Flax is a plant that is highly valued for its seeds and fiber. The seeds are edible and can be pressed into oil. The fiber from the flax plant, which is naturally smooth and straight, is used to produce textiles and paper ranging from linen to twine, to teabags!
Flax is one of the oldest crops known to man, having been cultivated since the dawn of civilization. To study the history of flax takes one on a journey from ancient Egypt to the invention of the cotton gin in the United States. In Egypt, mummies were wrapped in cloth made from flax. In ancient Greece, fiber from flax was used to make cloth for ships’ sails, fishing nets, and awnings. Linen, a popular textile made from flax, has been used for centuries to make cloth for clothing, bed coverings, and table coverings.
Harvesting Flax for Seeds
The process of harvesting flax has been recorded over the centuries in hieroglyphics, ancient texts, and art. Flax plants mature into tall, tender stems about three feet high and bloom with a pale blue flower. The fruit is a small, round capsule that contains flax seeds.
Once the flax stems are harvested, they are bundled for drying, at which point the seed capsules are removed and dried. Flax seeds are small, shiny, brown (sometimes golden), and shaped like a teardrop.
Flax seeds are nutritional powerhouses. Packed with healthful natural fats, flax seeds can go rancid over time. The best way to store flax seeds is in a sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer. See my other blog posts for more information about the nutritional benefits of flax seeds and tips for how to add flax to your diet.
Harvesting Flax for Oil
Once harvested, flax seeds may be pressed to produce oil, commonly called linseed oil. Raw, cold-pressed linseed oil is edible and is often used as a nutritional supplement. Once the oil has been pressed from flax seeds, the remaining meal can be used for livestock feed.
Linseed oil also has certain water-repelling properties that make it useful for commercial purposes such as drying oils and varnishes for wood finishing.
Harvesting Flax for Fiber
Once the seed capsules are removed from the flax plant, the long stems go through a process called “retting,” in which the external, woody husks are removed to reveal the tough inner fibers of the plant. These are the fibers used to make textiles.
Once removed from the plant, the fibers are cleaned and refined in a process that prepares them for spinning into thread, which is eventually woven into cloth, which most commonly, is linen.
As you might imagine, harvesting flax for fiber to become cloth is a labor-intensive process. Inventions like the cotton gin, which revolutionized the process of separating cotton fibers from their seeds, made cotton a cheaper and more reliable alternative for making cloth. Regardless, flax is still harvested for use in textiles and high-quality paper products.
Learning more about the history of flax is a great example of why I find food history so fascinating. In the process of writing this post, I came across some interesting resources ranging from local museums to art and poetry. I’ve included some links below if you’d like to read more…
In good health,