Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission

March 18, 2013 The History of Flax

Source: Linda Braun   |  Category: General News

Early Flax History

The people of Neolithic times depended on numerous plants and animals for their continued survival. Knowledge of these resources had come to them through observation, experimentation and from information provided to them by their ancestors. Increased familiarity with these sources of food, fiber and medicine laid the foundation for pastoral and arable agriculture; indeed, the agricultural revolution was a seminal event of the Neolithic era. Since that time, (approximately 10,000 years ago) there have been 500 human generations.

There is general agreement that present day cultivated flax is most closely related to wild L. angustafolium; a wild progenitor seen throughout the Mediterranean Basin, North Africa, the Near East, Iran, Caucasia and Western Europe. Other species of the Linum L. genus are located over the steppe belts of the temperate Mediterranean, the northern hemisphere and China.

Because it was one of the first domesticated plants, flax is recognized as a foundation crop of modern civilization. It responded well to the first efforts at domestication as was evidenced by a noticeable increase in seed size, higher oil yield and /or a longer stem and a seed boll that did not easily dehisce (burst open releasing the seeds). These significant genetic changes were fundamental in flax attaining a leading position in the economic, social, religious and political lives of Neolithic people and further positioned it for a future inexorably interwoven with that of human civilization.

The greatest biological diversity within the genus Linum is found on the Indian subcontinent and scholars believe that this is the most likely region for the botanical origin of our modern cultivated flax. Early trade routes linked India with the Middle East through the Indus Valley. Another school of thought outlines the belief that flax originally came from Western Persia (Iran) and spread to other countries regarded to be the areas of early flax cultivation – India, China and Central Asia, then west and south, primarily to Babylon (Iraq) and Egypt.

Flax in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians developed a highly successful agrarian economy based upon the profusion and abundance of crops they were able to grow. Fundamental to this production was the Nile River and its annual flooding. When the water subsided, the crops were planted. Apart from foodstuffs, flax was the main agricultural crop grown and as an industry, flax production came to be as important as the growing of grain. The Pharaoh, recognized as “God Incarnate” to the people of Egypt personally owned the largest part of the flax growing area. This harvest was so important he placed it under the control of a high officer of his court. The art of weaving was highly developed and Egypt was famous for the fineness of its fabric. Although the Pharaoh held a monopoly over cloth making for trade and export, the domestic textile industry typical within the homes of the rich and poor alike, was not impacted by this policy.

Harvested flax was bound in sheaves and forcibly drawn through a comb-like instrument that stripped off the bolls (rippled) and these were collected. Today’s microscopic examination of textile remnants reveals the harvest took place at three different stages. The first one occurred soon after the flowering was complete while the stems were still green. This produced a soft, fine fabric reserved for the exclusive use of the aristocracy. Plants pulled 30 days after flowering then the stems were turning from green to yellow would yield a stronger fiber. A final harvest took place several weeks later when the stalks were golden and the seed bolls fully ripened. This fiber was suitable for mats and ropes.

The retrieved seed bolls were crushed using heavy long handled mallets or perhaps oxen were used to tread out the seeds. After winnowing (separating the seeds from the husks), the seeds were collected and some of them retained for the next year’s planting. Ancient Egypt had both a domestic and an industrial component within its flax production, harvest and processing. Seed harvested for home use was ground in a quern (a simple stone mill) with linseed meal being the end result. At the industrial level, people were hired to complete the pounding process. Two methods are generally accepted as to how the oil was obtained from the seed. In the decanting process, hot water was poured over the crushed seeds and the oil was scooped out when the mixture had settled, or the seeds were placed in water, heated over a fire and the oil was skimmed off the surface. The second method involved “pressing” the oil out of the seeds. The type of process used to extract the oil was determined by the end use of the product, with pressed oil being utilized as a coarse, industrial oil and decanted oil more sought after for domestic, medicinal and religious applications.

Although the early Egyptians had established many utilizations for flax, the Greeks and Romans continued to extol its virtues as a food, fiber and medicine. Written records of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations dating back to the 6th century B.C. mention flax cultivation. The literary works of Homer, Herodotus, Theophrastus and Pliny provide word references to flax and/or linen.

Early European Flax History

Iron Age findings indicate that a narrow-leafed perennial flax was grown across Europe. Gauls (an ancient people of present day France and Belgium) and Celts (an ancient Indo-European people), the earliest flax growers in Western Europe, learned about flax from the Romans. German archaeological digs of Iron Age settlements have uncovered remains of bread prepared from millet, wheat and flaxseed.

The Slavic tribes were the first to begin cultivating flax in Eastern Europe, having brought it from Greece. It was used to make fishing nets, ropes, sailcloth and linseed oil. By the 10th and 11th centuries A.D. flax was grown extensively in Russia. With both the fiber and seed utilized, it was regarded as an important domestic and industrial crop.

Flax Arrives in North America

Cultivated flax made its first appearance on the North American continent about four hundred years ago. Lois Hébert, thought to be the first farmer in Canada, brought the seed with him to “New France.” Over the years, flax production stretched across the continent. In the late 1800s European settlers were seeding Canada’s west with flaxseed brought from their native lands. Flax thrived on this “first breaking” of the prairie and production in this “New Land” advanced.

Flax in the 20th Century and Beyond

Two world wars increased demand for flax as a source of oil and fiber. By the middle of the 20th century, flax based goods were used worldwide. Oil-based coatings beautified and protected wooden and concrete surfaces; linoleum was recognized as a popular flooring material. Linen in its various forms remained an international fabric staple and flaxseed continued to form part of people’s diets. In some areas of the world flaxseed and other baked or cooked products remained commonplace. Similarly, livestock breeders and farmers utilized flaxseed as a component of animal nutrition. The popularity of flax for human consumption has continued its dramatic increase. Canada’s producers, both organic and conventional, have worked hard to fill this demanding and exacting market niche, satisfying customers not only in Canada, but also around the world.

The Canadian climate favours a high quality flax crop. Combine that with the efficiency of Canadian producers and the excellence of Canadian agronomic research and it’s no surprise that Canada is the world’s major flax exporter.