Saturday, April 19, 2014

Retting and Rippling - The Story of Linen

By Deborah Swift

My novels often include references to the growing of flax and also to linen, which is the cloth produced from it. It became less popular in the early twentieth century because it creases so easily, though it is now more widely used. But in the 17th century it was one of the most commonly used fabrics,and the flax plant was native to English, Scottish and Irish soil.

Sowing of flax was done after the winter frosts, and the growing season was about three months during which time the stalks would grow to three feet high. Sometimes one patch would be left uncut to provide seed for the next year's harvest. The stalks were pulled up by hand and gathered into bundles which were then stacked in stooks.

Fig. 104.   The stooks of flax.
Field of linen stooks

Next the stalks were laid out to decompose - called retting. Spread out on the grass they would rest there for thirty days or so to get the morning dew. If there was not enouigh dew or rain, then the flax would be watered. Sometimes flax was left in steams or ponds but this polluted the water, and clean water was a valuable resource. Once the woody part has decomposed then the flax was dried by turning it regularly in the sun.

Dressing the Flax

The straw had to be broken by a flax breaker, a wooden paddle to bash the stalks. Then the shoves (broken straw ) was removed, and scutching could take place. Scutching was separating the fibres by beating then still further and then dragging the fibres through a long comb (riddling) to take out any remaining straw and smooth the fibres.

Turning flax into linen takes work. This is a hackle. Some call it a heckle - and it is used to comb short fibers out. Moo Dog Knits Magazine.

Line and Tow

Line is the finest threads of flax, and tow the coarsest. Line (from which we get the word linen) produced a cloth suitable for wearing - shirts for example. Tow produced a harder wearing cloth for awnings, sacks and sails.

Spinning and Weaving

Dutch spinning wheels were introduced into Ireland in 1632 by the Earl of Strafford. Ireland was a big centre of flax production in the 17th and 18th centuries, employing thousands of women and the spinning wheel and distaff. (Shakespeare describes one of his characters as having hair 'like flax upon a distaff').

Bleach Green

Linen Garments

Once woven into cloth, linen was widely used for nightclothes and shirts because of its ability to absorb water (sweat) so it was very hygenic to wear next to the skin. Linen was often used for pleated cloths where it would be folded and dried into pleats. If it was ever washed it then had to be re-pleated, as the water would remove the pleats. Kerchiefs to cover the head were usually of fine linen. In England wool was the main industry, so the linen trade is often overlooked in historical novels. In the period I like to write about, tithes were often paid in bolts of linen cloth which, if the cloth was fine, were costlier than wool. White linen was much prized by the aristocracy for bed linen and table cloths. In Ireland the cloth was bleached by laying out the woven lengths on bleach greens, a  custom that actually continued right up until the 1930's.

1640's nighshirt in linen - Fashion Museum, Bath

One of my favourite parts of learning about old crafts is to learn the particular vocabulary associated with them, vocabulary that has almost disappeared from modern English.

And - here are my books! - You can find out more about them by clicking, which will take you to my website.



  1. Very interesting article - thank you. Linen was also produced in large quantities in France, and our village still has the pond where the linen was left to rot. Fascinating subject, I love it.

  2. Quintin in Brittany was a linen producing town, and every year they have a linen festival, with demonstrations of all the processes, right up to the finished cloth being packed as it would have been for shipping on the Nantes-Brest Canal. They sell linen products, and there is a parade and bagadou (bagpipe band) through the town. (Any excuse!)
    The women used to spin the thread, often sitting outside their dark little houses, some of which are open on the day, along alleyways that you would otherwise never know are there. An entire way of life that no longer exists, but which gave rise to a lot of music sung in question and answer style, to mark the rhythms of work and to pass the time.

  3. Thanks, Deborah! It was a major industry in Northern Ireland until quite recently, and many of my father's family were involved. It's in the background to Seamus Heaney's "Death of a Naturalist," but it was only when my father explained the retting process to me that I fully understood the poem.

  4. I am a hand spinner and weaver. I once grew a few flax plants just as an experiment. It takes a lot of time and expertise to turn flax into linen! I decided I'd rather spin wool!

  5. Labor intensive (from the sounds of it) but what a lovely final product. Very interesting post, Deborah!


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