Few plants are as useful to humanity as flax. For 10,000 years, people have woven flax into linen fabric for clothing. Paints, varnishes, and enamels made from flaxseed oil—also known as linseed oil—have decorated and protected homes and furniture for centuries, and strong rope and twine have long been made from flax fiber. From medicine and food to fine linen papers and durable floor coverings, flax has been an essential part of our lives.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence that ten millennia ago the prehistoric Swiss Lake Dwellers spun and wove flax. The Book of Exodus mentions the cultivation of flax, as does the Talmud, and both forbid the blending of flax with “impure” wool. Ancient Egyptians grew flax along the Nile and wove linen fabrics for clothing, bed sheets, diapers, sails, even wrappings for mummies.
In contrast to the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans preferred woolen fabrics. Neither civilization cultivated much flax, but the Roman emperors wore some linen, imported from as far away as Egypt, Babylonia, Germany, and Spain. Culinary uses for flax were also known at this time: both the Greek historian Thucydides and the Roman Pliny mention the use of flax for food.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, flax cultivation dwindled until the eighth century. The French leader Charlemagne pronounced flax more sanitary than wool (because linen is so much easier to launder than woolen fabrics) and ordered his subjects to cultivate it. European production flourished, and with it, the uses for this versatile plant expanded. The medieval herbalist Bartholomew listed dozens of applications—clothing, sheets, sacks, purses, sails, fish nets, thread, ropes, bowstrings, measuring lines, matches, and even ships’ caulking. Bartholomew considered flax the most beneficial of all herbs: “None herbe is so needfull to so many dyurrse uses to mankynde as is the flexe.”
The value of flax to these early cultures is reflected in the rich folklore that surrounds the plant. Flax was believed to be a blessed plant—one that could bring good fortune, restore health, and protect against witchcraft. To the ancient Egyptians, white linen was a symbol of divine light and purity associated with the great mother-goddess Isis. The Norse goddess Huldah was known as the Guardian of Flax Fields, no doubt because it was she who taught mortals the arts of spinning and weaving. It was believed that no evil witchcraft could be practiced in a flax field, only good magic.
German folklore also associated flax with luck. A German bride of old would often put a few flaxseeds in her shoes to protect her fortune, and she might tie a flaxen string around her left leg to make her marriage thrive.
Early Bohemians believed that a seven-year-old child who danced in a flax field would become beautiful, no matter what the child’s original appearance. And in Mediterranean countries, a baby who wasn’t thriving would be laid upon the ground in a flax field and sprinkled with flaxseeds: it was believed that the child would recover as the seeds sprouted.
Non-European cultures developed their own uses for flax. In parts of North Africa, flax was a food staple and an important medicine. The Chinese created oilcloth—a protective fabric made from flaxseed oil applied to canvas—perhaps 2000 years ago.
Flax in the New World
Native Americans occasionally gathered fibers and seeds from the few species of flax that grew wild in the United States, using the fibers to make fish nets and twine. However, the wild species were never cultivated, and the use of flax was minor until Colonial times.
In the seventeenth century, seeds of European flax were brought by ship to Massachusetts and Virginia along with spinning wheels. At that time, cloth production was deemed so important to the survival of the colonies that laws were passed requiring every household to spin a certain amount of flax or woolen yarn each year. Later, as the American frontier expanded westward, families took flaxseed with them. Flax was often the first crop planted as a homestead was set up.
Although much of the importance of flax derived from the popularity of linen, the fiber is not the only useful part of the flax plant. Linseed oil is just as important. When first pressed from the seeds, linseed oil is a thick, sticky fluid, but when exposed to oxygen from the air, it gradually hardens and dries. When painted on wood or other surfaces, linseed oil makes a pliant but strong protective coating.
In our grandparents’ day, households used so many linseed-oil products that most families would not have been able to operate normally without them. Oilcloth, first produced in the United States in 1809, was made into tablecloths, shelf paper, floor and wall coverings, rain gear, and carrying bags. Paints and varnishes had a linseed-oil base, and linseed oil was a common finish for furniture and other woodwork.
“My grandmother, Amanda, always had linseed oil around her house,” says Alice Correia, a seventy-nine-year-old Kentucky native. “Every winter, my father would rub linseed oil on our shoes. It softened the leather and helped waterproof them.”
Rachel Johnson, seventy-eight and also from Kentucky, recalls, “We always treated wooden garden implements and other wooden tools with linseed oil. It was an excellent protection.”
In 1863, it was discovered that boiled linseed oil, when mixed with cork, applied to a burlap backing, and rolled into sheets, made an excellent floor covering. Within a decade, linoleum decorated most of the houses in North America, and flax production soared.
Until fairly recently, many North American and other households benefited from the medicinal qualities of flax. Flaxseed tea was used to treat coughs and urinary tract disorders. A mixture of linseed oil and limewater was taken internally as a laxative and applied externally to scalds and burns. When flaxseeds are steeped in water, they become soft and gummy, making them useful as a skin emollient. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Maud Grieve notes: “The crushed seeds . . . make a very useful poultice, either alone or with mustard. . . . [A] linseed poultice allays irritation and pain and promotes suppuration.”
Alice Correia remembers: “Once when I was nine or so, I dropped a tiny bead into my eye. The bead was so small, we couldn’t see it to get it out. Grandmother took a flaxseed, soaked it in a little water, and placed it under my eyelid. The wet seed was sticky, so that when it was taken out, the tiny bead came with it.”
In some parts of the world, pregnant women still take flaxseed. “In my country, powdered flaxseed is added to hot water and honey,” says Yewoubdar Beyenne, a medical anthropologist from Ethiopia. “Women start drinking this mixture about a week before their due date to cleanse the system and also to make for an easy labor.” Like many folk customs, this one has a basis in fact. According to Beyenne, flaxseed contains prostaglandin, a substance believed to ease labor.
Flaxseed has never been a major part of the diet in Europe or the United States. This is unfortunate, because its subtle, nutty flavor is delicious in breads, muffins, and breakfast cereal. “In Ethiopia, flaxseed is eaten almost daily,” Beyenne says. “The powdered seed is made into salad dressing and dip, and we use the moistened powder as a substitute for cooking oil. Flaxseed powder is considered a soothing food, good for the stomach.” Roasted flaxseeds can be substituted for coffee, and unripe fruits can be used in chutneys. In Nature’s Kitchen (Pownal, Vermont: Storey Publishing, 1986), herbalist Fred Rohe observes that flaxseed is an excellent source of nutritional fiber and protein. Unfortunately, it is also loaded with fat: a single tablespoon yields more than four grams, about the same as a tablespoon of peanuts, sesame seeds, walnuts, or pecans.
In North America, the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 made cotton fabric cheaper and easier to produce than linen. At about the same time, hemp rope supplanted rope made from flax. Now, 200 years later, vinyl floor coverings and latex-based paints and varnishes have largely replaced linseed oil–based products, and plastic substitutes have made oilcloth virtually obsolete.
Flax is still a desirable natural product, however. Linen clothing is popular for spring and summer wear. Woodworkers continue to use linseed oil on unpainted carvings. Wooden tools and other implements still are treated with linseed oil to protect them against water. Weavers use a mucilage made from boiled flaxseeds to size linen warps. Even the meal left over after pressing linseed oil is useful. Made into bars called oilseed cakes, it serves as a nutritious feed for cattle and poultry.
Fiber flax is still produced in Russia, China, Egypt, and parts of Europe, and there are pilot projects to revive the U.S. fiber flax industry, starting in Maine and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Flax grown for seed is a minor crop in both the United States and Canada, with just a few producers based in both Dakotas, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
• Flax and Linen by Patricia Baines (Shires Publications, 1985)
• A Weaver’s Garden by Rita Buchanan (Interweave Press, 1987)
• H. Fiber Crops by James Dempsey (University of Florida, 1975)
• “Flax and Linen” Spin-Off 16, 2 (Summer 1992), 52–84.
• The Magic of Linen: Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich (Orca Books, 1992)
Jill Jepson is a medical anthropologist and freelance writer in central California. She specializes in herbal medicines and other plant uses.