Flax

The Norske Folkemuseum is in Oslo, Norway. They have a permanent exhibit of bunads at the museum. A bunad is the traditional Norwegian clothing that is usually associated with a particular area of the country.

This museum has salvaged old buildings from around Norway to help portray several centuries of life in Norway. There are re-enactors working in some of the buildings. This lady is making a lefse and flat bread on the griddle in the open fireplace. One of the buildings also had a flax demonstration.

Flax has been found in many archeological digs around the world. Dyed flax dating back to prehistoric man has been found in the Republic of Georgia. Flax is not a grass like wheat, but is actually an herb. The plant grows up to 3 feet in height and needs a moist climate with good soil to grow well. The plant takes a lot of nutrients out of the soil so it has to be rotated with other crops such as oats. It is usually planted the end of March. In about 2 months it will bloom with a blue or white flower. The white flower produces more seeds and it will have a coarser fiber. The blue flower is more desirable for linen production. The flax is ready to harvest between 90 and 120 days depending on what stage you want the fibers to be. There are three ripening stages when you are using it to make linen. The earliest stage is the green stage. This is a little early to be used as the fibers are very fine, but weak. The next stage is the yellow stage and this is the most desirable stage. Here the fibers are long and more usable for spinning and weaving. If you wait too long then the flax is in the brown stage. The flax is brittle and more short fibers will be created in the process.

The manual process of harvesting flax was done well into the early 19th century when industrial machines took on part of the work.

Lin trekke/flax pulling – The harvesting process starts out much differently than for other stemmed plants. The stems are harvested by pulling them out of the soil, roots and all, by hand. Some of the best fibers are contained in the roots and it provides extra length to the bundle. Then the pulled flax is gathered into bundles and stacked to dry in the field.

Harvesting the seeds – the flax plant produces a lovely little seed pocket called a boll.

The seeds were important, so once dried people could walk over the bundles or they could be beaten with a paddle to release the seeds. There was also a special tool like a steel comb that you could run the heads of the stems through that stripped the seed pods from the stems. Flax seed is still used today to add fiber and nutrients to foods. Linseed oil also comes from the seeds. Linseed oil has an industrial use in varnishes and resins. It also can be used as an edible oil and is considered a delicacy in some parts of Europe. The seeds are also decorative and are used in dried flower arrangements.

Harvesting the fibers – within each stem there are fiber bundles situated around a center woody core. Within each bundle there are as many as 40 individual fibers. The bundles are held together with pectin so there has to be a process to dissolve the pectin before you separate the bundles for spinning. This process is called retting. The stems in the museum were retted by leaving them in the field for up to 8 weeks so that the rain and dew would dissolve the pectin and wash it away. You could also soak the flax and cover it in mud for several weeks or soak it in stagnant water. These methods turned the stems from the color of straw to a blue-gray. It was quite a process to insure that the stems didn’t completely rot or get bugs. If the conditions weren’t wet enough the flax might have to remain stored over the winter until a wet spring. Once the retting was done, the stems had to be rinsed and dried again.

The next step is called scutching. A handful of stems is held tightly in one hand and then some method is used to break up the stem so the fibers can be exposed. The method demonstrated used a tool made just for this task. The bundle is laid over the wooden rack and a wooden arm came down to force the bundle between the wooden sides. She did this several times down the length of the bundle. This process was repeated many, many times until it got to where she liked what she saw. The lady said you just learn when it is "done enough."

This process breaks up the outer shell and inner wooden core. This leaves a tangled bundle of fibers with pieces of the shell and core. Here is the process.

Here is what the flax looks like after being broken up.

She took the bundle over to a vertical wooden tool where she used the wooden "knife" to scrape the bundle. This removes part of the excess wood and helps to straighten out the linen fibers. She repeated the scutching process again to break up the fibers some more then scraped the bundle again.

Next a heckling comb was used to comb out the little pieces of wood that were left and to straighten out the remaining fibers. This heckling comb is a board with nails driven through it. She had two sizes of combs – one for the more woody bundle and one for the final step. Now the fibers were ready to go to the spinning wheel. The demonstrator wasn’t ready to go to the combing process yet, so a helper showed us how it was done with a small sample.

Here is a short video of the process taken at a reenactment event in the US. The video said the scutching process was a man’s job, but it seemed like it was a woman’s job in Norway.

Once the linen threads have been removed from the stem, cleaned, and straightened out they are ready to be spun into thread. Here is an example of a little bundle that contains over 20 flax threads. They are comparable in size to a piece of human hair.

The spinner wasn’t completely set up, but here is her wheel with some linen thread started.

There was a lady demonstrating bobbin lace (knipleforeningen) using the linen thread.

After seeing this process, we can further appreciate our linen fabric and threads.

The museum also had a stabbur. A stabbur is a storehouse made completely from wooden logs and then placed atop stacked stones. It is built off the ground to keep rodents from gaining entry into the foods. This door had wonderful wrought iron work on it. The doors are very small and you have to bend over to go in and out, unless you are as small as Nordet and Nikolina!


We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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