Flax
Overview
 
Flax (binomial name: Linum usitatissimum) is a member of the genus Linum
Linum
Linum is a genus of approximately 200 species in the flowering plant family Linaceae, native to temperate and subtropical regions of the world. It includes the Common Flax Linum (flax) is a genus of approximately 200 species in the flowering plant family Linaceae, native to temperate and...

in the family Linaceae
Linaceae
The Linaceae is a family of flowering plants. The family is cosmopolitan, and includes approximately 250 species. There are 14 genera, classified into two subfamilies: Linoideae and Hugonioideae ....

. It is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent
Fertile Crescent
The Fertile Crescent, nicknamed "The Cradle of Civilization" for the fact the first civilizations started there, is a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia. The term was first used by University of Chicago...

. It is known as Λινάρι (Linari) in Hellas, आलस (Aalas) in Nepali
Nepali language
Nepali or Nepalese is a language in the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family.It is the official language and de facto lingua franca of Nepal and is also spoken in Bhutan, parts of India and parts of Myanmar...

, Agasi/Akshi in Kannada
Kannada language
Kannada or , is a language spoken in India predominantly in the state of Karnataka. Kannada, whose native speakers are called Kannadigas and number roughly 50 million, is one of the 30 most spoken languages in the world...

, Aazhi Vidhai in Tamil
Tamil language
Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in the Indian union territory of Pondicherry. Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore...

, जवस (Jawas/Javas) or अळशी (Alashi) in Marathi and अलसी (Alsi) in Hindi, তিসি (Tisi) in Bengali and అవిశలు (avisalu) in Telugu.
Encyclopedia
Flax (binomial name: Linum usitatissimum) is a member of the genus Linum
Linum
Linum is a genus of approximately 200 species in the flowering plant family Linaceae, native to temperate and subtropical regions of the world. It includes the Common Flax Linum (flax) is a genus of approximately 200 species in the flowering plant family Linaceae, native to temperate and...

in the family Linaceae
Linaceae
The Linaceae is a family of flowering plants. The family is cosmopolitan, and includes approximately 250 species. There are 14 genera, classified into two subfamilies: Linoideae and Hugonioideae ....

. It is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent
Fertile Crescent
The Fertile Crescent, nicknamed "The Cradle of Civilization" for the fact the first civilizations started there, is a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia. The term was first used by University of Chicago...

. It is known as Λινάρι (Linari) in Hellas, आलस (Aalas) in Nepali
Nepali language
Nepali or Nepalese is a language in the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family.It is the official language and de facto lingua franca of Nepal and is also spoken in Bhutan, parts of India and parts of Myanmar...

, Agasi/Akshi in Kannada
Kannada language
Kannada or , is a language spoken in India predominantly in the state of Karnataka. Kannada, whose native speakers are called Kannadigas and number roughly 50 million, is one of the 30 most spoken languages in the world...

, Aazhi Vidhai in Tamil
Tamil language
Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in the Indian union territory of Pondicherry. Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore...

, जवस (Jawas/Javas) or अळशी (Alashi) in Marathi and अलसी (Alsi) in Hindi, তিসি (Tisi) in Bengali and అవిశలు (avisalu) in Telugu. Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Ethiopia
Ethiopia
Ethiopia , officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 82 million inhabitants, and the tenth-largest by area, occupying 1,100,000 km2...

 and ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

. In a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia, dyed flax fibers have been found that date to 30,000 BC. New Zealand flax
New Zealand flax
New Zealand flax describes common New Zealand perennial plants Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum, known by the Māori names harakeke and wharariki respectively...

 is not related to flax but was named after it, as both plants are used to produce fibers.

Description

Flax is an erect annual plant
Annual plant
An annual plant is a plant that usually germinates, flowers, and dies in a year or season. True annuals will only live longer than a year if they are prevented from setting seed...

 growing to 1.2 m (4 ft) tall, with slender stems. The leaves
Leaf
A leaf is an organ of a vascular plant, as defined in botanical terms, and in particular in plant morphology. Foliage is a mass noun that refers to leaves as a feature of plants....

 are glaucous
Glaucous
Glaucous is used to describe the pale grey or bluish-green appearance of the surfaces of some plants, as well as in the names of birds, such as the Glaucous Gull , Glaucous-winged Gull , Glaucous Macaw , and Glaucous...

 green, slender lanceolate, 20–40 mm long and 3 mm broad. The flower
Flower
A flower, sometimes known as a bloom or blossom, is the reproductive structure found in flowering plants . The biological function of a flower is to effect reproduction, usually by providing a mechanism for the union of sperm with eggs...

s are pure pale blue, 15–25 mm diameter, with five petals; they can also be bright red. The fruit
Fruit
In broad terms, a fruit is a structure of a plant that contains its seeds.The term has different meanings dependent on context. In non-technical usage, such as food preparation, fruit normally means the fleshy seed-associated structures of certain plants that are sweet and edible in the raw state,...

 is a round, dry capsule
Capsule (fruit)
In botany a capsule is a type of simple, dry fruit produced by many species of flowering plants. A capsule is a structure composed of two or more carpels that in most cases is dehiscent, i.e. at maturity, it splits apart to release the seeds within. A few capsules are indehiscent, for example...

 5–9 mm diameter, containing several glossy brown seed
Seed
A seed is a small embryonic plant enclosed in a covering called the seed coat, usually with some stored food. It is the product of the ripened ovule of gymnosperm and angiosperm plants which occurs after fertilization and some growth within the mother plant...

s shaped like an apple
Apple
The apple is the pomaceous fruit of the apple tree, species Malus domestica in the rose family . It is one of the most widely cultivated tree fruits, and the most widely known of the many members of genus Malus that are used by humans. Apple grow on small, deciduous trees that blossom in the spring...

 pip, 4–7 mm long.

In addition to referring to the plant itself, the word "flax" may refer to the unspun fibers of the flax plant.

Uses

Flax is grown both for its seed
Seed
A seed is a small embryonic plant enclosed in a covering called the seed coat, usually with some stored food. It is the product of the ripened ovule of gymnosperm and angiosperm plants which occurs after fertilization and some growth within the mother plant...

s and for its fibers. Various parts of the plant have been used to make fabric, dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets, hair gels, and soap. Flax seed is the source of linseed oil
Linseed oil
Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil, is a clear to yellowish oil obtained from the dried ripe seeds of the flax plant . The oil is obtained by cold pressing, sometimes followed by solvent extraction...

, which has uses as an edible oil, as a nutritional supplement and as an ingredient in many wood finishing products. It is also grown as an ornamental plant
Ornamental plant
Ornamental plants are plants that are grown for decorative purposes in gardens and landscape design projects, as house plants, for cut flowers and specimen display...

 in garden
Garden
A garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature. The garden can incorporate both natural and man-made materials. The most common form today is known as a residential garden, but the term garden has...

s.

Flax seed

Flax seeds come in two basic varieties: (1) brown; and (2) yellow or golden. Most types have similar nutritional characteristics and equal numbers of short-chain omega-3 fatty acid
Omega-3 fatty acid
N−3 fatty acids are essential unsaturated fatty acids with a double bond starting after the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain....

s. The exception is a type of yellow flax called solin (trade name Linola
Linola
Linola is the trademark name of solin, a mutant strain of flax developed in the early 1990s by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation...

), which has a completely different oil profile and is very low in omega-3 FAs. Although brown flax can be consumed as readily as yellow, and has been for thousands of years, it is better known as an ingredient in paints, fiber and cattle feed. Flax seeds produce a vegetable oil known as flaxseed or linseed oil
Linseed oil
Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil, is a clear to yellowish oil obtained from the dried ripe seeds of the flax plant . The oil is obtained by cold pressing, sometimes followed by solvent extraction...

, which is one of the oldest commercial oils, and solvent-processed flax seed oil has been used for centuries as a drying oil
Drying oil
A drying oil is an oil that hardens to a tough, solid film after a period of exposure to air. The oil hardens through a chemical reaction in which the components crosslink by the action of oxygen . Drying oils are a key component of oil paint and some varnishes...

 in painting and varnishing.

One hundred grams of ground flax seed supplies about 450 kilocalories, 41 grams of fat, 28 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of protein.

Flax seed sprouts
Sprouting
Sprouting is the practice of germinating seeds to be eaten either raw or cooked.They are a convenient way to have fresh vegetables for salads, or otherwise, in any season and can be germinated at home or produced industrially...

 are edible, with a slightly spicy flavor. Excessive consumption of flax seeds with inadequate water can cause bowel obstruction. Flaxseed is called 'Tisi' in northern India, particularly in the Bihar region. Roasted 'Tisi' is powdered and eaten with boiled rice, a little water, and a little salt since ancient times in the villages.

Whole flax seeds are chemically stable. Ground flaxseed can go rancid at room temperature in as little as one week.

Even after storage under conditions similar to those found in commercial bakeries, trained sensory panelists could not detect differences between bread made with freshly ground flax and bread made with ground flax stored for four months at room temperature. Ground flax is remarkably stable to oxidation when stored for nine months at room temperature and for 20 months at ambient temperatures under warehouse conditions. Refrigeration and storage in sealed containers will keep ground flax from becoming rancid for a longer period.

Nutrients and clinical research

Flax seeds contain high levels of dietary fiber
Dietary fiber
Dietary fiber, dietary fibre, or sometimes roughage is the indigestible portion of plant foods having two main components:* soluble fiber that is readily fermented in the colon into gases and physiologically active byproducts, and* insoluble fiber that is metabolically inert, absorbing water as it...

 as well as lignan
Lignan
The lignans are a group of chemical compounds found in plants. Lignans are one of the major classes of phytoestrogens, which are estrogen-like chemicals and also act as antioxidants. The other classes of phytoestrogens are the isoflavones and coumestans...

s, an abundance of micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids (table). Flax seeds may lower cholesterol levels, especially in women. Initial studies suggest that flax seeds taken in the diet may benefit individuals with certain types of breast
Breast cancer
Breast cancer is cancer originating from breast tissue, most commonly from the inner lining of milk ducts or the lobules that supply the ducts with milk. Cancers originating from ducts are known as ductal carcinomas; those originating from lobules are known as lobular carcinomas...

 and prostate cancer
Prostate cancer
Prostate cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the prostate, a gland in the male reproductive system. Most prostate cancers are slow growing; however, there are cases of aggressive prostate cancers. The cancer cells may metastasize from the prostate to other parts of the body, particularly...

s. A study done at Duke university suggests that flaxseed may stunt the growth of prostate tumors, although a meta-analysis found the evidence on this point to be inconclusive. Flax may also lessen the severity of diabetes by stabilizing blood-sugar levels. There is some support for the use of flax seed as a laxative
Laxative
Laxatives are foods, compounds, or drugs taken to induce bowel movements or to loosen the stool, most often taken to treat constipation. Certain stimulant, lubricant, and saline laxatives are used to evacuate the colon for rectal and/or bowel examinations, and may be supplemented by enemas under...

 due to its dietary fiber content though excessive consumption without liquid can result in intestinal blockage. Consuming large amounts of flax seed may impair the effectiveness of certain oral medications, due to its fiber content, and may have adverse effects due to its content of neurotoxic cyanogen glycosides and immunosuppressive cyclic nonapeptides.

One of the main components of flax is lignan
Lignan
The lignans are a group of chemical compounds found in plants. Lignans are one of the major classes of phytoestrogens, which are estrogen-like chemicals and also act as antioxidants. The other classes of phytoestrogens are the isoflavones and coumestans...

, which has plant estrogen as well as antioxidants (flax contains up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods contain)

Flax fibers

Flax fibers are amongst the oldest fiber crop
Fiber crop
Fiber crops are field crops grown for their fibers, which are traditionally used to make paper, cloth, or rope. The fibers may be chemically modified, like in viscose or cellophane...

s in the world. The use of flax for the production of linen
Linen
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather....

 goes back at least to ancient Egyptian times. Dyed flax fibers found in a cave in Dzudzuana (prehistoric Georgia
Prehistoric Georgia
The prehistory of Georgia is the period between the first human habitation of the territory of modern-day nation of Georgia and the time when Assyrian and Urartian, and more firmly, the Classical accounts, brought the proto-Georgian tribes into the scope of recorded history.-Paleolithic:Humans have...

) have been dated to 30,000 years ago. Pictures on tombs and temple walls at Thebes
Thebes, Egypt
Thebes is the Greek name for a city in Ancient Egypt located about 800 km south of the Mediterranean, on the east bank of the river Nile within the modern city of Luxor. The Theban Necropolis is situated nearby on the west bank of the Nile.-History:...

 depict flowering flax plants. The use of flax fiber in the manufacturing of cloth in northern Europe dates back to Neolithic
Neolithic
The Neolithic Age, Era, or Period, or New Stone Age, was a period in the development of human technology, beginning about 9500 BC in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world. It is traditionally considered as the last part of the Stone Age...

 times. In North America, flax was introduced by the Puritans. Currently most flax produced in the USA and Canada are seed flax types for the production of linseed oil or flax seeds for human nutrition.

Flax fiber is extracted from the bast or skin of the stem of the flax plant. Flax fiber is soft, lustrous and flexible; bundles of fiber have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description "flaxen". It is stronger than cotton
Cotton
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....

 fiber but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damask
Damask
Damask is a reversible figured fabric of silk, wool, linen, cotton, or synthetic fibers, with a pattern formed by weaving. Damasks are woven with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced or sateen weave...

s, lace
Lace
Lace is an openwork fabric, patterned with open holes in the work, made by machine or by hand. The holes can be formed via removal of threads or cloth from a previously woven fabric, but more often open spaces are created as part of the lace fabric. Lace-making is an ancient craft. True lace was...

 and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine
Twine
Twine is a light string or strong thread composed of two or more smaller strands or yarns twisted together. More generally, the term can be applied to any thin cord....

 and rope
Rope
A rope is a length of fibres, twisted or braided together to improve strength for pulling and connecting. It has tensile strength but is too flexible to provide compressive strength...

. Flax fiber is also a raw material for the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknote
Banknote
A banknote is a kind of negotiable instrument, a promissory note made by a bank payable to the bearer on demand, used as money, and in many jurisdictions is legal tender. In addition to coins, banknotes make up the cash or bearer forms of all modern fiat money...

s and rolling paper for cigarette
Cigarette
A cigarette is a small roll of finely cut tobacco leaves wrapped in a cylinder of thin paper for smoking. The cigarette is ignited at one end and allowed to smoulder; its smoke is inhaled from the other end, which is held in or to the mouth and in some cases a cigarette holder may be used as well...

s and tea bags. Flax mill
Flax mill
Flax mills are mills concerned with the manufacture of flax. The earliest mills were ones for spinning yarn for the linen industry.John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse , both of Darlington developed the process from Richard Arkwright's water frame, and patented it in 1787...

s for spinning flaxen yarn
Yarn
Yarn is a long continuous length of interlocked fibres, suitable for use in the production of textiles, sewing, crocheting, knitting, weaving, embroidery and ropemaking. Thread is a type of yarn intended for sewing by hand or machine. Modern manufactured sewing threads may be finished with wax or...

 were invented by John Kendrew
John Kendrew (inventor)
John Kendrew was a Darlington optician who invented the process of the mechanical spinning of flaxen yarn in a flax mill. He had a mill for grinding glass at Low Mill at Darlington on the River Skerne. He arranged for Thomas Porthouse, who as a clockmaker was more mechanically skilled, to build...

 and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington
Darlington
Darlington is a market town in the Borough of Darlington, part of the ceremonial county of County Durham, England. It lies on the small River Skerne, a tributary of the River Tees, not far from the main river. It is the main population centre in the borough, with a population of 97,838 as of 2001...

 in 1787. New methods of processing flax and the rising price of cotton have led to renewed interest in the use of flax as an industrial fiber. Naturally Advanced
Naturally Advanced
Naturally Advanced Technologies is a Vancouver, BC-based cleantech company focused on providing textile, composite and pulping solutions, through the processing of industrial hemp, and other bast fibers...

's Crailar technology is one proprietary method that is increasing the industrial adoption of this plant.

Cultivation

The significant linseed producing countries are Canada
Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 (~34%) and China
China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 (~25.5%), though there is also production in India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 (~9%), USA (~8%), Ethiopia
Ethiopia
Ethiopia , officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 82 million inhabitants, and the tenth-largest by area, occupying 1,100,000 km2...

 (~3.5%) and throughout Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

. Almost all of the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 crop is from the states of North Dakota
North Dakota
North Dakota is a state located in the Midwestern region of the United States of America, along the Canadian border. The state is bordered by Canada to the north, Minnesota to the east, South Dakota to the south and Montana to the west. North Dakota is the 19th-largest state by area in the U.S....

, South Dakota
South Dakota
South Dakota is a state located in the Midwestern region of the United States. It is named after the Lakota and Dakota Sioux American Indian tribes. Once a part of Dakota Territory, South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. The state has an area of and an estimated population of just over...

, Minnesota
Minnesota
Minnesota is a U.S. state located in the Midwestern United States. The twelfth largest state of the U.S., it is the twenty-first most populous, with 5.3 million residents. Minnesota was carved out of the eastern half of the Minnesota Territory and admitted to the Union as the thirty-second state...

, and Montana
Montana
Montana is a state in the Western United States. The western third of Montana contains numerous mountain ranges. Smaller, "island ranges" are found in the central third of the state, for a total of 77 named ranges of the Rocky Mountains. This geographical fact is reflected in the state's name,...

.

The soil
Soil
Soil is a natural body consisting of layers of mineral constituents of variable thicknesses, which differ from the parent materials in their morphological, physical, chemical, and mineralogical characteristics...

s most suitable for flax, besides the alluvial kind, are deep loam
Loam
Loam is soil composed of sand, silt, and clay in relatively even concentration . Loam soils generally contain more nutrients and humus than sandy soils, have better infiltration and drainage than silty soils, and are easier to till than clay soils...

s, and containing a large proportion of organic matter
Organic matter
Organic matter is matter that has come from a once-living organism; is capable of decay, or the product of decay; or is composed of organic compounds...

. Heavy clay
Clay
Clay is a general term including many combinations of one or more clay minerals with traces of metal oxides and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure.- Formation :Clay minerals...

s are unsuitable, as are soils of a gravel
Gravel
Gravel is composed of unconsolidated rock fragments that have a general particle size range and include size classes from granule- to boulder-sized fragments. Gravel can be sub-categorized into granule and cobble...

ly or dry sand
Sand
Sand is a naturally occurring granular material composed of finely divided rock and mineral particles.The composition of sand is highly variable, depending on the local rock sources and conditions, but the most common constituent of sand in inland continental settings and non-tropical coastal...

y nature. Farming flax requires few fertilizer
Fertilizer
Fertilizer is any organic or inorganic material of natural or synthetic origin that is added to a soil to supply one or more plant nutrients essential to the growth of plants. A recent assessment found that about 40 to 60% of crop yields are attributable to commercial fertilizer use...

s or pesticide
Pesticide
Pesticides are substances or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest.A pesticide may be a chemical unicycle, biological agent , antimicrobial, disinfectant or device used against any pest...

s. Within 8 weeks of sowing, the plant will reach 10–15 cm in height, and will grow several centimeters per day under its optimal growth conditions, reaching 70–80 cm within fifteen days.
Top ten linseed producers — 2007
Country Production (metric tons) Footnote
633,500
480,000 *
167,000
149,963
67,000 *
50,000 F
47,490
45,000 *
41,000 F
34,000
World 1,875,018 A
No symbol = official figure, P = official figure, F = FAO estimate, * = Unofficial/Semi-official/mirror data, C = Calculated figure A = Aggregate (may include official, semi-official or estimates)


Maturation

Flax is harvested for fiber production after approximately 100 days, or a month after the plant flowers and two weeks after the seed capsules form. The base of the plant will begin to turn yellow. If the plant is still green the seed will not be useful, and the fiber will be underdeveloped. The fiber degrades once the plant is brown.

Harvesting methods

There are two ways to harvest flax, one involving mechanized equipment (combines), and a second method, more manual and targeted towards maximizing the fiber length.

Mechanical

The mature plant is cut with mowing equipment, similar to hay harvesting, and raked into windrows. When dried sufficiently, a combine then harvests the seeds similar to wheat or oat harvesting. The amount of weeds in the straw affects its marketability, and this coupled with market prices determined whether the farmer chose to harvest the flax straw. If the flax was not harvested, it was typically burned, since the straw stalk is quite tough and decomposes slowly (i.e., not in a single season), and still being somewhat in a windrow from the harvesting process, the straw would often clog up tillage and planting equipment. It was common, in the flax growing regions of western Minnesota, to see the harvested flax straw (square) bale stacks start appearing every July, the size of some stacks being estimated at 10-15 yards wide by 50 or more yards long, and as tall as a two-story house.

Manual

The mature plant is pulled up with the roots (not cut), so as to maximize the fiber length. After this, the flax is allowed to dry, the seeds are removed, and is then retted
Retting
Retting is a process employing the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles, and so facilitating separation of the fibre from the stem...

. Dependent upon climatic conditions, characteristics of the sown flax and fields, the flax remains on the ground between two weeks and two months for retting. As a result of alternating rain and the sun, an enzymatic action degrades the pectins which bind fibers to the straw. The farmers turn over the straw during retting to evenly rett the stalks. When the straw is retted and sufficiently dry, it is rolled up. It will then be stored by farmers before scutching to extract fibers.

Flax grown for seed is allowed to mature until the seed capsules are yellow and just starting to split; it is then harvested by combine harvester
Combine harvester
The combine harvester, or simply combine, is a machine that harvests grain crops. The name derives from the fact that it combines three separate operations, reaping, threshing, and winnowing, into a single process. Among the crops harvested with a combine are wheat, oats, rye, barley, corn ,...

 and dried to extract the seed.

Threshing flax

Threshing is the process of removing the seeds from the rest of the plant. As noted above in the Mechanical section, the threshing could be done in the field by a machine, or in another process, a description of which follows:

The process is divided into two parts: the first part is intended for the farmer, or flax-grower, to bring the flax into a fit state for general or common purposes. This is performed by three machines: one for threshing out the seed, one for breaking and separating the straw (stem) from the fiber, and one for further separating the broken straw and matter from the fiber. In some cases the farmers thrash out the seed in their own mill and therefore, in such cases, the first machine will be unnecessary.

The second part of the process is intended for the manufacturer to bring the flax into a state for the very finest purposes, such as lace
Lace
Lace is an openwork fabric, patterned with open holes in the work, made by machine or by hand. The holes can be formed via removal of threads or cloth from a previously woven fabric, but more often open spaces are created as part of the lace fabric. Lace-making is an ancient craft. True lace was...

, cambric
Cambric
Cambric, pronounced , "one of the finest and most dense species of the cloth manufacture", is a lightweight plain weave cloth, originally from Cambrai, woven in greige, then bleached and piece-dyed, often glazed or calendered. Initially made from flax, then cotton in the 19th century, it is also...

, damask
Damask
Damask is a reversible figured fabric of silk, wool, linen, cotton, or synthetic fibers, with a pattern formed by weaving. Damasks are woven with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced or sateen weave...

, and very fine linen
Linen
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather....

. This second part is performed by the refining machine only.

The threshing process would be conducted as follows:
  • Take the flax in small bundles, as it comes from the field or stack, and holding it in the left hand, put the seed end between the threshing machine
    Threshing machine
    The thrashing machine, or, in modern spelling, threshing machine , was a machine first invented by Scottish mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle for use in agriculture. It was invented for the separation of grain from stalks and husks. For thousands of years, grain was separated by hand with flails,...

     and the bed or block against which the machine is to strike; then take the handle of the machine in the right hand, and move the machine backward and forward, to strike on the flax, until the seed is all threshed out.
  • Take the flax in small handfuls in the left hand, spread it flat between the third and little finger, with the seed end downwards, and the root-end above, as near the hand as possible.
  • Put the handful between the beater of the breaking machine, and beat it gently till the three or four inches, which have been under the operation of the machine, appear to be soft.
  • Remove the flax a little higher in the hand, so as to let the soft part of the flax rest upon the little finger, and continue to beat it till all is soft, and the wood is separated from the fiber, keeping the left hand close to the block and the flax as flat upon the block as possible.
  • The other end of the flax is then to be turned, and the end which has been beaten is to be wrapped round the little finger, the root end flat, and beaten in the machine till the wood is separated, exactly in the same way as the other end was beaten.

Preparation for spinning

Before the flax fibers can be spun into linen, they must be separated from the rest of the stalk. The first step in this process is called retting
Retting
Retting is a process employing the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles, and so facilitating separation of the fibre from the stem...

. Retting is the process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer fibers intact. At this point there is still straw, or coarse fibers, remaining. To remove these the flax is "broken," the straw is broken up into small, short bits, while the actual fiber is left unharmed, then "scutched," where the straw is scraped away from the fiber, and then pulled through "hackles," which act like combs and comb the straw out of the fiber.

Retting flax

There are several methods of retting flax. It can be retted in a pond, stream, field or a tank. When the retting is complete the bundles of flax feel soft and slimy, and quite a few fibers are standing out from the stalks. When wrapped around a finger the inner woody part springs away from the fibers.

Pond retting is the fastest. It consists of placing the flax in a pool of water which will not evaporate. It generally takes place in a shallow pool which will warm up dramatically in the sun; the process may take from only a couple days to a couple weeks. Pond retted flax is traditionally considered lower quality, possibly because the product can become dirty, and easily over-retts, damaging the fiber. This form of retting also produces quite an odor.

Stream retting is similar to pool retting, but the flax is submerged in bundles in a stream or river. This generally takes longer than pond retting, normally by two or three weeks, but the end product is less likely to be dirty, does not smell as bad and, because the water is cooler, it is less likely to be over-retted.

Both Pond and Stream retting were traditionally used less because they pollute the waters used for the process.

Field retting is laying the flax out in a large field, and allowing dew to collect on it. This process normally takes a month or more, but is generally considered to provide the highest quality flax fibers, and produces the least pollution.

Retting can also be done in a plastic trash can or any type of water tight container of wood
Wood
Wood is a hard, fibrous tissue found in many trees. It has been used for hundreds of thousands of years for both fuel and as a construction material. It is an organic material, a natural composite of cellulose fibers embedded in a matrix of lignin which resists compression...

, concrete
Concrete
Concrete is a composite construction material, composed of cement and other cementitious materials such as fly ash and slag cement, aggregate , water and chemical admixtures.The word concrete comes from the Latin word...

, earthenware
Earthenware
Earthenware is a common ceramic material, which is used extensively for pottery tableware and decorative objects.-Types of earthenware:Although body formulations vary between countries and even between individual makers, a generic composition is 25% ball clay, 28% kaolin, 32% quartz, and 15%...

 or plastic
Plastic
A plastic material is any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids used in the manufacture of industrial products. Plastics are typically polymers of high molecular mass, and may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce production costs...

. Metal containers will not work, as an acid
Acid
An acid is a substance which reacts with a base. Commonly, acids can be identified as tasting sour, reacting with metals such as calcium, and bases like sodium carbonate. Aqueous acids have a pH of less than 7, where an acid of lower pH is typically stronger, and turn blue litmus paper red...

 is produced when retting, and it would corrode the metal. If the water temperature is kept at 80°F, the retting process under these conditions takes 4 or 5 days. If the water is any colder then it takes longer. Scum will collect at the top and an odor is given off the same as in pond retting. Currently 'enzymatic' retting of flax is being researched as a retting technique to engineer fibers with specific properties (Foulk Akin Dodd (2008). “Pectinolytic enzymes and retting,” BioResources 3(1), 155-169) (Foulk Akin Dodd (2001) "Processing techniques for improving enzyme-retting of flax," Industrial Crops and Products 13 (2001) 239–248).

Dressing the flax

Dressing the flax is the term given to removing the straw from the fibers. Dressing consists of three steps: breaking, scutching, and heckling. The breaking breaks up the straw, then some of the straw is scraped from the fibers in the scutching process, then the fiber is pulled through heckles to remove the last bits of straw.

The dressing is done as follows:
Breaking: The process of breaking breaks up the straw into short segments. To do it, take the bundles of flax and untie them. Next, in small handfuls, put it between the beater of the breaking machine (a set of wooden blades that mesh together when the upper jaw is lowered, which look like a paper cutter but instead of having a big knife it has a blunt arm), and beat it till the three or four inches that have been beaten appear to be soft. Move the flax a little higher and continue to beat it till all is soft, and the wood is separated from the fiber. When half of the flax is broken, hold the beaten end and beat the rest in the same way as the other end was beaten, till the wood is separated.

Scutching
Scutching
Scutching is a step in the dressing of flax in preparation for spinning. The scutching process is the first attempt to remove the straw and woody stem from the flax fibers. The flax fibers that are spun are inside the woody stalk, so to obtain the fibers the stalk must be removed. Scutching can be...

: In order to remove some of the straw
Straw
Straw is an agricultural by-product, the dry stalks of cereal plants, after the grain and chaff have been removed. Straw makes up about half of the yield of cereal crops such as barley, oats, rice, rye and wheat. It has many uses, including fuel, livestock bedding and fodder, thatching and...

 from the fiber, it helps to swing a wooden scutching knife down the fibers while they hang vertically, thus scraping the edge of the knife along the fibers and pull away pieces of the stalk. Some of the fiber will also be scutched away, this cannot be helped and is a normal part of the process.

Heckling
Heckling (flax)
Heckling splits and straightens the flax fibers, as well as removing the fibrous core and impurities from flax. Heckling is done with heckling combs by pulling the flax through the combs. This parts the locked fibers and makes them straight, clean, and ready to spin. After heckling, the flax is...

: In this process the fiber is pulled through various different sized heckling comb
Heckling comb
Heckling combs are used to remove the fibrous core and impurities from flax. A heckling comb, or heckle is a bed of iron, steel or brass "nails"- sharp, long, tapered, tempered, polished pins driven into wooden blocks at regular spacing. In the heckling process the flax is drawn through the nails,...

s or heckles. A heckle is a bed of "nails" - sharp, long-tapered, tempered, polished steel pins driven into wooden blocks at regular spacing. A good progression is from 4 pins per square inch, to 12, to 25 to 48 to 80. The first three will remove the straw, and the last two will split and polish the fibers. Some of the finer stuff that comes off in the last hackles is called "tow" and can be carded
Carding
Carding is a mechanical process that breaks up locks and unorganised clumps of fibre and then aligns the individual fibres so that they are more or less parallel with each other. The word is derived from the Latin carduus meaning teasel, as dried vegetable teasels were first used to comb the raw wool...

 like wool and spun
Spinning (textiles)
Spinning is a major industry. It is part of the textile manufacturing process where three types of fibre are converted into yarn, then fabric, then textiles. The textiles are then fabricated into clothes or other artifacts. There are three industrial processes available to spin yarn, and a...

. It will produce a coarser yarn than the fibers pulled through the heckles because it will still have some straw in it.

Genetically modified flax contamination

In September 2009 it was reported that Canadian flax exports had been contaminated by a de-registered genetically modified (GM) variety, known as Triffid. Triffid had food and feed safety approval in both Canada and the U.S. However, Canadian growers and the Flax Council of Canada had raised concerns about the marketability of this variety in Europe. The variety was subsequently de-registered in 2001 and never grown commercially in Canada or the U.S. All stores of the seed were purportedly crushed or destroyed. Despite these precautions flax exports were found to contain traces of this transgenic flax variety which resulted in problems for Canada's flax growers and the industry at large, who export 70% of their product to Europe. The EU currently has a zero tolerance
Zero tolerance
Zero tolerance imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are...

 policy regarding GMO
Genetically modified organism
A genetically modified organism or genetically engineered organism is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one...

s.

As a symbolic image

Flax is the emblem of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is one of the four countries of the United Kingdom. Situated in the north-east of the island of Ireland, it shares a border with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west...

 and used by the Northern Ireland Assembly
Northern Ireland Assembly
The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas that are not explicitly reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive...

. In a coronet, it appeared on the reverse of the British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 one pound coin
British One Pound coin
The circulating British one pound coin is minted from a nickel-brass alloy of approximately 70% copper, 24.5% zinc, and 5.5% nickel. The coin weighs 9.50 grams and has a diameter of 22.50 millimetres...

 to represent Northern Ireland on coins minted in 1986 and 1991. Flax also represents Northern Ireland on the badge of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the supreme court in all matters under English law, Northern Ireland law and Scottish civil law. It is the court of last resort and highest appellate court in the United Kingdom; however the High Court of Justiciary remains the supreme court for criminal...

 and on various logos associated with it.

Common flax is the national flower of Belarus
Belarus
Belarus , officially the Republic of Belarus, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered clockwise by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk; other major cities include Brest, Grodno , Gomel ,...

.

In early tellings of the Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault or Little Briar Rose by the Brothers Grimm is a classic fairytale involving a beautiful princess, enchantment, and a handsome prince...

 tale, such as Sun, Moon, and Talia
Sun, Moon, and Talia
Sun, Moon, and Talia is an Italian literary fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone...

 by Giambattista Basile, the princess pricks her finger not on a spindle but on a sliver of flax, which is later sucked out by her children conceived as she sleeps.

See also

  • Herbalism
    Herbalism
    Herbalism is a traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, herblore, and phytotherapy...

  • International Year of Natural Fibres
    International Year of Natural Fibres
    The United Nations General Assembly declared 2009 as the International Year of Natural Fibres, as well as the International Year of Astronomy.The proposal for this international year originated in FAO at a joint meeting of the Intergovernmental Group on Hard Fibres and the Intergovernmental Group...

     2009
  • Irish linen
    Irish linen
    Irish linen is the brand name given to linen produced in Ireland. Linen is cloth woven from, or yarn spun from the flax fibre, which was grown in Ireland for many years before advanced agricultural methods and more suitable climate led to the concentration of quality flax cultivation in northern...

  • Linen clothes
    Linen clothes
    Linen clothes are well received because of the comfort they provide. But apart from this, linen clothes also have other benefits as opposed to other clothes made from a different material. Linen clothes are known to attract less lint, thus making it more lint free than other fabrics...

  • Linseed oil
    Linseed oil
    Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil, is a clear to yellowish oil obtained from the dried ripe seeds of the flax plant . The oil is obtained by cold pressing, sometimes followed by solvent extraction...


  • Naturopathic medicine
    Naturopathic medicine
    Naturopathy, or Naturopathic Medicine, is a form of alternative medicine based on a belief in vitalism, which posits that a special energy called vital energy or vital force guides bodily processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and adaptation...

  • Nutrition
    Nutrition
    Nutrition is the provision, to cells and organisms, of the materials necessary to support life. Many common health problems can be prevented or alleviated with a healthy diet....

  • Phytonutrients
    Phytochemical
    Phytochemicals are biologically active chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants . Phytochemicals are the molecules responsible for the color and organoleptic properties . For example, the deep purple color of blueberries and the smell of garlic...

  • Thomas Ferguson & Co Ltd
    Thomas Ferguson & Co Ltd
    Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen is the last remaining of the old established Irish linen Jacquard weavers in Ireland. Situated in Banbridge, Northern Ireland it has been weaving since 1854. The Company, bears the name of its founder, Thomas Ferguson , who was born at Clare, near the village of...


External links

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