William Atterbury, my namesake was born in England ca 1700-1710, and was a laborer living in London, somewhere in the area of St. James Church and Westminster Abbey. Around the end of 1731, or the beginning of 1732, William went bad, and was nicked stealing five yards of linsey woolsey – a cloth made from linen and wool, and tossed into Newgate prison. On the 31st of January, 1732, William was convicted and sentenced to be transported to the American colonies, where he was to spend seven years as a laborer as part of his sentence.William came out of the affair quite nicely, saving enough to own his own plantation in Maryland, before moving on to Virginia, and fathering at least nine sons.
So in a certain felonious sense, I have linen in my blood.
I have other lines running through my ancestry coming from Northern Ireland, where the national symbol is the flax plant, from which linen is made. Though it’s out of practicality rather than heritage, my favorite fabric is linen, for as I’m now stuck in the midwest where heat and humidity forces the decision to dress for fashion or dress for the weather. I choose to be wrinkly as I choose linen.
Coincidently, of all the photos I’ve taken, the one above is likely my favorite, being a portrait of a young lady giving a demonstration in the production of Flax at Philipsburg Manor, in Sleepy Hollow, New York. At Philipsburg Manor, you can develop a pretty thorough understanding of the process, from growing to spinning. But what I like most about the photograph is the timeless nature of the lady. It could be in colonial America, or Europe in the Middle Ages. Such is the history of flax.
Spun flax has been found dating to around 30,000 B.C. in the Republic of Georgia. It was big in ancient Egypt, Ethiopia, perfected some would say (the Irish) in Ireland, and brought to the American colonies by investors looking for a cash crop in the new world. But in that capacity it was a failure. In short, it’s too much work, as is much of cloth production. The large scale production of cloth fibers, was prior to the late nineteenth century, heavily dependent on cheap labor. Which quite often meant slave labor.
The settlers in Jamestown, Virginia were promoting the idea of flax as a cash crop as early as 1619, and the Puritans had a similar notion when they arrived in Massachusetts in 1620. Though it never caught on as a cash crop, the role of flax in the daily life of the colonies was incredibly important. Being able to raise, harvest and produce your own cloth meant you were that much less dependent on England. The less you had to buy, meant you needed less money, and you could do more of your transactions by bartering, which at least early on wasn’t taxed.
Flax is an annual, meaning it has to be planted each year, and grows up to three feet high. The woody stem is the valuable part, which when dried, hollows out and becomes the raw ingredient for linen. Flax has the greatest tensile strength of any of the natural fibers, (aside from ramie), soaks up sweat and then dries quickly, keeping the body cool. In addition, fibers made from flax are up to 20% stronger when wet, and the high wax content provides for great longevity. As well as just looking damned good. It’s not unusual to find beddings and table cloths in continuous use for a century or more, and still in good condition.
That flax grows well in cooler climates, meant that it could be produced in the northern colonies, while the southern turned to cotton, which was more suited to the warmer weather.
The plant was typically in the ground by the end of April and ready for harvest by the end of July or August. Flax stalks are picked by hand, dried, then put under cover. Once the harvest was in for autumn, and your work turned from agriculture to domestic, the seed pods and leaves were removed by rippling, which begins with walloping the stalks against some hard object, and then drawing it through a wooden or iron comb. The stalks were then taken outside and left to rot a bit in the dewy grass, which separated the fibers from the stalk. Cooperation from the weather was essential, as cool, dry weather slowed down this process, known as retting.
When it was uniformly decomposed, the stalks were bound into sheaves and stored in the barn till winter. Dressing came next, which is removing the woody part of the stalk. The stalks were beaten some more, then bent, which broke up the woody bits. It was then stretched out and walloped again, this time with wooden knives, which usually caused the remaining woody stalk pieces, known as shives to fall away. The fibers were then drawn through a range of combs, each finer than the one before, until you had fibers ready for spinning.
Though quite labor-intensive as you can see, costs could be offset by gathering the flax seeds during the process, which could then be sold. How much material a family needed for their own use determined how much of the flax was harvested for fibers, or how much was left to stand longer, which made for more valuable seeds.
Linen could be used for a variety of purposes, including beddings, sacks, rope and of course, sails. Linen was the fabric for warmer weather, while wool was for cooler weather. With a crop of flax and a few sheep, a family could satisfy their need for cloth, and make a bit of profit even.
As time went on, cheaper fabrics became more readily available, so it became less necessary to depend on your own resources for cloth. Much of the work in producing linen was done by the women of the household, unless it was a more prosperous family, in which case it likely would have be handled, as at Philipsburg Manor, by slaves. People tend to think of slavery as a southern abomination, but it’s worth noting that in 1703, 43 percent of New York households owned slaves. Coinciding with the invention of the cotton gin in the south, and cheaper prices on cotton fabrics, more of the northern states started abolishing slavery near the end of the 18th century, following the American Revolution.
Ironically, linen which was once a common fabric for the lower classes, is now one of the more expensive materials, thrown over for disposable clothes meant to be worn for a season or two and then passed off in rummage sales or the local Goodwill. The five yards of fabric stolen by my namesake which brought my family here, was only worth about three shillings. But in countries and regions where old ways still live on, such as rural Ireland, where people value time differently than we do, you still find people with pretty small incomes wearing fine linen, and as they’ve done throughout history, selling the surplus to make ends meet.
Much of the information about flax production was stolen from this article by Old Sturbridge Village. Click to read more.
I enjoyed reading your article. I just found a 188 year old flax towel hidden for several years in a pile at our local historic house museum where I volunteer, so I am trying to do some research on flax production and weaving so we can display the towel which I believe was a “tea towel” used to dry good glass and porcelain. We do know the name of the weaver and the fact that it was woven before 1829. Although the house is in Massachusetts, the towel was woven in Maine in an area with Scots Irish settlement. My ancestry is Scots Irish and in my ancestors 1822 estate inventory a “flax brake” is listed. As yet I have not found too much information to indicate that flax and linen weaving was prevalent in Massachusetts It seems overwhelming to think about producing handwoven linen today because there are so many steps to the process, but my research on the internet suggests there is a small revival of interest. Thanks very much for the information.