Monday, November 17, 2008


When most folks think of homespun, they think of something plaid first, then maybe if they are historically sensitive, they think next that the fabric was woven at home. Homespun is so
much more than that. True homespun started out on the farm as a seed, and thru many labor intensive steps, became cloth, and was carefully used to make articles for the home and clothing. So what IS homespun? It can be made from wool linen or cotton~ I will be talking of linen.

But do you know what linen is? Linen is made from fibers from the flax plant.

In Colonial times, much time was devoted to the growing and processing of flax fibers....usually the men did the growing and harvesting, and the braking, and then the women & children did
the 'easier' parts, such as scutching, spinning , weaving and sewing..... In 1656, Massachusetts required that children be taught to spin, and that each spinner was REQUIRED to produce at
least 3 pounds of spun yarn~ linen, wool or cotton, each WEEK, for at least 30 weeks of the year! but I'm getting ahead of myself.....

Flax, or Linum sativum, is a plant with a woody stem...the stem is wrapped in the strong silky fibers that are used to make linen thread....a lot of work goes into retrieving these fibers and making them usable. Once the leaves turn yellow, the plant is ready to be hand...roots and all. Just picture pulling weeds in your garden, over and over again, for acres and acres......My back hurts just thinking about it.

Pulling flax, as shown in this 1792 engraving

After the flax was pulled and made in to little bundles, the seeds were removed by drawing it thru a Rippling comb. (Seeds from the flax plant are used to make Linseed Oil) This was a comb very similar to the hetchel, except it was more often shorter, with a short handle, and the nails were wider apart, as for now, just the seeds needed to be removed. Think of a medieval looking hairbrush, but made from 3-4" long nails instead.
After the seeds were removed, the flax was 'retted'. It was put in either a stream, or retting pond, to wait for the fibers to rot and break down.....very stinky. Retting in a stream would obviously be preferred, , because the running water carried the stinky nasties away......but it also ruined the water for drinking, so most used a pond for this.
Once sufficiently 'rotted'....the flax was whacked with a brake to break the woody stalk away from the flax fibers. A Brake was a huge wooden contraption that looks a lot like a paper cutter....only instead of cutting, it smooshes, and brakes the fibers~ hence its name. One could also use 'beatles', little wooden mallets that were used in the same way~ this took a lot more time.
After the braking, comes the 'scutching'...or some call it swingling. The fibers were held up against a board, and then was scraped with a long wooden knife. This was done until the fibers were rid of the gummy sap residue from the stalk. It also separated the longer fibers from the shorter ones...the shorter ones being called tow.

I like to ask everyone who visits the museum what this tool is, and as of yet, not one person has come up with the right answer of a wood 'scutching knife'. Its quite long as you can see, but not as heavy as it looks. Its handle & blade well worn from many years of use

Next came Hackling. (you can see a young fair maiden scutching her heart out to the left)

The fibers were drawn thru hetchels of varying coarseness to comb the fibers straight and get them ready for spinning- lots of folks call them flax combs. I have this one here at the Museum,
its 18th century, with a medium coarseness. Finishing ones would have twice this many teeth. Its a simple, beautiful tool to hold, and the hand forged iron nails its made from sound beautiful
when you carefully draw your hand across it....

The faced holes are to insert the hetchel onto a pegged board to hold it in place

Wouldn't want to fall on this.....many bases had wooden covers to protect both the hetchel, and passers by, when not in use

Oak has been wrapped in tin, to give the wood more strength. Hand forged nails were nailed all the way thru. As the flax became finer and finer, it was drawn thru hetchels that had more nails, closer and closer together

All that was left now, was spinning in to yarn, weaving into cloth, maybe bleaching, and then stitching into some beautiful thing.....
bleaching was such a long drawn out process, much homespun was left au natural

You can see my post on bleaching Here :

I feel that Knowing the work that goes into making a product, only enhances the respect and interest of that product, which is why I am so very excited and fortunate to have a wonderful
example of the linen making process here....
This gathering of Early Americana comes from the Blakeman Farm in Connecticut. The flax was grown and processed there
here is an original 18th century skein of flax fibers ready for spinning.

Next is a skein of finely twisted spun linen thread, ready for weaving.

The thread was expertly woven into this unbleached homespun linen.

Last, there is a small bunch of 'tow', the short fibers that come off during scutching, and also hackling....nothing was ever wasted.

Linen making like this was short lived~ by the 19th century, with all the textile mills, handspun, homespun was a bit of a novelty. Many pieces were saved, like my set, and cherished and exhibited in honor of the 'olde days'. Folks were on to busier lifestyles~ no one had the 'time' for making linen was a time consuming endeavour, as referenced by John Campbell's diary, Windham, New Hampshire:

" March hath 31 Dayes 1796

24 thrash 12 sook oats and Clean 10 Bushells

25 swingle 19 1/4 of flax John Cochran Breaked 19 Bundles

26 swingle 20 1/2 pound flax John Cochran Broke 20 Bundles Spend /3

27 goe to Town Meeting Spend 1/4d agumment of agumment

28 Thrash 14 1/2 sooks of oats Jam Henry hear Braked flax

29 swingle 15 1/4 pounds of flax John Cochran Breade 15 Bundles

31 go to McGaws after stears spend 1/3d

April Hath 30 Dayes 1796

1st Breake flax for Jamison Henry Goe to George Davidsons to frolic

2 Brake flax to Ditto finish Medow hay Begin on Inglish hay

3 Sunday Stay at home spring like weather Loss goos Last night

4 Brake flax for Jam Henry foornoon and myself in afternoon

Break 18 Bundles Jamison swingle 14 for mee Spend 14d 1/2 On moor Dye"

If I have peaked your interest in homespun and early cloth
making, I highly recommend the book "Linen Making in New
England, 1640- 1860" by Martha Coons


Barbara said...

I think I'll leave my flax in my flower bed. The delicate blue flowers give such a whispy feel to the bed and certainly don't hint of the work they harbor. Love all the info.....and it is tempting to go out and pull some of those flax plants, but I think your Dad might holler if he had to take a shower with soaking flax around his feet.
LY, Mom

Patty said...

I love your blog. Homespun is the best and one certainly takes good care of the garment after all that work. When my daughter was 10 I taught her to spin. She cared for our sheep at the time. She helped sheer the sheep, wash the wool, card the wool, spun the wool and then knit a sweater. She is 28 now and still owns that sweater !

Dixie Redmond said...

Wow! That was very interesting. I come from a long line of New Englanders on my dad's side - way back to the 1600's when the kids had to spin flax. I own a very small piece of what I believe is coarse homespun.

Christine LeFever said...

My but this is a remarkable post, Rachael!

I used to own an actual scutching knife. It was beautiful, but I sold it for a pretty penny. I am truly sorry that I did.

It cannot be stressed enough the value of these rare old pieces of homespun.

Like Dixie, my husband descends from very early Americans, NY and PA, and I am D.A.R. via my Mother's side. Therefore my daughter and granddaughters get it from both sides. It is so exciting.

All of your information is priceless. Thank you!

Christine, Zwee!!!!!!!!

Suzanne said...

How very interesting Rachael, I enjoyed reading this post. It makes you really appreciate the labor that was involved in making these precious treasures.