Flax

What an experience I had in Norway. The country is absolutely breathtaking with the mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. I was fortunate to go on a tour with the Sigdalslag in America group and met a lot of fun people. Most everyone had a family connection to the Sigdal area where we were in for the majority of the trip. I, however, was only able to find a very distant relative who moved out of the region in the 1880’s. Nikolina and Nordet had a great time as well and added much excitement to the trip.

One of the very first experiences we had was at the Norske Folkemuseum in Oslo. 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. The exhibit was fabulous and I wish more of my pictures had turned out but the room was very dark and the items were behind glass. The needlework on many of the blouses was breathtaking.

This museum has salvaged old buildings from around Norway to help portray several centuries of life in Norway. There were re-enactors working in some of the buildings while we were there. This lady was making a lefse and flat bread on the griddle in the open fireplace.

We just missed the sheep shearing. However, around the next set of buildings we came to a very interesting demonstration. I knew that linen came from flax but I had no idea how that happens. I have always thought flax was similar to wheat, but I was wrong. Today I learned the truth about this process! It was certainly a lot of work! Before I share the pictures and information about the process, let’s learn a little bit about flax.

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 which I suspect means rotting in some language. The stems I saw 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. Other methods seemed rather gross to me. You could 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.

I found 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 I got the impression it was a women’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.

This whole process was very interesting to watch. I can’t begin to imagine how much time and effort it took to complete the process clear through to weaving the cloth. I can guarantee that the person had to have a lot of upper body strength!

As we continued around the outdoor portion of the museum Nordet and Nikolina wanted to get their pictures taken on a stabbur, which is a storehouse that is built off the ground to keep rodents from gaining entry into the foods. It is completely made from wooden logs. Then the structure is placed atop stacked stones. 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! They generated a lot of interest whenever they came out for a photo shoot. Many people on our tour had heard of "Flat Stanley" and understood what I was doing. However, I don’t think many Norwegians are familiar with the idea. I got a few strange looks and a lot of giggles whenever they came out.

It is a very small world. As we walked around the outdoor part of the museum, we passed a lady in folk costume that was knitting. She asked us if we were Americans and we said yes. Then she asked where we were from and we said North Dakota and Minnesota. She introduced herself, Wyonne Long, and told us she was originally from Fergus Falls, MN! She moved to Norway 20 years ago. She works part-time at the museum and wasn’t supposed to work that day. But they called her to come in and she said she knew something special was going to happen that day if she came in. It was fun to talk to her. Here I am with Linda (my roommate on this trip) and Wyonne.

We walked at least 4 miles on this day, and it was only first full day in Norway!


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