Rumpelstiltskin turned animal bedding into precious metal; for millennia people spun straw into gold when they made linen from flax. Linen is durable and moth-proof, soft and smooth enough to wear comfortably next to the skin, tough enough to make into sails or rope. Until 1780, when Richard Arkwright's spinning machine made a strong, smooth cotton thread possible, linen was the queen of plant fibers.
The Egyptians considered linen the gift of Isis, ritually pure, and used only linen for mummy wrappings. To the Hebrews, fine linen was the fabric of the wealthy. The Phoenicians used tightly woven linen garments for armor. Even in eighteenth-century Russia, transit duty on goods could be paid in linen shirts. What made this fabric so prized?
To spin wool, shear the sheep, then wash the fleece, tease the locks open and card or comb the fleece. If the fleece is very clean and loose it can often be spun straight from the sheep with only a light teasing preparation.
Linen is made from the stem fibers of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum). Plants bred specifically for fiber have straight single stems, 24" to 36" tall, branching only at the seed-head.
Linen production, now largely mechanized, was historically slow and laborious.
Just before the seeds ripen, the plants were pulled up by the root, tied into bundles and set to dry in an airy place. Ripening, and therefore pulling, could take several weeks. After pulling, the stalks were "rippled" – dragged through a comb – to remove the seed heads.
Once the whole crop was harvested, the stalks were retted in stagnant ponds, or sometimes "dew-retted" on grass. To ret means to cause to rot; retting promotes bacterial action that breaks down the pith and straw around the fibers. It's a smelly process and must be watched closely; too much spoils the fiber, but too little makes it impossible to carry out the next steps. Pond retting took five to seven days, dew retting three times as long.
After retting, the dried stalks were broken by hammering in a sort of guillotine of interlocking boards. This broke the straw and pith around the fibers. A wooden knife was used to "scutch" the flax, scraping away the broken bits. For both of these processes, the bundle of flax had to be held firmly by the root end to prevent tangles.
The flax was next "hackled," combed through three successively finer sets of teeth. This removed the short fibers and split the long ones down to their finest diameter. Only about half became "line flax," the long fibers, which make a smooth thread and cloth. The remaining short fibers, or "tow," make a coarser, weaker thread and coarser fabric.
The long fibers of line flax couldn't be spun from the hand, as wool (or tow) could. It must be spun from a distaff, either draped over a comb distaff or spread around a conical "lantern" distaff, a process called "dressing.".Dressing involved patiently spreading a bundle of line flax in overlapping fine layers, then rolling it onto the distaff and tying it in place. Only then could the flax be spun into linen.
Wool can go from sheep to thread in a few days; flax takes weeks of work and attention to become linen. At every stage, careless handling can weaken or tangle the fibers and spoil them for becoming the valuable line flax. It's not the gold of the fairy tale, but it's the next best thing – and far more comfortable to wear.
Atton, Mavis. Flax Culture from Flower to Fabric, The Ginger Press, 1988
Baines, Patricia. Linen Handspinning and Weaving, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1989
Elizabeth Creith has been a spinner and weaver for nearly thirty years. She specializes in historical techniques and natural dyes.