Flexible Flax: Everyday Uses for Flax

Learn about the uses for this versatile plant.

| June/July 1995

  • Flax, one of humanity’s most useful plants, offers up its carefree blue flowers as a bonus.
    Photo By Rita Buchanan
  • This wholesome, hearty bread contains flaxseed inside and out. It is served here in a flax basket.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • Bet you can’t eat just one of these terrific homemade crackers.
    Photo By Joe Coca

Flax Recipes:

• Onion Flax Crackers 
• Flaxseed Bread 
• Flax Granola 

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.”

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