An introduction to Flax

Flax PlantThere is a multitude of bast fiber plants but perhaps the longest used is flax. As early as ancient Egypt there is evidence of people farming flax to use its fiber in textile applications.

Flax is a plant that is predominantly grown used for its resilient, flexible fiber, which is typically used to make linen, and the seed called flaxseed. Flax is often put in a group of other bast fiber plants such as hemp and kenaf. The crop is an annual, meaning it can be grown year after year, just like corn or wheat. Flax is also extremely versatile and can flourish in a wide variety of climates and soil types but loose sandy soil in warmer climates tend to bring the best yields. Making flax fiber that is typically one to two feet long.

 Converting a plant to a fiber

The process required to convert flax crops into linen can take longer than most people would think. Once the plants have finished growing, the farmer can’t simply mow them down and bail them. The plants must be uprooted from the ground, which prior to modern day farming equipment was an incredibly grueling process.

Once this is done the flax stalks are piled together similar to a teepee, so they can be dried. After the drying has completed the seeds are removed from the flower and the stalks are exposed to moisture. This process is called retting and plays a pivotal role in the separation of the fiber from the core of the plant called shive.

After processing, the fibers are graded dependent upon their length. Shorter fibers will be used for coarser applications such as canvas or yarn and the longer fibers will be used for finer fabrics such as linen. 

 A variety of crop colors

Depending on what climate and the particular year, the fiber will show up in different shades, ranging from a cream color to brown. The higher quality fibers are lighter in color and used primarily to be woven. These fibers are typically harvested to be converted into linen for things like sheets and clothes. Linen is considered a luxury fabric and is incredibly soft to the touch. Linen also performs extremely well in warm and humid climates. The fibers that are darker in color are usually used for their high tensile strength. This dark fiber can be used for anything from sewing thread all the way to canvas for the sail on a ship.