Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Worked Willingly with Hands: The Prehistory of Flax and Linen

by Mark Patton

"Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies ... She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands." Proverbs 31, 10-31.

Linen has been prized as a fabric for thousands of years. It is made from the flax plant (Linum usitatisimum), first domesticated in the Middle East in around 7000 BC. The Egyptians used it for wrapping mummies and to make the clothing of their priests; its first appearance in Europe is in the lake villages of Switzerland and Germany around five thousand years ago; the Romans used it for the sails of their ships. It has often been assumed that it was they who introduced it to the British Isles, but a recent archaeological discovery in Cambridgeshire has changed all that.

Flowers of domesticated flax. Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson (licensed under CCA).
Flax field in North-West Dakota. Photo: Bookworm 857158367 (licensed under CCA).

The site of Must Farm, dubbed "Britain's Pompeii" by some, is a three thousand year-old riverside settlement where waterlogged conditions have allowed for an almost unprecedented survival of organic materials, including wood and fabric. With its houses built on stilts over the river, the settlement is remarkably similar to the Alpine lake villages. Fourteen centuries earlier, people from central Europe (the descendants, perhaps, of Otzi the ice-man, who died in the Italian Alps in around 3,300 BC) may have been the first to bring the knowledge of metal-working to Britain. Now it seems that they, or their own descendants, may also have brought with them the knowledge of how to turn flax into linen.

The Late Bronze Age site of Must Farm, Cambridgeshire. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).
Reconstructed Bronze Age pile-dwellings at Lake Constance, Germany. Photo: Traveler100 (licensed under GNU).

In fact, the wild progenitor of domesticated flax, Linum bienne, had been growing in England all through the Stone Age, but, whereas it does not take much imagination to understand that the fur of a bear or beaver can be turned into warm clothing or even that the wool of sheep and goats might be spun and woven into cloth, the processing of flax into linen is a far more complicated business.

Linum bienne, the wild flax plant. Photo: Alvesgaspar (licensed under GNU).

Flax fibre is extracted from the "bast" that lies beneath the surface of the stem of the flax plant. Today, much of the processing is done mechanically, but, traditionally, the plants were uprooted, rather than cut, to maximise the length of the fibres. It must then be "retted," or left in contact with water, so that the cellular tissue and pectins that surround the fibres can rot away. The best quality linen is produced by "field-retting" (or "dew-retting") leaving the crop in the field and turning it periodically. This works well in Canada, China and Russia, where most commercial flax production takes place today, but is unsuited to less predictable climates, such as that of the British Isles, where too much or too little rainfall could easily spoil an entire crop.

Flax harvesting, by Emile Claus, 1904, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Photo: Georges Jansoone (image is in the Public Domain).

British flax was, historically, either "stream-retted" (left weighted down in flowing water for a period of weeks - almost certainly the option used by the Late Bronze Age community at Must Farm) or (although this is considered to produce linen of inferior quality), "pond-retted" in still water. Seamus Heaney, in his poem, "Death of a Naturalist," describes how, in the Northern Ireland of his youth:

"All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighed down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell."

These sights, sounds and smells must have been very familiar to people living at Must Farm.

The flax fibres must then be "broken" and "scutched," to remove the unusable material, and finally "heckled" with a comb, or a bed of nails, before it can be spun and woven into a cloth that may have been a significant export for the Bronze Age people of East Anglia, whose trade networks seem to have extended from Scandinavia to Italy's Po Valley.

Breaking flax: wooden tools for this task were found at Must Farm. Photo: Pymous (licensed under GNU).
Scutching flax. Photo: Pymous (licensed under GNU).
Heckling flax. Photo: Pymous (licensed under GNU).
Bronze heckle for flax-processing. Photo: Kozuch (licensed under CCA).
Flax fibres before and after processing. Photo: Aamiri77 (licensed under CCA).

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Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at http://mark-patton.blogspot.co.uk. His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


5 comments:

  1. This was so fascinating! I always learn so much from your posts.

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  2. Very interesting article. But, don't forget that the French produced vast quantities of linen, and were continuing doing this long after the English were making fortunes spinning cotton in the Victorian age. We have a retting pond in our village, and a rich history of home produced linen or lin, from locally grown flax. Antique French linens such as monogrammed sheets and tea towels are highly sought after in homes today. There is nothing so luxurious like slipping between linen bed sheets!

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  3. Very interesting article. But, don't forget that the French produced vast quantities of linen, and were continuing doing this long after the English were making fortunes spinning cotton in the Victorian age. We have a retting pond in our village, and a rich history of home produced linen or lin, from locally grown flax. Antique French linens such as monogrammed sheets and tea towels are highly sought after in homes today. There is nothing so luxurious like slipping between linen bed sheets!

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  4. An excellent "touch of flavor" for everyone interested in the mechanics of the past. Fascinating; thanks for sharing this with the rest of us.

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  5. What delicious detail! Complete with sights, sounds, and smells, to make fascinating reading. Thanks for the explanations and pictures. I wonder if I can grow some flax on my veranda...such a pretty flower.

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