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.


| March/April 1968



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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) 

PHOTO: DOROTHY B. SMITH

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.