Year of Natural Fibers Series – January: Flax

Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle student and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

January 2019 –  FLAX: 

2019 marks a new project here at Awbury Arboretum. We are very excited to announce this year’s theme, Year of Natural Fibers, a twelve-month-long project that will provide the public with an entirely new series of programming and educational resources surrounding natural, fibrous materials. Widely considered to be the oldest form of human industry, natural fibers date back to when agriculture was at the forefront of human progress, before the dawn of major cities. Today, they still shape the way we as a species function. They make up our clothes and linens, offer livelihoods to those who grow them, and are reliable and renewable sources of some of the most common mechanical fibers.

What is a natural fiber you ask? Natural fibers are any raw, hairlike material directly obtainable from an animal, vegetable, or mineral source and convertible into nonwoven fabrics such as felt or paper or, after spinning, yarns or woven cloth. They come in a variety of different types, many of which we will explore over the coming months. Each month, we will introduce a new kind of fiber with a corresponding blog post that will explain just how influential that material has become. While you’re reading about these fabrics, don’t forget to check the Awbury event page, as events will be hosted to help you learn more about how these fibers function in our lives.

Flax field

Flax field

Keeping that blend of history and nature in mind, the natural fiber of January is apropos for our project’s beginnings. Flax (Linum usitatissimum), one of the oldest domesticated crops in what is now modern-day Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, claims the role of the first natural fiber of the year. While many plants of its time were grown for food, flax broke the mold and began being cultivated for its ability to be made into linen. In fact, it was flax that reigned as the most popular kind of linen before cotton cloth was used.

Flax produces linen, a type of fabric that dates back to the most ancient of civilizations. Linen made from flax was used in many necessary items of its day, including clothing such as underwear, tunics, dresses, and kilts. It also served as the material used to craft sails, rope, and wicks for candles. Essentially, this fabric would have been found in every ancient home, and, fast forward to today, linen can be found in many homes now and still is prized for its strong and breathable composition.

Flax flower

Flax flower

But how does flax, a plant grown in fields, evolve into a woven fabric? It starts with the collection flax stalks so they can undergo the process of retting, which means soaking the stalks so they can separate and soften. Then comes the process of crushing and beating the stalks so that they can be teased out further, producing fibers that can be dried, spun into yarn, and then died or left white to be made into linen.

For a visual presentation of how flax goes from plant to linen, check out this YouTube video!


Sources Used:

Lipovitch, David R. “Linen and Flax.” World History Encyclopedia, Alfred J. Andrea, ABC-CLIO, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference, http://dbproxy.lasalle.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abccliow/linen_and_flax/0?institutionId=2839. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.

Ranson, Raven. “Home Processing Cotton and Linen on a Small Scale  .” Bats – Your Most Effective Insect Control (Bugs Forum at Permies), JForum, 2016, permies.com/t/49607/fiber-arts/Home-processing-Cotton-Linen-small.