Keys to the Past

Glossary

Flax

(Linaceae family, Linum genera)
A plant grown especially to make linen and linseed oil. This grows wild in Britain - but has long been cultivated. The linen is made by removing parts of the plants by retting, (washing in water to break up a binding resin of the plant), in large pools or troughs. Scutching, (the breaking of the woody stems), was then carried out to further release the fibres. The fibres were then removed, spun into lines, the lines joined together to produce linen. It was only in the 18th century that the process became mechanised, since the flax had less strength than woollen fibres. A 9th-12th century hemp-retting pit has been sampled by pollen analysis at Glasson Moss, Cumbria - such ponds would be similar for flax. Possible Medieval usage of flax has been identified from Newcastle's Stockbridge excavations, (Tyne and Wear).
The linseed oil was extracted by crushing the seed of the plants, sometimes before the retting. The oil could be used to produce oilcake for cattle.

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