1902 Encyclopedia > Flax


FLAX. The terms flax or lint (German Flacks, French Lin, Latin Linum) are employed at once to denote the fibre so called, and the plant from which it is prepared. The flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) belongs to the natural order Linacece, and, like most plants which have been long under cultivation, it possesses numerous varieties, while the wild or parent condition is not known. As cultivated it is an annual with an erect stalk rising to a height of from 20 to 40 inches, with alternate, sessile, linear-lanceo-late leaves, branching only at the top into a corymbose panicle of bright blue flowers. The flowers are regular and

FIG. 1. —Flax Plant (Linum usitatissimum).

symmetrical, having five ovate-acute, slightly ciliate sepals, five deciduous petals, and a syncarpous pentacarpellary ovary with five distinct styles. The fruit or boll is round, containing five cells or loculaments, each of which is divided into two by a spurious dorsal dissepiment, thus forming ten divisions, each of which contains a single seed. The seeds, well known as linseed, are flat, oval in form, dark brown in colour, with a smooth shining mucilaginous coat, and fiat oily cotyledons. There are several other species which have been and are cultivated to an inconsider-able extent as sources of fibre, as the Greek or spring flax (L. crepitans), Siberian flax (L. perenne), and the white blossomed or purging flax (L. catharticum), all grown in certain parts of Austria, and the narrow-leaved flax (L. an-gustifolium), which was utilized at a very remote period.

The cultivation and preparation of flax are the most ancient of all textile industries, very distinct traces of their existence during the stone age being preserved to the present day. " The use of flax," says Keller (Lake Dwell-ings of Switzerland, translated by J. E. Lee), " reaches back to the very earliest periods of civilization, and it was most extensively and variously applied in the lake dwell-ings even in those of the stone period. But of the mode in which it was planted, steeped, heckled, cleansed, and generally prepared for use, we can form no idea any more than we can of the mode or tools employed by the settlers
in its cultivation Bough or unworked flax is found in the lake dwellings made into bundles, or what are technically called heads, and, as much attention was given to this last operation, it was perfectly clean and ready for use." As to its applications at this early period, Keller remarks—" Flax was the material for making lines and nets for fishing and catching v/ild animals, cords for carrying the earthenware vessels and other heavy objects; in fact one can hardly imagine how navigation could be carried on, or the lake dwellings themselves be erected, without the use of ropes and cords ; and the erection of memorial stones (menhirs, dolmens) at whichever era, and to what-ever people these monuments may belong, would be altogether impracticable without the use of strong ropes." As to the variety of flax cultivated by the prehistoric races, Dr Heer is of opinion that it was the small-leaved flax (Linum angustifolium), a plant native of the Mediterranean coasts from Greece and Dalmatia to the Pyrenees.

That flax was extensively cultivated and was regarded as of much importance at a very early period in the world's history there is abundant testimony. Especially in ancient Egypt the fibre occupied a most important place, linen having been there not only generally worn by all classes, but it was the only material the priestly order was permitted to wear, while it was most extensively used as wrappings for embalmed bodies aud for general purposes. In the Old Testament we are told that Pharaoh arrayed Joseph " in vestures of fine linen " (Gen. xlii. 42), and among the plagues of Egypt that of hail destroyed the flax and barley crops, " for the barley was in the ear, and the flax was boiled" (Exod. ix. 31). Further, numerous pictorial representations of flax culture and preparation exist to the present day on the walls of tombs and in Egypt. Sir J. G. Wilkinson in his description of ancient Egypt shows clearly the great antiquity of the ordinary processes of preparing flax. " At Beni Hassan," he says, " the mode of cultivating the plant, in the same square beds now met with throughout Egypt (much resembling our salt pans), the process of beating the stalks and making them into ropes, and the manufacture of a piece of cloth are distinctly pointed out." The preparation of the fibre as conducted in Egypt is illustrated by Pliny, who says—"The stalks themselves are immersed in water, warmed by the heat of the sun, and are kept down by weights placed upon them, for nothing is lighter than flax. The membrane, or rind, becoming loose is a sign of their being sufficiently macerated. They are then taken out and repeatedly turned over in the sun until perfectly dried, and afterwards beaten by mallets on stone slabs. That which is nearest the rind is called stiipa ['tow'], inferior to the inner fibres, and fit only for the wicks of lamps. It is combed out with iron hooks until the rind is all removed. The inner part is of a whiter and finer quality. Men are not ashamed to prepare it" (Pliny, N. II., xix. 1). For many ages, even do wn to th e early part of the 14th century, Egyptian fl ax occu-pied the foremost place in the commercial world, being sent into all regions with which open intercourse was maintained. Among Western nations it was, without any competitor, the most important of all vegetable fibres till towards the close of the 18th century, when, after a brief struggle, cotton took its place as the supreme vegetable fibre of commerce.

Flax, as a field crop, having been described under the heading AGRICULTURE (see vol. i. p. 380), it is unnecessary to dwell here on that feature of the subject. When flax is cultivated primarily on account of the fibre, the crop ought to be pulled before the capsules are quite ripe, when they are just beginning to change from a green to a pale brown colour, and when the stalks of the plant have become yellow throughout about two-thirds of their height. The various operations through which the crop passes from this point till flax ready for the market is produced are—(1) pulling, (2) rippling, (3) retting, and (4) scutching.

Pulling and rippling may be dismissed very briefly. Flax is always pulled up by the root, and under no circumstances is it cut or shorn like cereal crops. The pulling ought to be done in dry clear weather; and care is to be taken in this, as in all the subsequent operations, to keep the root-ends even, and the stalks parallel. At the same time it is desirable to have, as far as possible, stalks of equal length together,—all these conditions having considerable influence on the quality and appearance of the finished sample. As a general rule the removal of the "bolls" or capsules by the process of rippling immediately follows the pulling, the operation being performed in the field ; but under some systems of cultivation, as, for example, the Courtrai method, alluded to below, the crop is made up into sheaves, dried, and stacked, and is only boiled and retted in the early part of the next ensuing season. The best rippler, or apparatus for rippling, consists of a kind of comb having, set in a wooden frame, iron teeth made of round-rod iron three-sixteenths of an inch asunder at the bottom, and half an inch at the top, and 18 inches long, to allow a sufficient spring, and save much breaking of flax. The points should begin to taper 3 inches from the top. A sheet or other cover being spread on the field, the apparatus is placed in the middle of it, and two ripplers sitting opposite each other, with the machine between them, work at the same time. It is unadvisable to ripple the flax so severely as to break or tear the delicate fibres at the upper part of the stem. The two valuable commercial products of the flax plant, the seeds and the stalk, are separated at this point. We have here to do with the latter only.

Retting or rotting is an operation of the greatest im-portance, and one in connexion with which in recent years numerous experiments have been made, and many projects and processes put forth, with the view of remedying the defects of the primitive system or altogether supplanting it. From the earliest times two leading processes of retting have been practised, termed respectively water-retting and dew-retting; and as no method has yet been introduced which satisfactorily supersedes these operations, they will first be described.

Water-retting.—For this—the process by which flax is generally prepared—pure soft water, free from iron and other materials which might colour the fibre, is essential. Any water much impregnated with lime is also specially objectionable. The dams or ponds in which the operation is conducted are of variable size, but should be not more than 4 feet in depth. It is calculated that a dam 50 feet long, 9 feet broad, and 4 feet deep is sufficient to ret the produce of an acre of flax. The rippled stalks are tied in small bundles and packed, roots downwards, in the dams till they are quite full; over the top of the upper layer is placed a stratum of rushes and straw, or sods with the grassy side downwards, and above all stones of sufficient weight to keep the flax submerged. Under favourable circum-stances a process of fermentation should immediately be set up, which soon makes itself manifest by the evolution of gaseous bubbles. After a few days the fermentation subsides; and generally in from ten days to two weeks, the process ought to be complete; but everything depends upon the weather ; and as the steeping is a critical opera-tion, it is essential that the stalks be frequently examined and tested as the process nears completion. When it is found that tbe fibre separates readily from the woody " slave " or core, the beets or small bundles are ready for removing from the dams. It is next spread, evenly and equally, over a grassy meadow, where it is left for about a fortnight, at the end of which time the fibres will have partly separated from the core and " bowed." At this point advantage is taken of fine dry weather to gather up the flax, which is now ready for scutching, but the fibre is improved by stooking and stacking it for some time before it is taken to the scutching mill.

Dew-retting is the process by which all the Archangel flax and a large portion of that sent out from St Petersburg are prepared. By this method the operation of steeping is entirely dispensed with, and the flax is, immediately after pulling, spread on the grass where it is under the influence of air, sun-light, night-dews, and rain. The process is tedious, the resulting fibre is brown in colour, and it is said to be peculiarly liable to undergo heating (probably owing to the soft heavy quality of the flax) if exposed to moisture and kept close packed with little access of air. Archangel flax is, however, peculiarly soft and silky in structure, although in all probability water-retting would result in a fibre as good or even better in quality.

The theory of retting, according to the investigations of J. Kolb, is that a peculiar fermentation is set up under the influence of heat and moisture, resulting in a change of the intercellular substance—pectose or an analogue of that body—into pectin and pectic acid. The former, being soluble, is left in the water; but the latter, an insoluble body, is in part attached to the fibres, from which it is only separated by changing into soluble metapectic acid under the action of hot alkaline ley in the subsequent process of bleaching.

To a large extent retting continues to be conducted in the primitive fashions above described, although numerous and persistent attempts have been made to improve upon it, or to avoid the process altogether. The uniform result of all experiments has only been to demonstrate the scien-tific soundness of the ordinary process of water-retting, and all the proposed improvements of recent times seek to obviate the tediousness, difficulties, and uncertainties of the process as carried on in the open air. In the early part of the present century much attention was bestowed, especially in Ireland, on a process invented by Mr James Lee. He proposed to separate the fibre by purely mechanical means without any retting whatever; but after the Irish Linen Board had expended many thousands of pounds and much time in making experiments and in erecting his machinery, his entire scheme ended in complete failure. About the year 1851 Chevalier Claussen sought to revive a process of " cottonizing " flax—a method of proceeding which had been suggested three-quarters of a century earlier. Claussen's process consisted in steeping flax fibre or tow for twenty-four hours in a weak solution of caustic soda, next boiling it for about two hours in a similar solution, and then saturating it in a solution contain-ing 5 per cent, of carbonate of soda, after which it was immersed in a vat containing water acidulated with a half per cent, of sulphuric acid. The action of the acid on the carbonate of soda with which the fibre was impregnated caused the fibre to split up into a fine cotton-like mass, which it was intended to manufacture in the same manner as cotton. A process to turn good flax into bad cotton had however, on the face of it, not muclr to recommend it to public acceptance ; and Claussen's process therefore remains only as an interesting and suggestive experiment.

The only modification of water-retting which has hitherto endured the test of prolonged experiment, and taken a firm position as a distinct improvement, is the warm-water retting patented in England in 1846 by an American, Bobert B. Schenck. For open pools and dams Schenck substitutes large wooden vats under cover, into which the flax is tightly packed in an upright position. The water admitted into the tanks is raised to and maintained at a temperature of from 75° to 95° Fahr. during the whole time the flax is in steep. In a short time a brisk fermentatii n is set up, gases at first of pleasant odour, but subsequently becoming very repulsive, being evolved, and producing a frothy scum over the surface of the water. The whole process occupies only from 50 to 60 hours. A still further improvement, due to Mr Pownall, comes into opera-tion at this point, which consists of immediately passing the stalks as they are taken out of the vats between heavy rollers over which a stream of pure water is kept flowing. By this means, not only is all the slimy glutinous adherent matter thoroughly separated, but the subsequent processes of breaking and scutching are much facilitated.

A process of retting by steam was introduced by W. Watt of Glasgow in 1852, and subsequently modified and improved by J. Buchanan. The system possessed the advantages of rapidity, being completed in about 10 hours, and freedom from any noxious odour; but it yielded only a harsh, ill-spinning fibre, and consequently failed to meet the sanguine expectations of its promoters.

In connexion with improvements in retting, Mr Michael Andrews, the energetic secretary of the Belfast Flax Supply Association, has made some suggestions and experiments which deserve close attention. In a paper contributed to the International Flax Congress at Vienna in 1873, he entered into details regarding an experimental rettery he had formed, with the view of imitating by artificial means the best results obtained by the ordinary methods. In brief, Mr Andrews's method consists in introducing water at the proper temperature into the retting vat, and main-taining that temperature by keeping the air of the chamber at a proper degree of heat. By this means the flax is kept at a uniform temperature with great certainty, since even should the heat of the air vary considerably through neglect, the water in the vat only by slow degrees follows such fluctuations. " It may be remarked," says Mr Andrews, " that the superiority claimed for this method of retting flax over what is known as the ' hot-water steeping' is uniformity of temperature; in fact the experiments have demonstrated that an absolute control can be exercised over the means adopted to produce the artificial climate in which the vats containing the flax are situated."

Scutching is the process by which the fibre is freed from its woody core and rendered fit for the market. For ordinary water-retted flax two operations are required, first breaking and then scutching, and these are done either by hand labour or by means of small scutching or lint mills, driven either by water or steam power. Hand labour, aided by simple implements, is still much used in Continental countries; but the use of scutching mills is now very general., these being more economical, and turning out flax of a much better quality. The breaking is done by passing the stalks between grooved rollers, to which in some cases a reciprocating motion is communicated, and the broken shives are beaten out by suspending the fibre in a machine fitted with a series of revolving blades, which, striking violently against the flax, shake out the bruised and broken woody cores. A great many modified scutching machines and processes have been pro-posed and introduced with the view of promoting economy of labour and improving the turn-out of fibre, both in respect of cleanness and in producing the least proportion of codilla or scutching tow.

The celebrated Courtrai flax of Belgium is the most valuable staple in the market, on account of its fineness, strength, and particularly bright colour. There the flax is dried in the field, and housed or stacked during the winter succeeding its growth, and in the spring of the following year, it is retted in crates sunk in the sluggish waters of the river Lys. After the process has proceeded a certain length, the crates are withdrawn, and the sheaves taken out and stooked. It is thereafter once more tied up, placed in the crates, and sunk in the river to complete the retting process; but this double steeping is not invariably practised. When finally taken out, it is unloosed and put up in cones, instead of being grassed, and when quite dry it is stored for some time previous to undergoing the operation of scutching. In all operations the greatest care is taken, and the cultivators being peculiarly favoured as to soil, climate, and water, Courtrai flax is a staple of unapproached excellence.

An experiment made by Professor Hodges of Belfast on 7770 lb of air-dried flax yielded the following results. By rippling he separated 1946 lb of bolls which yielded 910 lb of seed. The 5824 lb (52 cwt.) of flax straw remaining lost in steeping 13 cwt., leaving 39 cwt. of retted stalks, and from that 6 cwt. 1 qr. 2 B> (702 To) of finished flax was pro-cured. Thus the weight of the fibre was equal to about 9 per cent, of the dried flax with the bolls, 12 per cent, of the boiled straw, and over 16 per cent, of the retted straw. One hundred tons treated by Schenck's method gave 33 tons bolls, with 27-50 tons of loss in steeping; 32T3 tons were separated in scutching, leaving 5-90 tons of finished fibre, with 1-47 tons of tow and pluckings. The following analysis of two varieties of heckled Belgian flax is by Dr Hugo Miiller (Hoffmann's Berichte iiber die Entwichelung der chemischen Industrie):—

Ash 070 1-32
Water 8-65 10'70
Extractive matter 3 65 6'02
Fat and wax 2'39 2-37
Cellulose 82-57 71-50
Intercellular substance and pectose bodies 2 '74 9'41

According to the determinations of Wiesner (Die Bohstqfe des Pflanzenreiclies), the fibre ranges in length from 20 to 140 centimetres, the length of the individual cells being from 2'0 to 4'0 millimetres, and the limits of breadth between 0'012 and 0'025 mm., the average being 0'016 mm.

FIG. 2.—Fibre of Rough Russian Flax (magnified). Among the circumstances which have retarded improve-ment both in the growing and preparing of flax, the fact that, till comparatively recent times, the whole industry was conducted only on a domestic scale has had much influence. At no very remote date it was the practice in Scotland for every small farmer and cotter not only to grow " lint" or flax in small patches, but to have it retted, scutched, cleaned, spun, woven, bleached, and finished entirely within the limits of his own premises, and all by members or dependents of the family. The same practice obtained and still largely prevails in other countries. Thus the flax industry was long kept away from the most power-ful motives to apply to it labour-saving devices, and apart from the influence of scientific inquiry for the improvement of methods and processes. As cotton came to the front, just at the time when machine-spinning and power-loom weaving were being introduced, the result was that in many localities where flax crops had been grown for ages, the culture gradually drooped and ultimately ceased. The linen manufacture by degrees ceased to be a domestic industry, and began to centre in and become the characteristic factory employment of special localities, which depended, however, for their supply of raw material primarily on the operations of small growers, working, for the most part, on the poorer districts of remote thinly populated countries. The cultivation of the plant and the preparation of the fibre have therefore, even at the present day, not come under the influence (except in certain favoured localities) of scientific knowledge and experience, and the greater part of the flax in use at the present moment is prepared pre-cisely by the processes employed in Egypt when the descendants of Jacob dwelt in the land of Goshen.

In England and Scotland the acreage under flax is now so limited, and it has decreased with such steadiness and rapidity, that, as a crop, flax may be regarded as practically extinct in these countries. Indeed, notwithstanding the numerous measures by which Government sought during last century to foster flax cultivation, and the direct grants to cultivators in Scotland, which down to the year 1828 were paid by the board of trustees for fisheries and manu-factures, the cultivation cannot be said ever to have thriven in a healthy manner. The following summary, showing the extent in acres of the cultivation in Great Britain for the years 1870 till 1877 inclusive, has been communicated by Mr Michael Andrews of Belfast:—

Year. England. Wales. Scotland. Total.
1870 1871 1872 1873 1874 1875 1876 1877 22,354 15,949 14,011 13,752 9,018 6,547 7,366 7,210 204 175 84 190 117 54 36 28 1399 1244 1262 741 259 150 239 243 23,957 17,368 15,357 14,684 9,394 6,751 7,641 7,481

In Ireland the cultivation of flax has always occupied a relatively much more important position than it has in the sister countries, though there also the experience is that it is a rapidly declining agricultural crop. In the time of Queen Anne a board of trustees of the linen and hempen manufactures for Ireland was instituted, by which body liberal grants were administered. The board continued its operations till the parliamentary grants were withdrawn in 1827, and itself dissolved in the following year. In 1841 a Royal Flax Society of Ireland was formed, which received from Government an annual subsidy of £1000, and it con-tinued to exist till 1859. Still more recently a joint flax committee of the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland was formed, and admin-istered grants from the imperial exchequer from the year 1864 till 1871. The acreage of Irish flax cultivated has fluctuated with these subsidies, having reached a maximum of 181,909 acres in 1824, from which it steadily declined to 53,863 acres in 1848. In 1853, partly stimulated by high prices and scarcity owing to Russian complications, it again rose to 174,579 acres; and the cotton famine consequent on the civil war in America again greatly stimulated the cultivation for a few years from 1862 onwards. The following are periodical returns from the registrar-general's statements since 1853 :—_

Gross Produce.
Yield per Acre.
Table showing gross produce of Flax, yield per acre, arid acreage under crop in Ireland, from the year 1853 to 1877 inclusive, according to the Registrar-General's Returns.

==TABLE ==

The foregoing table, and also the statistics given below,
have been extracted from the carefully compiled reports of Mr Michael Andrews for the Irish Flax Supply Association. The following statement embodies the latest available re-turns regarding the acreage and produce of flax in all the countries where the plant is cultivated on account of its fibre :—

==TABLE ==

It thus appears that the breadth of lands under flax in Russia alone is little less than four-sevenths of the entire acreage devoted to the production of the fibre, and that it alone produces practically one half of the total produce of the world. The large extent to which the British manufac-turers are dependent on Russia is shown in the following table:—

==TABLE ==

The total value of the imports was £3,539,501 in 1876, and in 1877 it was £5,054,555, the increase in quantity beng 57'6 per cent., and in value 42-8 per cent.

Messrs George Armitstead & Co. of Dundee have court-eously placed at our disposal their flax list for the week ended 14th May 1878, which not only shows the sources and varieties of flax found in the British market, but also gives an idea of the relative value of the various staples. For the substance of the remarks on the commerce which follow we have also to express obligation to that firm.

The names and letters attached to the various brands are thus explained, commencing with Riga flax :— K means Crown flax. HK ,, Light crown flax. PK ,, Picked crown flax. HPK ,, Light picked crown flax. SPK ,, Superior picked crown flax. ISPK .. Light superior picked crown flax.

It will be observed that the " H " stands for " light" coloured flaxes; but besides being bracked as above, any of the Riga crown flaxes which are of a "white" or "grey" colour are laid aside and shipped from Riga as under (mostly, however, to France and Belgium), viz.:— GK or WK, Grey crown, or white crown. GPK or WPK, Grey picked crown, or wdiite picked crown. GSPK or WSPK, Grey or white superior picked crown. These are the principal marks of Riga crown sorts. Of other qualities shipped from Riga there are " Hoffs" flaxes (drawn from the Livonian district):— HD means Hoffs Dreiband flax. WHD „ White Hoffs Dreiband flax. PHD ,, Picked white Hoffs Dreiband flax. WPHD ,, White picked Hoffs Dreiband flax. FPHD „ Fine picked Hoffs Dreiband flax. WFPHD „ White fine picked Hoffs Dreiband flax. SFPHD ,, Superior fine picked Holi's Dreiband flax. WSFPHD ., White superior fine picked Hoffs Dreiband flax.

== TABLE ==

W, Wrack flax. WPW, White picked wrack. D, Dreiband (Threeband). LD, Livonian Dreiband. SD, Slanitz Dreiband.
Of the lower qualities of Eiga flax the following may be jamed:—
PW, Picked wrack flax. GPW, Grey picked wrack flax.
PD, Picked Dreiband flax. PLD, Picked Livonian Dreiband. PSD, Picked Slanitz Dreiband.
The last-named (SD and PSD) are dew-retted qualities shipped from Eiga either as Lithuanian Slanitz, Wellish Slanitz, or Wiasnia Slanitz, showing from what district they come, as there are differences in the quality of the produce of each district. The lowest quality of Riga flax is marked DW, meaning Dreiband Wrack.
OD, D,
HD, R, G, M,

Another Russian port from which a large quantity of flax is imported is Pernau, where the marks in use are com-paratively few. The leading marks are—
LOD, indicating Low Ordinary Dreiband (Threeband). Ordinary Dreiband.
Dreiband. Light Dreiband. Risten. Cut.

Pernau flax is shipped as Livonian and Fellin sorts, the latter being the best. The lowest mark of Pernau flax is the LOD. In addition to the exports from Eiga and Pernau, shipments of flax are made from Narva, Libau, Memel, and Bevel; but, as compared with the two first-mentioned ports, the flax trade of the others is inconsiderable. The only remaining localities from which flax is extensively exported to Scotland are Archangel and St Petersburg. From St Petersburg both white and brown flax is sent, the former variety being water-retted, the latter dew-retted. All the flax of Arch-angel is dew-retted.

The Pscow, Louga, Staro Euss, and Saletsky flaxes are steeped or white flax, whereas the Ejeff flax is dew-retted. There are many other kinds which come into the Dundee market from St Petersburg, such as Melinki, Bejetsky, Ouglitch, Kostroma, Jaroslav, Vologda, Wiasma, &c, taking their names from the various districts, and all dew-retted flax. These Petersburg brown flaxes are bracked mostly in 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th crown, also Zabrack, the lowest mark. Some Petersburg sorts leave out the 1st crown and 4th crown, but in the Archangel flaxes all these marks appear, and the Zabrack is divided into two sorts, 1st and 2d Zabrack.

The distinction between codilla and tow is that the former is the tow or broken and ravelled fibres produced in the scutching process, therefore often called scutching tow, while tow proper is the similar product separated in the subsequent operation of heckling the flax preparatory tospinning. See AGRICULTURE (vol i. p. 380, 381), BLEACH-

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