The Wonder Plant
Words Tamsin Blanchard
Photographs Liz Seabrook
From magic spells and a valuable source of Omega 3 oils, to the fibre that is spun and woven into linen – a zero-waste process resulting in one of the oldest, most durable and low impact of natural fabrics – flax is a wonder plant with many uses…
A spoonful of flax seeds with water will help with constipation. Of that you can be sure (try it and see). And according to Linda Raedisch’s book Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night, flax played an important role in old German witchcraft and folklore: ‘Bavarian babies were placed amid the flax and sprinkled with seeds when ill. Elsewhere in Germany giddiness could be cured by running three times naked round a plot of flax.’
Flax is a powerful plant indeed. I haven’t tried running naked round it, but one morning in June, when the plants were still damp with dew, I found myself in a field of flax, the gentle breeze rustling through the tall, young stems, each topped with a twinkling of delicate pale blue flowers.
An early morning train to Lille, followed by a drive north-east across the border into Belgium brings you into the fresh, damp, salty air of flax country. During the month of June, along the stretch of low land running parallel to the coast from Calais in France towards Amsterdam in the Netherlands, seas of fluttering pale blue flowers of the flax crop are as common as the hard yellow fields of rape in the English countryside.
We arrived in time for a welcome by Erik Decaluwé-Zulte, whose family runs Delinco, one of the largest flax production plants in Belgium. The airy green and lilac plants were waving in unison in the morning sun. By lunchtime, the flowers will have wilted and the gentle spectacle would not be repeated until the next day.
‘For ancient Egyptians linen was a form of currency, which is interesting considering that the dollar note is still made today from 25 per cent linen’
Erik greeted us with his daughter Ann-Sofie Decaluwé and son in-law, Jeroen Moeneclaey, each of them dressed in immaculately pressed linen. They are the fifth generation of this family to cultivate flax and spoke passionately about their work. As a makeshift table of coffee and freshly baked croissants was set up next to the field, we were introduced to this most ancient and sustainable of crops, careful not to destroy too many of the tall, willowy plants as we waded in for a closer look.
In 1961 more than two million hectares of land globally were cultivated with flax. By 2000 this had dropped to less than 450,000 hectares. But it is increasingly being seen as a more sustainable alternative to cotton. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, flax uses 13 times less pesticides than when growing potatoes. And a report commissioned by The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC), says that a linen shirt uses 6.4 litres of water across its lifecycle compared with 26 litres for a cotton shirt. Despite its low environmental impact, it makes up only one per cent of the world’s clothing fibres. Its drawback is that it creases so readily. But if we are to wean ourselves from our addiction to cotton, we need to learn to embrace the wrinkle.
Linum usitatissimum translates from its Latin name as ‘most useful flax’. It was believed to be the clothing of angels (‘and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen…’ Revelation, New Testament 15:6) and is deeply embedded in our history. In central Asia, linen thread was being spun into rope around 30,000 BC. By 5,000 BC, it was being woven to create the fabric that would have been pretty similar to what we know today. The ancient Greeks used it to make armour, called linothorax, which means literally ‘linen chest’, a form of dress for warriors that was popular between 600-200 BC. It is thought to have been made from laminated linen layers, stiffened with rabbit glue, scraps of which have been found at archaeological sites.
The ancient Egyptians made sails out of it and revered the finest quality linen enough to use it to dress the nobility as well as to wrap the dead. The reason ancient robes were often white is probably because linen was – and still is – quite difficult to dye. For ancient Egyptians linen was also a form of currency, which is interesting considering that the dollar note is still made today from 25 per cent linen, for its strength and durability.
The Roman empire brought linen from the Mediterranean to the colder wool-wearing northern Europeans. It was soon adopted for underwear – the word lingerie has its roots in the Latin linum and the Gothic lein, or ‘linen cloth’; while a linger in 12th-century French was a dealer in linen goods.
In the 17th century, linen production was established in the Netherlands, Ireland, England and Scotland. Ireland was a major linen producer – and grower. The Huguenots brought their weaving skills to Ireland in the 17th century and the industry grew so much that by the time of the Industrial Revolution, Belfast was nicknamed Linenopolis – as important for linen as Manchester was for cotton. During the American Civil War, there was a shortage of cotton imports from America and by the 1870s, Belfast was the largest linen producing area in the world. Today however, Irish linen is most likely spun in Ireland using imported flax.
These days, 80 per cent of linen is grown on this swathe of northern European lowlands. The plants will turn golden – or flaxen as the name suggests – in a few weeks’ time when it is closer to harvest. By then it should be 100 cm tall (in the drought of 2017 it achieved only half this height and the year’s crop was something of a disaster). Then, around July 15 each year, the hard work begins. Days are long – 6am til midnight – as the plants are pulled and gathered into bundles for the retting process. The roots left in the soil act as fertiliser ready for the next crop – usually beets or corn. Flax can only be sown once every six to seven years and is grown in strict rotation with a range of other crops.
The flax used to be thrown into the nearby Golden River, named after the crop, but the process led to pollution of the waterways; these days it is simply left to the natural processes of dew, rain and sunshine to soften the plant fibres ready for the next step, when it is baled up and taken a short drive to the Delinco scutching factory. This is where the woody stems (the ‘shives’) are mechanically separated from the green outer leaves, which will be hackled into the smooth, hair-like fibres ready to be spun into linen. On our visit, the last few bales of flax were being put through the process. The vast barn was almost empty, ready for the next crop to arrive in September.
In the adjoining barn, a handful of workers were overseeing the scutching process. It’s a noisy business but the factory is calm and spotlessly clean. The dried out flax plants are fed into a machine that carries them on a conveyor belt through a series of steps that separate the shives from the leaves, harvests the shiny brown flax seeds, stretches the fibres to make them glossy, and finally combs them. Great bunches of fibre are collected into round bales. This process is highly regulated to ensure the fibre is in the best possible condition to be sent to Poland and Lithuania, where it is spun and then transported back to Meulebeke, to be expertly woven into a range of weights, textures and patterns.
‘Once you’ve seen the care that is taken to weave these lengths of cloth, you will never look at a basic linen tea towel in the same way’
In many ways, flax is something of a miracle crop. The woody stem is used as animal bedding – it’s particularly suitable for horses with breathing difficulties, the equivalent of a hypoallergenic duvet. The Omega 3 oil-rich seeds are separated out and are a healthy food source for animals and humans. Linseed oil is used in a whole range of applications from preserving wood and mixing with paint to being the basis of lineoleum. The leaves are used to spin high-quality yarn, while lower level shorter length fibres are used to make rope and string. Even the dust generated by the scutching process is collected up to be used by local farms as compost.
This research trip was organised by the CELC, which is on a mission to promote the fibre to designers and brands. Some of them had sent representatives from their fabric sourcing teams including Vivienne Westwood, J.W. Anderson, Jigsaw, John Lewis and Toast.
Jonathan Anderson, who was born in Belfast, is a fan of linen for his collections for J.W. Anderson and Loewe. Jigsaw also regards linen as part of its DNA – loyal customers return each season for their linen basics. CELC has been promoting linen through its Love Linen campaign for the past two years with great success, not least because of the increased interest in sustainability in the fashion industry. ‘As linen is a sustainable fibre that does not use water, and only a small amount of pesticides, it is always a favourite of Vivienne and the design team,’ said Valeria Meliado, sourcing manager for Westwood.
Libeco is Belgium’s most prestigious linen weaver. Established in the town of Meulebeke in 1858, it is responsible for 60 per cent of Belgium’s production, 85 per cent of which is exported. From the raw yarn, this specialist weaving facility, with 65 industrial looms, can produce 3,000 different types of linen, which is used for everything from haute couture to cushions. Libeco is known for its classic linen Belgian towel, originally conceived as a beach towel but, as a large linen sheet in seemingly endless variations of colours and stripes, it has become popular as a decorative throw.
The factory is a series of huge, interlocking hangars, with rows of looms threaded with an intricate web of strings of flax. An operator is concentrating on loading the yarn onto a huge cylinder feeder, ready for the machine-powered looms where industrial-sized widths of fabric in the soft shades of the natural yarn are woven. It’s a non-stop whirr of machines, shuttles speeding back and forth, producing a range of fabric weights.
To maintain the fine quality Libeco is renowned for, every millimetre is checked on great vertical tables. Skilled inspectors slide back and forth on stools on rails as they examine every line of weave, stopping if they spot a snag or a broken thread that needs to be repaired and expertly woven back in by hand. It’s painstaking work and the quality of the workmanship is extraordinary. Once you’ve seen the care that is taken to weave these lengths of cloth, you will never look at a basic linen tea towel in the same way – and you will have undying respect (and a serious hankering) for a set of fine bed linen.
To produce fine linen from field to finished cloth is a long, slow and intensive process. It requires little in terms of pesticides and chemical intervention but a great deal of skill and attention to detail. To buy a piece of linen clothing or bedlinen is to invest in something that will only get better with age – and seriously stand the test of time. At the Cloth Shop in London’s Portobello Road, you will be seduced by the quality of the linen – its antique sheets, table linen and towels are even more sought after than the new versions.
Linen lives many lives and only improves with age. Any repairs only add to the understanding of the quality and the preciousness of this ancient and versatile fabric. If you are looking for a single item of clothing that will last forever and always look stylish, a vintage French linen smock is the answer. All you need to go with it is a daily spoonful of flax seeds and you will have nothing else to worry about.