The Weaving Word

Weaving together the threads that make up my passion for the written word…as an author, editor, and follower of The Word.

Medieval Monday: Turning Flax into Linen

Flax was an important plant in the medieval world. It had an incredible number of uses, some of which have already been touched on in previous posts. One of its primary uses was the production of linen cloth. Cotton didn’t grow well in northern areas of Europe, but flax did, and linen was needed to make undergarments and cooler summer clothing when wool was too hot to wear.

Harvesting and processing flax was a June activity in the Middle Ages. Like so many other medieval tasks, it was a laborious and time consuming one, and it started with either pulling up the entire plant, or cutting the stalks down to the ground. Before anything else could be done, all of the seeds would have to be carefully removed so that they could either be used for their oil, or saved for planting a new crop of flax.

Retting Flax

Retting

The next step in the process was retting. The most popular method of doing this was to leave the stalks in water to rot for between 3-6 weeks. This method was the fastest and it whitened the fibers, which was preferable. Since a large amount of water was necessary, ponds and streams were used, even though this tended to pollute the water. Retting in a water source that also served as the community’s drinking water was likely to make you very unpopular, and eventually laws were put in place to limit this type of retting. Another method of retting, if a water source was not available, was to bind the flax stalks in bundles and leave them out for the dew to break them down, turning the bundles on occasion. This method took considerably longer, possibly several months, and the resulting fibers were not as white.

combing fibers

Hackling linen fibers

Once the stalks of flax had rotted, the flax would be dried out and then beaten between wooden blocks to break them apart—a process that was sometimes called beetling. Next would come scutching, where the woody bits of the plant were finally removed from the silky fibers inside. The last step was hackling; combing the fibers into separate lengths that could finally be spun into thread, then woven into cloth.

The end result of all this work was a beautiful, versatile fabric that could be cut and sewn into garments, as these women from the 14th century are doing.

women sewing linen

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About weavingword

Allison D. Reid is a Christian Fantasy author with a fondness for Medieval history. Her first published series, the Wind Rider Chronicles, embraces traditional fantasy elements but is also infused with deeper spiritual themes. The first two books in the series, "Journey to Aviad" and "Ancient Voices: Into the Depths" can be found at Amazon and other online book retailers. "Journey to Aviad" is now FREE. Visit http://allisondreid.com/books-2/ to learn more.

7 comments on “Medieval Monday: Turning Flax into Linen

  1. Let's CUT the Crap!
    June 14, 2016

    Must have been hard on the hands. What a process, though. 🙂

    Like

  2. noelleg44
    June 14, 2016

    Quite a process- a bit more difficult than processing wool – but then, you don’t have to feed the flax plants. How do you spin flax?

    Like

    • weavingword
      June 14, 2016

      The same way you spin wool it would seem…with a drop spindle. You gradually pull the fibers in with your fingers.

      Like

  3. David Wiley
    June 13, 2016

    Reblogged this on The Scholarly Scribe.

    Like

  4. David Wiley
    June 13, 2016

    Your posts are always so informative and excellent in quality! I had no idea that flax was so versatile!

    Like

    • weavingword
      June 13, 2016

      Thank you! These posts provide good research opportunities for me to learn new things too. The more I know about the details of daily life, the more I can use them to enrich my book world. 🙂

      Like

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