Thanks for sending along a picture of yourself Dorothy, l think this is fine. I'm sure people like to see the folks who help make the magazine so interesting. You can tell from her contributions to The Ladies Page that Dorothy is an intelligent and busy person. Nice to have met you if only through the medium of the mail and cameras—Anna Mae Branyan) 


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Perhaps you people who read this every issue, (and I hope there are a few who do), think I am some sort of a nut—always writing about the past. To me it is very intriguing, and the more I read about the ways and lives of the pioneers of our country, the more interested I become.

I have always been very much interested in handcrafts of all kinds. I can do the usual: knitting, crocheting, tatting, embroidering, and sewing. I am sure that if I had lived in pioneer days, I would have been able to use the flax wheel and the spinning wheel. These are both lost arts today. I would say that about the only place one can see them in operation would be in museums and for very special exhibitions. I am thinking in particular of the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It is quite a thrill to see the beautiful linens on display there. Any of you out this way should make a point of visiting there.

In New York State, growing flax goes back to 1626, when it was occupied by the Dutch. Flax is the finest textile plant in the world. Cheaper and inferior fibers have been used throughout the ages, but when strength and durability were wanted or exceptional beauty, flax was the chosen plant. In 1845, there were many acres grown in New York State. Most every homestead needed about an acre for its own use. At the time of the Civil War and very shortly after, the acreage shrank to practically nothing and flax spinning became a lost art.

It is amazing to learn the amount of advance preparation work required for weaving flax. The seed was sown in the early spring on land that was as free from weeds as possible. The plant grew from two to three feet tall and was harvested in late July or early August. It was pulled instead of cut, so the fiber would be as long as possible. The flax plant is hollow with long fibers which run the entire length of the stalk. Much of the stalk is waste and must be separated from the usable part. This was done by "retting"—laying the plant in running water or laying it on the grass in thin layers until partially rotted. This took several weeks. Then it was gathered up and dried.

Then it was taken, a handful at a time, and pounded between two boards called a flax brake. This was done to loosen the non-fibrous portion of the plant from the true flax fiber. Then it was "swingled" by beating it with a big wooden knife along the edge of a plank to remove the waste. Finally it was "hatcheled" by drawing it over and through a many-toothed hatchel to clean and comb it into a beautiful strand of soft gray fiber, the dressed flax.

It was then ready for spinning. The flax spinner sat at her work, while her skilled fingers separated and constantly fed to the foot-turned wheel, a constant flow of long filaments drawn from the dressed flax. Then all was ready for weaving the linen on the big loom, which was found in every pioneer kitchen.

Some of us are very lucky to have handed down to us from family to family, the beautiful fringed table linens and bedspreads, which bear the stamp of genuine artistry. As I said before, it would indeed be quite an accomplishment to have been able to do this.

My Own Engine

Well, I have finally done it! Everyone who belongs to a gas-engine club should own an engine. Now I have a beautifully restored Coldwell Jr. Cub engine, complete with the bear. Of course, Paul, with the help of Olin Himes of East Williamson and Harold Brown of Seneca Castle, did all the work. We found two engines and used the best parts of each to make one good one. These engines were originally used to power lawn mowers, so it took some doing to relocate the gas tank so it looked all right. I particularly like the distinctive radiator and fan. There have been pictures and comments of this engine in the "What Is It" column in earlier issues of Gas Engine Magazine. I am not mechanically minded, but I will enjoy owning an engine, so many thanks to those who helped in its restoration.

Never Fail Cake

For those of you who like a moist chocolate cake, I have a very easy recipe.

1 egg, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup sour milk, 1 tsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. soda, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup hot water, 1/2 cup shortening. Put everything in bowl. Beat well for 2-3 minutes. Makes 12 cupcakes, or two small layers or a small loaf cake. Recipe may be doubled for a larger cake. Bake in 250 degrees oven, 25-40 minutes depending on size of cake.

A good closing thought which was taken from the Reader's Digest: "Habits are about the only servants that will work for you for nothing. Just get them established, and they will operate even though you are going around in a trance."