5,000 Years of Making Linen: The History of Neolithic Flax Processing

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Discovering the History of Neolithic Flax Fiber Processing

Flax Making Through Ancient History: A Photo Essay
Flax Making Through Ancient History: A Photo Essay. Background Evelyn Flint / Texture Time

In a recent study, archaeobotanists Ursula Maier and Helmut Schlichtherle reported evidence of the technological development of making cloth from the flax plant (called linen). This evidence of this touchy technology comes from Late Neolithic Alpine lake dwellings beginning about 5,700 years ago--the same types of villages where Otzi the Iceman is believed to have been born and raised.

Making cloth from flax is not a straightforward process, nor was it the original use for the plant. Flax was originally domesticated about 4000 years earlier in the Fertile Crescent region, for its oil-rich seeds: the cultivation of the plant for its fiber properties came much later. Like jute and hemp, flax is a bast fiber plant--meaning the fiber is collected from the inner bark of the plant--which must undergo a complex set of processes to separate the fiber from the woodier outer parts. The fragments of wood left among the fibers are called shives, and the presence of shives in raw fiber is detrimental to spinning efficiency and results in a coarse and uneven cloth that's not pleasant to have next to your skin. It is estimated that only 20-30% of the bulk weight of the flax plant is fiber; that other 70-90% of the plant must be removed prior to spinning. Maier and Schlichtherle's remarkable paper documents that process is in the archaeological remains of a few dozen central European Neolithic villages.

This photo essay illustrates the ancient processes that allowed Neolithic Europeans to make flax cloth out of the difficult and fussy flax plant. 

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Flax-Making Neolithic Villages in Central Europe

Old Piers in Bodensee (Lake Constance) and the Alps
The Alps are seen in the background of the Lake of Constance on April 30, 2008 in Lindau, Germany. Thomas Niedermueller / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Maier and Schlichtherle gathered information about Neolithic flax fiber production from Alpine lake dwellings near Lake Constance (a.k.a. Bodensee), which is bordered by Switzerland, Germany and Austria in central Europe. These houses are known as "pile houses" because they are propped up on piers on the shores of lakes in mountainous regions. The piers raised the house floors above seasonal lake levels; but best of all (says the archaeologist in me), the wetland environment is optimal for preserving organic materials.

Maier and Schlichtherle looked at 53 Late Neolithic villages (37 on the lake shore, 16 in an adjacent moor setting), which were occupied between 4000-2500 calendar years BC (cal BC). They report that evidence for Alpine lake house flax fiber production includes tools (spindles, spindle whorls, hatchets), finished products (nets, textiles, fabrics, even shoes and hats) and waste products (flax seeds, capsule fragments, stems and roots). They discovered, amazingly enough, that flax production techniques at these ancient sites were not dissimilar from that used everywhere in the world through the early 20th century.

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Late Neolithic Use of Flax: Adaptation and Adoption

Detail of 16th Century Tapestry Showing Flax Production
Detail of 16th Century Tapestry Showing Flax Production. This detail showing people processing flax is from the 16th century wool and silk tapestry known as I Mesi Trivulzio: Novembre (The Months: November) made by Bartolomeo Suardi between 1504-1509. Mondadori Portfolio / Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

Maier and Schlichtherle tracked the history of the use of flax both first as a source for oil and then for fiber in detail: it's not a simple relationship of having people stop using flax for oil and start using it for fiber. Rather, the process was one of adaptation and adoption over a period of a few thousand years. Flax production in Lake Constance began as a house-hold level of production and in some cases became an entire settlement of craft-specialists producing flax: the villages seem to have experienced a "flax boom" at the end of the Late Neolithic. Although the dates vary within the sites, a rough chronology has been established:

  • 3900-3700 calendar years BC (cal BC): moderate and minor presence of flax with large seeds, indicating flax cultivation was largely for oil
  • 3700-3400 cal BC: large amounts of flax threshing remnants, flax textiles more prevalent, evidence for oxen using drag carts, all suggests flax fiber production had begun
  • 3400-3100 cal BC: spindle whorls in large numbers, suggesting a new technique of textile production had been adopted; ox yokes indicate the adoption of better farming technologies; larger seeds replaced by smaller ones
  • 3100-2900 cal BC: first evidence of a textile shoe; wheeled vehicles introduced in the region; flax boom begins
  • 2900-2500 cal BC: increasingly sophisticated braided flax textiles, including hats with fleece linings and twining for ornamentation

Herbig and Maier (2011) compared seed sizes from 32 wetland settlements spanning the period, and report that the flax boom beginning around 3000 cal BC was accompanied by at least two different varieties of flax being grown within the communities. They suggest that one of those may have been better suited to fiber production, and that, accompanied by an intensification of cultivation, supported the boom. 

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Harvesting, Removing and Threshing for Flax Oil

Field of Linseed Flax South of Salisbury, England
Field of Linseed Flax South of Salisbury, England. Scott Barbour / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Archaeological evidence gathered from the Neolithic Alpine villages suggests in the earliest period--while people were using the seeds for oil--they harvested the entire plant, roots and all, and brought them back into the settlements. At the lake shore settlement of Hornstaad Hörnle on Lake Constance was found two clusters of charred flax plants. Those plants were mature at the time of the harvest; the stems bore hundreds of seed capsules, sepals and leaves.

The seed capsules were then threshed, lightly ground or pounded to remove the capsules from the seeds. Evidence of that elsewhere in region is in deposits of uncharred flax seeds and capsule fragments in wetland settlements such as Niederweil, Robenhausen, Bodman and Yverdon. At Hornstaad Hörnle charred flax seeds were recovered from the bottom of a ceramic pot, indicating that the seeds were consumed or processed for oil.

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Processing Flax for Linen Production: Retting the Flax

Irish Farm Workers Lay Out Flax to be Field Retted, circa 1940
Irish Farm Workers Lay Out Flax to be Field Retted, circa 1940. Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Harvests after the focus shifted to fiber production were different: part of the process was to leave the harvested sheaves in the field for retting (or, it must be said, rotting). Traditionally, flax is retted in two ways: dew or field-retted or water-retted. Field-retting means stacking the the harvested sheaves in the field exposed to the morning dew for several weeks, which allows indigenous aerobic fungi to colonize the plants.  Water retting means soaking the harvested flax in pools of water. Both of those processes help to separate the bast fiber from non-fiber tissues in the stems. Maier and Schlichtherle found no indications of which form of retting was used in the Alpine lake sites.

While you don't need to ret flax before harvesting--you can physically strip off the epidermis--retting does remove the woody epidermal residues more completely. Evidence of the retting process suggested by Maier and Schlichtherle is the presence (or rather absence) of the epidermal residue in bundles of fibers found in the Alpine lake dwellings. If parts of the epidermis are still with the fiber bundles, then retting didn't take place. Some of the fiber bundles at the houses contained epidermis pieces; others did not, suggesting to Maier and Schlichtherle that retting was known but not uniformly used.

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Dressing the Flax: Breaking, Scutching and Heckling

Agricultural Workers Heckling Flax, ca. 1880
Agricultural Workers Heckling Flax, ca. 1880. A print from Great Industries of Great Britain, Volume I, published by Cassell Petter and Galpin, (London, Paris, New York, c1880). The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images

Unfortunately, retting does not remove all the extraneous straw from the plant. After the retted flax has dried, the remaining fibers are treated to a process that (as far as I'm concerned) has the best technical jargon ever invented: the fibers are broken (beaten), scutched (scraped) and heckled or hackled (combed), to remove the remainder of the woody parts of the stalk (called shives) and make a fiber suitable for spinning. Small heaps or layers of shives have been found at several of the Alpine lake sites, indicating that flax extraction did occur.

Tools approximating scutches and heckles found in the Lake Constance sites were made from the split ribs of red deer, cattle and pigs. The ribs were honed to a point and then attached to combs. The tips of the spikes were polished to a shine, most likely a result of usewear from flax processing.

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Neolithic Methods of Spinning Flax Fibers

Free-Spindle Spinning by Andean Women of Chinchero, Peru
Free-Spindle Spinning by Andean Women of Chinchero, Peru. Ed Nellis

The final step of flax textile production is spinning--using a spindle whorl to make yarn that can be used to weave textiles. While spinning wheels were not used by Neolithic craftspeople, they did use spindlewhorls such as that being used by the small industry workers in Peru shown in the photograph. Evidence of spinning is suggested by the presence of spindlewhorls on the sites, but also by the fine threads discovered at Wangen on Lake Constance (direct-dated 3824-3586 cal BC), a woven fragment had threads of .2-.3 millimeters (less than 1/64th of an inch) thick. A fishing net from Hornstaad-Hornle (dated 3919-3902 cal BC) had threads with a diameter of .15-.2 mm.

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A Few Sources on the Processes of Flax Fiber Production

Early 19th Century Suit on Sale at Bonham's
Joy Asfar from Bonham's wears a beige silk dress from the 1820's as she looks at a man's outfit comprising a white shirt, fine linen double breasted waist coat and beige breeches on April 14, 2008 in London. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images News / Getty Images

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  • for information about New Zealand weaving with indigenous "flax" see the videos created by Flaxworx

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Neolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Akin DE, Dodd RB, and Foulk JA. 2005. Pilot plant for processing flax fiber. Industrial Crops and Products 21(3):369-378. doi: 10.1016/j.indcrop.2004.06.001

Akin DE, Foulk JA, Dodd RB, and McAlister Iii DD. 2001. Enzyme-retting of flax and characterization of processed fibers. Journal of Biotechnology 89(2–3):193-203. doi: 10.1016/S0926-6690(00)00081-9

Herbig C, and Maier U. 2011. Flax for oil or fibre? Morphometric analysis of flax seeds and new aspects of flax cultivation in Late Neolithic wetland settlements in southwest Germany. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6):527-533. doi: 10.1007/s00334-011-0289-z

Maier U, and Schlichtherle H. 2011. Flax cultivation and textile production in Neolithic wetland settlements on Lake Constance and in Upper Swabia (south-west Germany). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(6):567-578. doi: 10.1007/s00334-011-0300-8

Ossola M, and Galante YM. 2004. Scouring of flax rove with the aid of enzymes. Enzyme and Microbial Technology 34(2):177-186. 10.1016/j.enzmictec.2003.10.003

Sampaio S, Bishop D, and Shen J. 2005. Physical and chemical properties of flax fibres from stand-retted crops desiccated at different stages of maturity. Industrial Crops and Products 21(3):275-284. doi: 10.1016/j.indcrop.2004.04.001

Tolar T, Jacomet S, Velušcek A, and Cufar K. 2011. Plant economy at a late Neolithic lake dwelling site in Slovenia at the time of the Alpine Iceman. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(3):207-222. doiL 10.1007/s00334-010-0280-0