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Good flax and good hemp to have of her own
In May a good houswife will see it be sown.
And afterwards trim it to serve in a need;
The fimble to spin, the card for her seed."
Source:Tusser, 1812:153



The following is based on the discussion of "Old Home Manufacturers" in Source:Addington, 1932. Addington was speaking specifically in the context of Scott County, but the subject applies broadly throughout Southwestern Virginia.


The Great Wheel
The Little Wheel
Domestic Life


Almost every family grew flax for the purpose of obtaining supplies of flax linen for towels, sheets, "straw ticks", shirts, pants, thred and ropes.
HarvestingThe flax was harvested by hand, the plants being pulled up by the roots.
RettingIt was spread upon the ground until the stalk had "ratted" enough to be easily broken. It was then bound into bundles and stored away.
BreakingThe next step in its manufacture was the process of "breaking" this was done in a machine called "flax break." In this machine the brittle stalks were broken so they could be separated from the fiber.
ScutchingThe separation of stalk and fiber was largely brought about by "scutching." Scutching was done with a large, two-edged blade with a handle called a "scrutching knife." A board was driven into the ground and a wisp of the broken flax, held over the top of this board with one hand, was stroked with the "scutching knife" with the other. Some of the course fibers, or "tow" was removed from the wisp in this operation. Image:Skutching.jpg
HecklingThe fiber was next heckled to still further remove the broken stalks and and coarse fiber, and to straighten the fiber. The heckle consisted of an oblong piece of wood filled with sharp wooden or metal spikes four or five inches long. The wisp of flaxen fiber was drawn through this machine in a manner very much like combing. see Heckling
Post HecklingAfter heckling, the wisp was twisted into form similar to a twist of tobacco, and was then ready to be spread upon the distaff for spinning.


New England

A more extensive discussion of flax and the extraction of the flax fibers is found in Earle, Alice Morse. 1899. Home life in colonial days. New York: The Macmillan Company. http://books.google.com/books?id=KjkLB4GrT1gC&printsec=toc pp166 et seq

IN recounting the various influences which assisted the Americans to success in the War for Independence, such

as the courage and integrity of the American generals, the generosity of the American people, the skill of Americans in marksmanship, their powers of endurance, their acclimatization, their confidence and faith, etc., we must never forget to add their independence in their own homes of any outside help to give them every necessity of life. No farmer or his wife need fear any king when on every home farm was found food, drink, medicine, fuel, lighting, clothing, shelter. Home-made was an adjective that might be applied to nearly every article in the house. Such would not be the case under similar stress to-day. In the matter of clothing alone we could not now be independent. Few farmers raise-flax to make linen; few women can spin either wool or flax, or weave cloth; many cannot knit. In early days every farmer and his sons raised wool and flax; his wife and daughters spun them into thread and yarn, knit these into stockings and mittens, or wove them into linen and cloth, and then made them into clothing. Even in large cities nearly all women spun yarn and thread, all could knit, and many had hand-looms' to weave cloth at home. These home occupations in the production of clothing have been very happily termed the " homespun industries." Nearly every one has seen one of the pretty foot- wheels for spinning flax thread for linen, which may yet be found in the attics of many of our farmhouses, as well as in some of our parlors, where, with a bunch of flax wound around and tied to the spindle, they have within a few years been placed as a relic of the olden times. If one of these flax-wheels could speak to-day, it would sing a tale of the patient industry, of the tiring work of our grandmothers, even when they were little children, which ought never to be forgotten. As soon as the colonists had cleared their farms from stones and stumps, they planted a field, or "patch" of flax, and usually one of hemp. The seed was sown broadcast like grass-seed in May. Flax is a graceful plant with pretty drooping blue flowers; hemp has but a sad-colored blossom....

When the flax plants were three or four inches high, they were weeded by young women or children who had to work barefoot, as the stalks were very tender. If the land had a growth of thistles, the weeders could wear three or four pairs of woollen stockings. The children had to step facing the wind, so if any plants were trodden down the wind would help to blow them back into place. When the flax was ripe, in the last of June or in July, it was pulled up by the roots and laid out carefully to dry for a day or two, and turned several times in the sun; this work was called pulling and spreading, and was usually done by men and boys. It then was "rippled." A coarse wooden or heavy iron wire comb with great teeth, named a ripple-comb, was fastened on a plank; the stalks of flax were drawn through it with a quick stroke to break off the seed-bolles or "bobs," which fell on a sheet spread to catch them; these were saved for seed for the next crop, or for sale.

Rippling was done in the field. The stalks were then tied in bundles called beats or bates and stacked. They were tied only at the seed end, and the base of the stalks was spread out forming a tent-shaped stack, called a stook. When dry, the stalks were watered to rot the leaves and softer fibres. Hemp was watered without rippling. This was done preferably in running water, as the rotting flax poisoned fish. Stakes were set in the water in the form of a square, called a steep-pool, and the bates of flax or hemp were piled in solidly, each alternate layer at right angles with the one beneath it. A cover of boards and heavy stones was piled on top. In four or five days the bates were taken up and the rotted leaves removed. A slower process was termed dew-retting; an old author calls it "a vile and naughty way," but it was the way chiefly employed in America. When the flax was cleaned, it was once more dried and tied in bundles. Then came work for strong men, to break it on the ponderous flax-brake, to separate the fibres and get out from the centre the hard woody "hexe" or "bun." Hemp was also broken.

A flax-brake is an implement which is almost impossible to describe. It was a heavy log of wood about five feet long, either large enough so the flat top was about three feet from the ground, or set on heavy logs to bring it to that height. A portion of the top was cut down leaving a block at each end, .. .... and several long slats were set in lengthwise and held firm at each end with edges up, by being set into the end blocks. Then a similar set of slats, put in a heavy frame, was made with the slats set far enough apart to go into the spaces of the lower slats. The flax was laid on the lower slats, the frame and upper slats placed on it, and then pounded down with a heavy wooden mallet weighing many pounds. Sometimes the upper frame of slats, or knives as they were called, were hinged to the big under log at one end, and heavily weighted at the other, and thus the blow was given by the fall of the weight, not by the force of the farmer's muscle. The tenacity of the flax can be seen when it would stand this violent beating; and the cruel blow can be imagined, which the farmer's fingers sometimes got when he carelessly thrust his hand with the flax too far under the descending jaw — a shark's maw was equally gentle.

Flax was usually broken twice, once with an "open - tooth brake," once with a " close or strait brake," that is, one where the long, sharp-edge strips of wood were set closely together. Then it was scutched or swingled with a swingling block and knife, to take out any small particles of bark that might adhere. A man could swingle forty pounds of flax a day, but it was hard work. All this had to be done in clear sunny weather when the flax was as dry as tinder.

The clean fibres were then made into bundles called strikes. The strikes were swingled again, and from the refuse called swingle-tree hurds, coarse bagging could be spun and woven. After being thoroughly cleaned the rolls or strikes were sometimes beetled, that is, pounded in a wooden trough with a great pestle-shaped beetle over and over again until soft. Then came the hackling or hetcheling, and the fineness of the flax depended upon the number of hacklings, the fineness of the various hackles or hetchels or combs, and the dexterity of the operator. In the hands of a poor hackler the best of flax would be converted into tow. The flax was slightly wetted, taken hold of at one end of the bunch, and drawn through the hackle-teeth towards the hetchel-ler, and thus fibres were pulled and laid into continuous threads, while the short fibres were combed out. It was dusty, dirty work.

The threefold process had to be all done at once; the fibres had to be divided to their fine filaments, the long threads laid in untangled line, and the tow separated and removed. After the first hackle, called a ruffler, six other finer hackles were often used. It was one of the surprises of flax preparation to see how little good fibre would be left after all this hackling, even from a large mass of raw material, but it was equally surprising to see how much linen thread could be made from this small amount of fine flax.

The fibres were sorted according to fineness ; this was called spreading and drawing. So then after over twenty dexterous manipulations the flax was ready for the wheel, for spinning, — the most dexterous process of all, — and was wrapped round the spindle.

Other matter

From:Fiber Wars]---which provides a broad discussion of hemp, flax, and cotton.

Flax was called the "Pioneer plant" because it was the first crop grown on cleared land. However, it did not do well if grown successively on the same land. As a result, flax moved west with the Pioneer migration to Minnesota, North Dakota and the Canadian plains for the oilseed types, and to Michigan and Oregon for the fiber types. The decline in productivity when flax was grown repeatedly led to the belief that flax was "hard" on the soil, and it was not recommended to be grown more than once in ten years on the same land. Eventually, it was demonstrated that the poor performance was due to a Fusarium fungus that persisted in the soil and caused plants to wilt. Flax's struggle with a host of pathogens limited its progress. Today, the shortest recommended rotation for flax is four years.

Weed control in flax was also a problem. Hemp was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition. Hemp, it was said, was "good" to the soil because it could be grown successively and improved the soil with its penetrating taproot. Although hemp demands substantial nutrition for growth, it has been estimated that greater than two-thirds of the nutrients used is returned to the soil when the crop is dew-retted.21

Additionally, hemp has often been grown for many seasons successively without deleterious impact on the soil. In fact, this is done on occasion to improve the soil tilth and clean land of weeds.

See Also "Flax" in Rootsweb Familia archives