Linen from flax, once the fabric of choice for summer garments, undergarments, and even for wrapping Egyptian mummies, rose to its peak around the time of the American colonies, then was largely replaced by King Cotton.
Flax continues to be grown for its oil, used as linseed oil in paints, and its seeds, used as a dietary supplement because of its fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids. But in the United States, both cotton and synthetics have made it uneconomical to manufacture linen from flax.
Johannes Zinzendorf of Pitman, a farming town in Western Schuylkill County, may be one of the few people working to preserve the art of growing flax and converting it into linen. At his farm, The Hermitage at Mahantongo Spirit Garden, Zinzendorf grows one acre of flax for demonstrating the production of linen.
From the scientific name for flax, Linum, is derived the terms linseed, linoleum, lingerie and linen. Samples of linen have been found in caves dating back 36,000 years. Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians used the fiber extensively, and mummy wrappings and curtains of linen recovered from tombs have been in good condition.
Zinzendorf grows the flax, a grass-like plant that grows about four feet tall. Because the flax fiber runs the length of the flax plant, the plant is harvested by pulling it up by its roots. Once harvested, the plants are retted, left outdoors to let alternating sun and rain loosen the pectin that binds the fibers to the stalk.
When the fibers have loosened, the flax plants are taken in bunches and placed in a breaker where the straw stalks are smashed between wooden teeth and broken into small pieces while the more flexible fiber is not injured.
Next, the bundle of flax is taken to a vertical wooden scrutching board where a wooden a scraping knife loosens fibers and seeds from the stalk. The bundle with the loosened fiber is then pulled through a hetchel, a comb of nails. The first series of passes is through a hetchel with widely spaced nails. The fibers that remain go to a fine-spaced hetchel. The fibers that come loose are called tow. During the canal era, these fibers were used to make the tow ropes that the mules used to pull the canal boats.
After processing in the fine hetchel, the bunch of flax looks like blonde human hair-hence the name, flaxen hair. At this point, the flax is often stored until a sufficient amount is accumulated. Flax linen is labor intensive and therefore, expensive. "It takes about 10,000-feet of flax to make ten yards of linen fabric," Zinzendorf said.
When sufficient flax bunches are accrued, the flax is spun into thread on a flax spinning wheel. A flax wheel is smaller than a wool spinning wheel because the spindle, which twists the thread, needs to turn more slowly.
The finished thread is stored on bobbins, ready to be woven into cloth and cut into pieces to be sewn together to produce the final clothing.
Flax, one of the first crops domesticated by man, is not native to America. It is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean and came to the U.S. by way of England and Ireland in 1753. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, flax production began to decline. By 1940, fiber flax production in the U.S. dropped to nearly zero. In recent years, the movement to return to natural fibers has created a demand for linen.