Monday, August 17, 2015

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part V: Scutching/Swingling

In my ongoing experiment in making linen from seed to thread (about which you can read here), I've progressed through growing, harvesting, retting, and breaking. After breaking flax, early Americans moved on to "scutching" or "swingling" the plants to remove broken pieces of the woody cores from the fibrous bark of each stalk. 

John Wily explained that there were two methods for what he called swingling flax: "one is performed by a Wheel, the other with a wooden Knife, which is the common Method." (41)

You can watch a video about scutching wheels here (skip to about 3:00 to see the wheel in operation). Wily believed a wheel only made sense for larger producers, and for the rest of us he offered a very simple description of making a scutching board, the base upon which you rest the flax when striking it with a scutching knife:

     Get a Piece of Plank about 5 or 6 Inches wide, 1 Inch thick, and 3 Feet long; plane one Side of it a  
     little overlong, tenant one End of it in a Block about 14 Inches long and 10 wide, so that the said
     Plan may stand upright; then within 3 Inches of the Top saw it within one Inch of being through,
     then split off the sawed Part for the Flax to lodge on, and leave the other Part as a Guard to keep
     you from striking your Hand with the Knife. (42)

It takes a while to make sense of these directions, especially because most swinging boards I've seen have a piece cut out from the middle of the top of the board, as in Diderot's plate (Figs. 12-14; the objects around the lower right corner).

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

But eventually I figured out that Wily meant to leave a higher portion one one side of the board. I later learned by experience that this portion should be on the side of your dominant hand. That's how it protects your other hand, holding a bunch of flax, from accidental strikes.

My scutching board with its extending protective piece on the upper left.

The scutching knife, Wily wrote, should be "almost in the Shape of a Dagger, the Blade to be about 16 or 17 Inches long, 2 and a Half broad, and 3 Quarters of an Inch thick at the Back" (42), but I varied a bit from his instructions. There are indeed scutching knives that look exactly like daggers. But I made one that resembled something more like a cricket bat or a fraternity paddle, based on Diderot's example in the plate above.

Rather than tenoning my board into a block, I simply seated it in the the ground and got to work. The idea behind scutching is simple: you're using the knife to strike and scrape what you don't want (chaff from the plant cores) from what you do (flax fibers). As artist Linton Park's 1885 painting illustrates, this was often a community event.

I was skeptical that such a simple process (scraping it with a piece of wood?) would have much effect on the flax, but it was in fact remarkably effective. Almost immediately, the roots and upper portions flew off the fibers.

Flax fibers (top) and chaff removed from stalks (bottom).

Although there are videos of more capable scutchers out there, here's my attempt.


I was, however, rather frustrated with how much fiber I was inadvertently scraping off along with the chaff, so after I had scutched all of the flax, I went back over what was left for another go. My final result was thus one bunch of quality flax and another with more tangled and chaffy fibers, the sort of coarse, short-fiber flax known, after further processing, as "tow."

Fine flax fibers (left) and tow flax (right).

With these fibers in hand, the next step in processing flax into linen is "heckling." That involves a rather sinister-looking tool, the heckle, that I'll discuss in my next post.

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