Flax to Fibre

Ireland's internationally-renowned textile industry is founded on the production of wool and linen. But while wool enjoys a rich tradition nationwide, the manufacture of linen has long been concentrated in Ulster and, therefore, was not something that I was familiar with growing up. In fact, other than history lessons about the role of linen mills in the industrial revolution, I recently realised that I knew remarkably little about this fascinating fibre. That is, until I stumbled across Newmills Corn & Flax Mill in Donegal - ironically while exploring woollen mills! A signpost enticed us to make a detour to the flax mill, which has been preserved as a national monument to a way of life and an industry that has almost disappeared from Ireland today.

Newmills Corn & Flax Mill

Situated about 7km (4 miles) southwest of Letterkenny, the mill was recorded on a 1693 map of the area and flax has been processed here since at least the early 1800s. The mill complex at Newmills sits on the banks of the River Swilly, where a dam, or caraigh, was constructed to create a pond to feed the mill race.

The original single-storey flax mill was replaced by a more modern building in the 1940s to meet the growing demand for linen during the Second World War, when it was used to cover aircraft wings and fuselages as well as for making hammocks, tents, and parachutes. 

Newmills is unusual for the fact that there are two mills at the location, one for corn and one for flax. Such double mills are found mostly in Ulster and are an indication of the importance of flax to the local farming economy. This in turn meant that the fortunes of the community were inextricably linked to the fluctuations of the marketplace: in the 18th century, linen was so valuable that its theft was punishable by death, but by the 1950s flax was no longer a financially viable crop. Accordingly, Newmills ceased operation in 1955.

Flax

I had always assumed that linen was manufactured in the same was as cotton, from a fluffy seed head. However, the fibres are actually extracted from the stem of the flax plant. The stalks have a woody inner core and a straw-like outer lining, with the desired fibres positioned in between. The entire structure is bound together with pectin, a sticky starch better known for its use as a gelling agent in jam-making. This makes extracting the fibres a difficult task.


Field of flax. Image courtesy Betty B. (cropped). Rights reserved.

Flax is sown in spring and is grown densely to encourage long, straight stems. By mid-summer, the plant is about a metre high with pale blue blossoms. The crop is harvested in late August to early September, and it is pulled rather than cut to preserve as much length of stem as possible. This was back-breaking work that would leave the labourers' hands badly cut. The flax would then be tied in bunches called beets and stacked upright to dry in bundles called stooks


Flax Rippling in Ulster. Image via Internet Archive, originally published in Mackinder, Halford John  (1907). ‘Our Own Islands: An Elementary Study in Geography’. London: George Philip & Son, p. 204.

Once dried, the seeds are extracted in a process called rippling. Nowadays, this process has been mechanised, but traditionally it would have involved pulling the flax through a wide-toothed iron comb. Some seed would be set aside for the following year's crop, and the rest could be used as cattle feed or processed to make linseed oil.

Retting

Next came the difficult task of breaking down the pectin that binds the fibres. This is achieved through a process known as retting. A lint dam would be constructed in a local waterway or pond and the beets placed in up to 120cm (4 feet) of water. Over the next 8-14 days, the stems would ferment, thereby degrading the pectin. Unfortunately, this process reduced the flax to a stinking slimey state, making the task of wading into the putrid water to retrieve it particularly unpleasant work - especially in winter if it involved breaking ice first.


Image Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Grassing

Once the beets were recovered from the dam, they were grassed; that is, laid out in the fields to dry. This allowed the flax to cure, further breaking down the bonds between the fibres and the stem. 


Image courtesy of the Linen Hall Library.

Milling

At this stage, the flax was ready to be taken to the mill. Before processing, the bundles were carefully marked because the farmer would be paid at market according to the quality of the fibres, which depended on the growing conditions as well as the way in which it was harvested. The mill could charge the farmer up to £3 per hundredweight (50kg or 110lbs) to scutch the flax which, depending on its quality, could fetch as much as £12 per hundredweight at market. 

Rollers or Breakers

The flax was prepared by opening the beets and thumping them against the floor until the stems were loose and even. Then it was fed through a series of rollers, or breakers, in order to fracture the stems and to shed the brittle outer layer.

The flax was then twisted into handfuls called stricks and dropped through the hatch in the floor to the scutching berths below.

Scutching

Scutching separated the flax fibres from the unwanted parts of the stem by beating it with wooden blades. The extracted fibres would be placed across the nearby wooden rail and the leftover woody parts of the stem, or shoves (pronounced 'shows' in Ulster), were used as heating fuel in the workers' homes. 

Hackling

The flax fibres were then hackled (a kind of combing) to align the strands. This separated the long smooth fibres, referred to as live, from the short coarse fibres, called tow. The miller always kept the tows, which would be sold to produce coarse yarn. 

Working Conditions at the Mill

Workers were paid on a piece work basis according to what they produced. The scutcher, for example, would get paid about a shilling (5 pence) per box of fibre, which would weigh about a stone (14lbs or over 6kg). Typically, that amounted to about £5 per week which, according to the CSO, was about twice the average industrial wage at the time

However, conditions at the mill were unhealthy and dangerous. Scutching was hard work, making hands and wrists tired and sore. The mill was always noisy, and was freezing cold in winter because fires were forbidden due to the dry shoves being such a fire hazard. The dusty environment caused numerous respiratory diseases, and the machinery could amputate fingers or hands in an instant. There were even reports of fatalities caused by injuries sustained from the scutching blades. 

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Flax & Linen

Nowadays, the manufacturing process is entirely mechanised, but very little flax or linen is still produced in Ireland. I consider that a very great pity, especially given that our cool damp climate is ideally suited to the growing of flax and that we have a rich heritage in weaving that is still thriving in the wool industry. With Irish weavers supplying wool tweed to the top to the top fashion houses of the world, I can't help but wonder if there could be an opportunity to do the same with Irish linen.

This post is the first in a series about Irish linen, which will also examine the process of spinning the flax fibre into yarn and the fascinating art of weaving linen damasks. 

Related posts:

Woollen Wedding Anniversary Tour, Part IV: Studio Donegal

Woollen Wedding Anniversary Tour, Part III: McNutt of Donegal

Woollen Wedding Anniversary Tour, Part II: Donegal Tweed

Woollen Wedding Anniversary Tour, Part I: Foxford Woollen Mills

Limerick Lace