Saturday, July 25, 2015

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part IV: Breaking

You might remember that when we last left off with my rather quixotic project to turn a handful of flax seeds into linen fabric, I had finished "retting" the flax, breaking down the gummy substances in each stalk. Since then, I've passed my Ph.D. exams, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and failed to recreate historical waterproofing, among other things. My neglected flax sat in the pantry patiently through all of this.

Writing in 1765, John Wily offered two options for "breaking" flax, separating the woody core of each stalk from the fibrous, thread-destined bark. The first, and by my understanding the most common, was with a "brake," a simple machine that mashed a handful of stalks between its jaws. You can see a French brake as well as a variety of the other flax tools I'll mention in future posts in this plate from Denis Diderot's mid-eighteenth-century Encyclopédie.

Diderot's flax tools, from "Sifting the Past".

And if you're really interested in flax processing, check out this video on different types of flax brakes. Wily gave detailed instructions about building a brake, but I decided to try the other method he mentioned. It was less effective on a large scale, but its simplicity and an absence of historical study made it more appealing to me. 

Wily described breaking flax using "a Hand-Mall called Beatles," but he presumed that his reader was already familiar with the basic tools. Eventually, I figured out that by "mall" he almost certainly meant "maul," a large wooden hammer. But I have yet to find any surviving examples or images of flax beatles (though, apparently, beatle sometimes also referred to the scutching knife used in the step following breaking). The quest is complicated by the ubiquity of a certain British rock band in any internet keyword search.

Google: "Showing results instead for Lennon Beatle" 

Tyler: "NO! Linen beatle. LINEN BEATLE!"

Anyway, I finally went to town on my flax using a wooden mallet I had on hand. As Wily instructed, "lay it on some smooth solid Timber or Stone, and then take the Mall or Beatle in the right Hand, and begin at one End of the Handful and beat and turn it over until it is well mashed or broken..." (41, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of Wily's Treatise).

My makeshift beatle.

Half-broken flax, beatled on the right.

The woody core separating from the fibers.

I was rather nervous about this process, because it would be the real test as to whether I had retted my flax for the right amount of time last summer. Too few days, and the fibers would still be stuck to the cores. Too many, and the fibers would have begun to rot and would break short along with the rest of the stalks. But everything worked out quite nicely. As I was breaking the flax, you could hear the sounds change as I hammered each bunch and the stalks broke down. And the flax itself went from a depressing gray hue to a more (get ready for it) flaxen color.

Breaking is only the first step in refining the flax, but with a broken bunch in hand, I'm now ready to move on to the step called swingling or scutching. And I promise it won't take nine months to get there. 

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