New Hampshire Glossary: Flax

flaxa plant used to make thread, and (once woven) a cloth called linen.

Example of Flax, photograph copyright Janice W. Brown

In colonial times the New Hampshire colonists mostly used cotton and flax for weaving because the English would not send them sheep or wool. They could get one cotton crop each fall. Flax was harvested in the summer. Women and girls spun wool and flax so that it could be woven into fabric or knitted into socks, hats, scarves, and mittens. They sometimes brought yarn to weavers to have cloth woven and they used the cloth to make clothing and sacks.

The display in the photograph above is located at the Henry Whitfield House in Guilford, CT. The largest item in the photograph is a bundle of dried flax.

Edwin Tunis in his book on Colonial Living (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1957), says of flax, “It took about twenty operations, all laborious, to reduce the plant to a state that would allow its fibers to be spun.”

Example of a ‘hetchel’ used in preparing flax for spinning. Photograph, copyright Janice W. Brown.

One of the earliest steps to preparing flax to be spun into thread, was “pulling” the flax through the teeth of a tool called a “hetchel” (see photograph above).  Once this was done, the “hetcheled flax” resembled human hair (see upper right section of the top photograph). There were different hetchels used depending on the outcome desired. The spacing of the hetchel’s teeth resulted in finer (close together) or  coarser (wider apart) flax fibers. The coarse flax fibers was used to make rope or twine, while finer fibers were woven into clothing, towels and bed linen.

Flax was an important product.  It did not succeed well on “burnt ground,” (which was usually the condition of the land belonging to brand new settlers, who had to burn the trees and brush in order to clear it). Therefore, it was the custom with those who were making new farms to hire it to be grown on the ploughed lands of those already settled. It was harvested by being pulled from the roots and tied in small bundles. Then, after being exposed to the sun for a few days, the bolls were threshed to obtain the seed.  Subsequently it was taken to the field and thinly spread upon the surface of the ground, until the straw became so much rotted as to be easily broken. It was then gathered into bundles again and stored, where it usually remained until the spring of the following year. March was accounted the best month for “getting out the flax.”

It was first “broken,” by being repeatedly beaten in a machine with wooden knives, or teeth, called a “break,” until the straw was reduced to small fragments, leaving its external covering, a strong fiber, uninjured.  It was then “swingled.” This was done by suspending it beside an upright board fixed in a heavy log, and beating it with a large wooden knife, until the greater portion of the shives and coarser fibers was removed. It was then hackled [ or HETCHELED see above], or combed, by being repeatedly drawn through a machine [tool actually] of strong pointed wires attached to a wooden base.  It was sometimes again subjected to a similiar process, a finer instrument being used. What remained was termed flax; that which had been removed by the special processes, tow, of which there were three kinds–fine tow, coarse tow, and wingle tow.  “To get out flax” required a certain degree of skill and practice, and persons who were adepts at the business were accustomed to go from place to place for that purpose.

The manner of spinning flax was peculiar. It was first wound about a distaff made of the terminating twigs of the pine bough, fastened together in such a manner to form a globular framework.  This distaff was attached to a small wheel called a “linen wheel.” This was moved by the foot, the hand being employed in drawing out the flax, and occasionally applying it to the lips for the purpose of moistening it.  Flax-spinning furnished an opportunity for a class of social interviews called “spinning-bees,” when the women of a neighborhood would take their wheels to one house and spend the afternoon in busy labor and talk, permitting the friend whom they visited to have the benefit of the toil. Tow was carded with hand-cards, and spun in a manner similiar to wool. Swingle tow was used in the manufacture of meal-bags and straw-ticks.  Combed tow formed a part of towels, coarse table-covers, and common outer garments.

As you can see, the act of making clothing, especially that of linen, was a complex process.  The “Good Old Days” were busy for our ancestors.


[Also SEE other Glossary words]

Pioneer preparation and spinning of flax and wool (1912)

Note: some of the information above taken from: History of Wolfeborough (New Hampshire) by Benjamin Franklin Parker; Wolfeboro, N.H.: published by the town, 1901, page 536

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