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How We Make Linen - Part II - Flax

Updated on February 27, 2012

Grown for both it's seed and it's fiber, the flax plant has many uses both in the past and today, that often most of us don't think about. In fact, chances are that you hopefully have a little flax in your pocket, because the linen fabric that our paper currency is made from, comes directly from the flax plant. Here are a few of the other uses for this plant:

  1. Linen
  2. Dye
  3. Fishing nets
  4. Hair gels and tonics
  5. Soap
  6. Lowering cholesterol
  7. Treating breast and prostate cancer
  8. Laxative (if not taken in excess)
  9. Lace
  10. Sheeting
  11. Twine
  12. Rope
  13. Linseed Oil
  14. Rolling paper for cigarettes and cigars
  15. Animal and poultry feed
  16. Artist's canvas (in Europe, Americans art canvas is usually cotton)

The flax plant is as ancient as plants come. It was widely known and grown first in ancient Ethiopia, India, and Egypt. One example is that it is known to have been used for cloth for more than 30,000 years by mankind.

This annual plant is most times seen with the prettiest of blue flowers, but fields of bright red flax flowers are also still flax. The fruit contains the apple shaped seeds that we all know today as flax seeds.

Linseed flax (Linum usitatissimum), near Whitsbury. This delicate looking plant has been an invaluable element in the economy of many civilizations since at least 5000BC. Cloth spun from flax has been found in ancient tombs. It was used for clothing
Linseed flax (Linum usitatissimum), near Whitsbury. This delicate looking plant has been an invaluable element in the economy of many civilizations since at least 5000BC. Cloth spun from flax has been found in ancient tombs. It was used for clothing | Source

How Flax Yarn Is Woven Into Cloth

The final operation is weaving, and the first step in this, is the rolling of the skeins onto spools and thence onto the warpers' beam of the weaving loom. In weaving, the threads which run up and down the loom represent the "warp," while the cross threads are called the "weft" or "filling."

As the yarns run on to the weavers' beam they pass through a starch bath called "dressing." This smooths any loose ends and gives strength during the weaving process. Weaving is done by the shuttle which carries the weft passing under and over the warp threads.

By changing the number of threads passed over or under the shuttle, different kinds of linen are produced, such as plain linen cloth, twilled linen cloth, or linen drill, and huckabacks.

Most of the table linen used is damask, and it has a woven ornamental design and contrasting weaves.

Flax plant in June
Flax plant in June | Source

A Pot of Cloth

When the woven fabric is taken from the loom it is run through the cropping machine, which cuts knots and loose threads from the surface of the cloth. The end is now in sight, for the linen fabric is ready for bleaching or whitening.

Pieces of linen are stitched together, end to end in one piece many thousands of yards in length. This is called "a pot of cloth."

It is put through several washers and boilings with chemicals, and is then spread on the grass for some days. This performance is repeated until a correct stage of whiteness is reached.

The web of the cloth is then put through a water mangle and a tank of starched dressing before it is passed over heated rollers, or "calendars," to dry it.

The glossy finish is given by a stamping process called "beetling," in which wooden rails rise and fall upon the linen for a period of from thirty to sixty hours. After beetling, the fabric is passed over warm calendars which give it its final touch. It is ready then to be wrapped and sent into the world to carry on the work it is fitted for.

Flax Processing

You Probably Don't Know!

That to produce a linen tablecloth with a design is a long process. The design has to be sketch on ordinary paper, then it must be transferred to paper divided into squares. The final step transfers the design to cardboard strips punched so that the threads can be led along the pattern holes. While machines do that today, in the past, this was all done by hand.

Bet You Didn't Know!

Flax fiber, after retting is a medium brown in color, and the woven fabric is therefore the same color. It has to be bleached.

In the old days this process consisted of boiling the pieces of linen in a chemical solution, washing them and spreading them out on grass fields. This process was repeated until the cloth had a dazzling whiteness.

Canada Vignettes - From Flax to Linen


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    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks hypnodude! Sorry I didn't see your comment when it was made. I enjoy a flax seed bread marketed here in Florida.

    • hypnodude profile image


      8 years ago from Italy

      Another interesting hub. Actually sometimes I eat bread with flax seeds, pretty tasteful and good for health. Another great hub to rate up.:)

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks Jonesie201! I didn't touch on flax oil, wanting to concentrate on linen and the labor intensive process to make it, hoping those who were familiar with the cloth would come to appreciate why it costs what it does sometimes.

    • Jonesie201 profile image


      8 years ago from London, England

      Really great hubs, very informative. I understand that flax oil is good for you. I have a texture problem and I'm unable to wear man-made fibre so linen clothes are always, along with cotton, a first port of call.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks Betsyickles!

      Thanks someonewhoknows! Glad you enjoyed it. Am thinking that perhaps articles on hemp are not found because the keywords make that "list" on primary search engines. Sort of like writing about gambling.

      Thanks Hello, hello! I learned a lot researching it too.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      I have learned so much from your two hubs about a subject I never even thought about it. Thank you so much

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      8 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      I learned more about linen than ever from your hub.

      I would like to know why Hemp which has been used for centuries at least for it's food,fiber and oil is not welcomed by the government as a source of income for not only the farmers,but the other industries that could benefit from it's production?

      The fact that the first American flag was made using hemp fiber as well as the ropes and sails for ships and the clothing for soldiers during the civil war as well as the first rugged pair of blue jeans.

      Hempseed and it's oil are also excellent for human health.

      Hemp which is related to marijuana has almost none of the psychoactive drug T.H.C. in it's particular varient of the canibus plant from which both varieties of hemp come from.

      Up until 1938 the processing of the hemp fiber was labor intensive ,but someone invented a machine that would allow for the efficient production of hemp,not only making the process easier ,but more productive by increasing the amount of fiber produced from 50 % to 95 %.

      Hemp fiber can be processed with steam to make a material that looks and feels like silk,as well as linen and the other rougher textured materials used as cloth.

      Hemp can also be used to make a very fine quality paper.

      In fact the first bible was printed on hemp paper.The chinese of course used it to,as they are known the first producers of paper making at least as far as we know on a large scale.

      Hemp can be and has been grown in America and Canada up until 1938.

      The reason we don't produce hemp fiber any longer is simple.

      In one word - Money!

      Not the money that it would produce for the farmers,clothmills,and the paper mills ,but the money it would cost the competing industries,such as the cotton farmers,and the cotton mills,replacing wood as a fiber for the paper industry.Another big industry it would compete with is the chemical industry.Producing Cotton and paper from wood requires chemicals.Herbicides and insecticides in the case of cotton growing,and many other chemicals such as dioxions and others that pollute our water,as well as kills insects and herbs that can be beneficial in the long run.

      Bees that pollinate plants and bats that eat insects are at least two very important insects we need.Bth of which are harmed by the usage of chemicals for that purpose.

    • BetsyIckes profile image


      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Interesting hub! Great job on it!


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