We have recently harvested our flax crop which was planted in April in the garden behind Tindalls Cottage. The flax is harvested by being pulled directly from the ground which preserves the length of its fibres.
Here the flax is being harvested by a male interpreter but historically this was an activity undertaken by women.
Once harvested, the stalks are soaked in water to start the breakdown of the woody part of the plant so it separates more easily from the fibres, a process known as ‘retting’. This can take several weeks to complete, depending on the weather conditions and the growing conditions of the plants. Once retted, the flax is dried thoroughly before storage.
When the flax is dry and brittle, the woody parts of the plant are broken into smaller wooden splinters on a breaker, using a chopping motion. These woody splinters are then brushed away using a flax knife or a flax beater, a tool that is shaped like a very large wooden knife. As well as clearing away the woody shards, this also starts to soften the fibres, removes some of the unwanted waste matter and straightens the long fibres. The fibres are then ‘dressed’ or heckled, which involves drawing the fibres through a set of pointed iron spikes set into a wooden board, followed by further beating and combing on wood carders. Flax breaking and dressing were specialist processes undertaken by men.
The processed fibre is then ready for spinning, a task undertaken by women. Women were paid by the spun pound, the rate varying depending on the quality of the fibre. A married woman could spin about a pound of linen yarn a day. Spun yarn was then sent to the weaver to be woven into cloth. Finally, it was ‘whited’ or bleached which involved soaking it in lye and ashes before spreading it out on the grass to dry.
Linen cloth was used within the home as bedding (sheets and pillowcases), table cloths, napkins and towelling. It was worn as underclothing (smocks and shirts), aprons, head and neck cloths. It was also used for storage (sacking) and packaging. At the Museum linen yarn is plaited to make string which is used in our houses and historic gardens.