Flaxland - History

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Fibre flax - Rediscover Britain’s Forgotten Crop   S Cooper 2009
With a desire among consumers to understand where and how their food is produced the flax/linseed crop, which is the source of so many diverse products, is one of the most exciting and versatile.  Both stem and seeds have multiple uses and are of equal importance, no part of the plant need be wasted. Over time and with selective breeding the varieties of flax are now grown either for the seed as the primary crop, or longer stem varieties primarily grown for their fibre production.

Typically one may be aware that in the past linseed fed to cattle created a glossy coat, it is great for oiling cricket bats, made into paints and what child of the 1950’s doesn’t recall linoleum floor coverings?  Linen, which granny talked about with reverence when using and preparing high quality linen bed sheets and tablecloths, was highly regarded.

family

Windmill hill a mile north of Avebury Wiltshire. March 2009.
The girl with the flaxen hair looks on as family plays Sunday afternoon cricket.
Earliest evidence of flax as an agricultural crop in Britain was found at the Ancient hill fort of Windmill Hill overlooking both Silbury Hill and the Stone circle and earth embankments of Avebury.
Alexander Keillers archaeological dig of 1920 revealed many items relating to an established farming culture including remains of flax seeds and barley dating back to the Bronze Age 5000 years ago.
(note: modern day grain storage top right)

Flaxland will explore and increase the awareness of the traditional uses of the flax plant, which continues to play an important role in everyday life.  Also to promote the developments and uses of flaxseed (linseed) in the food sector and of flax fibres in new technologies.

Flaxseed, also known as linseed, today are grown in the UK solely for the value of its seed content.  At one time flax growing and processing was an important industry, the growing of crops to spin into yarn for cloth and cordage is rapidly becoming a forgotten craft in the UK.

The flax plant has a long history both worldwide and in the United Kingdom.
Archaeological evidence from the times of the Pharaohs and the Far East indicate that flax cloth was produced 6000 BC.  It is established that flax could have been grown in England in the Bronze Age; it is known that it was present in Scotland at the time of the Norse men.  It is certain that the Romans, who understood the value of eating flax seeds, would have developed the cultivation of flax throughout their empire.

The growing of plants was part of subsistence farming throughout the middle ages. As well as creating fine cloths it was used in many agricultural items and every day utilities where strong lines, ropes or cloths were required.

Many references to both flax and hemp appear in the Doomsday book; by the Elizabethan period flax was in great demand for sailcloth and riggings for England’s growing naval fleet.

By the 1700’s the growing and processing of flax for cordage and cloth had developed into an industry, numerous water mills were involved in flax production throughout England, Ireland and Scotland.

With a continental trade becoming established in cloth, financial encouragement were offered for home produced flax and duties placed on imports. Wool, hemp and flax were the main fibres processed.  Developments, fibre processing machinery and the invention of the spinning jenny led to the importation of the shorter, empire produced, cotton fibres, which started to compete with homegrown crops.

Throughout the industrial revolution there was a gradual drift towards cotton cloth.
By the 1900’s most of the flax spun in England was imported.  The need for self-sufficiency and the superior strength of flax fibres saw a resurgent in flax growing throughout both world wars.

The last commercial flax growing for spinning into yarn was on the Sandringham Estate in the mid 1950’s.  No fibre flax growing industry exists in England or Ireland now.
The shorter varieties of the flax plant (generally referred to as linseed) are still grown for their oil content in the seed.  It fits well into a modern arable rotation using the same machinery as grain harvesting.  The linseed crop is not always ranked amongst the most profitable and in the past has been dependent upon subsidies so areas sown are variable.

With the drive for local food with provenance, UK growers and farmers are supplying an increasing quantity of high quality, oil producing linseeds to both the industrial and food markets.

For those seeking local fibres and cloth one has to look no further than our nearest neighbours – France, Belgium and Eastern European countries where the flax processing and growing still thrives.

The challenging climate of the early 21st century years along with increasing leisure time, driving us towards sustainability and leading to a revival in traditional craft pursuits. Working with fibres can be shown to provide a useful and gainful pastime.

The exciting new developments in technological use of fibres and flax oils as well as the increasing interest in flaxseeds’ important role in a healthy diet will ensure a future for flax/linseed growing in Britain and the close continent.

 

local foods / local fibres

 

 

updated November 2013- flaxland

 

 Copyright: S & A Cooper.