Friday, April 11, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part I: Planting

I'm not making a linen tent this summer (studying for my qualifying exams will keep me busy enough), but I wanted to undertake a more manageable experimental archaeology project, growing flax in the eighteenth-century manner. I started with John Wily's Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax. There are certainly other works discussing the techniques of flax growing. This one has the advantage of having been printed in Williamsburg, Virginia, and reprinted in facsimile by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In short, this was a book Americans used around the time of the Revolution to grow flax, and one which I could hold in my hand and take out to the field.

"Flax should be sowed promiscuously (as Wheat or Oats, &c.) but somewhat thicker," wrote Wily.
Eighteenth-century farmers debated the proper amount of seed necessary for wheat and oats. Contemporaneous sources recommended, depending on the region and season, two, three, or even four bushels of wheat seed per acre, and something like the same for oats. Nevertheless, Wily recommended sowing only 1 to 1 1/2 bushels of flax seed per acre. The thicker the crop, he said, the thinner the flax stalks, which meant finer fibers and (eventually) finer thread.

I had 2 teaspoons of flax seed from an heirloom seed house. That means math, the sort of math not necessary for farmers in the 1760s. But here I was, with much less than a bushel and a half of flax seed and much less than an acre to plant. There are, apparently, 7149.5 teaspoons per bushel, and so you'd need  10724.25 (7149.5 x 1.5) teaspoons to plant an acre at 1 1/2 bushels per acre. That means I had 2/10724.25 or 1/5362.125 of an acre of seed. An acre (43,560 square feet) divided by 5362.125 is 8.1. It turned out (and there are other ways of ciphering it) that I had enough seed to plant about eight square feet of flax, 1765 style.

Enough flax seeds to plant eight square feet.

My dirt was far from the "fine rich mellow Soil" recommended by Wily, and I didn't grow tobacco or any other weed-discouraging crop last year. Wily warns that weeds can choke out young flax plants. I don't have a plow to run through the ground "two or three Times" in March or a "Tooth Harrow" to use afterwards. Anyway, I did my best, with a hoe, to get the ground "as level, and... as fine, as possible," and I topdressed my flax patch with some composted soil.

Flax seeds on the surface, before mixing with the soil.

Wily recommended sowing flax between mid-March and mid-April, and I planted mine on April 6th. He also suggested going over the planted field with that tooth harrow or "a larger Quantity of scragged Brush dragged after a Horse or Ox, to cover or mix the Seed with the Earth." To "scrag" is to rough something up, so I mixed the flax seed with the soil by hands after I sowed my eight square feet of flax. After that, I left the seeds to their own devices. Stay tuned for an update.

My flax patch.

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