While working on the previous post detailing the fine art of the mustard plaster and handling the linen cloth, I was again reminded of all of the healing aspects of the flax plant. I mentioned my fancy of well loved linen, so it may be no secret that I am quite fond of most textiles. Natural fibers, of course, but particularly those whose history I can trace from living plant or grazing creature to finished product. Add in a few good human hands to help harvest, sheer, weave, knit or stitch along the way and I'm all aglow. What was once a basic and necessary commodity for all lingers now as a timeless art for a few who pursue and are deeply gratified by the process. You know who you are! I brushed the cyber-dust off of this article originally written and published in the Winter 2008 issue of the Hollerbeier Haven newsletter.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) was formerly one of the most useful and productive crops of the Pennsylvania countryside, but its’ presence as such, has sadly dissolved into history. Flax was one of the state’s earliest agricultural exported items (mustard seed being the other) but cultivation in Pennsylvania ceased almost entirely by 1870, having been in gradual decline since the civil war. The introduction of cheaper cotton goods were also introduced about the same time.Flax seed was sown early in the spring and by early summer the field was awash with a sea of brilliant blue flowers on long slender stalks that swayed easily in the breeze. By the time it was harvested late in the summer, the plants were in seed and ready to be pulled up by hand. They were then stacked on the ground to be rained upon or soaked in a nearby stream to hasten the decomposition of the outer layer of the stalk. This ‘retting’ process would dissolve the natural glue which binds the flax fibers to the stalk. After the outer skin had rotted, the flax stalks had to be dried again. Depending on the weather this may have happened out in the fields or possibly near a fire. A series of repetitive processes followed that involved ‘breaking’ the outer stalk and separating the long fibers for spinning. Up until this point all the diligent physical preparations that accompanied planting and harvest were the mainly the responsibility of the men folk. The finished raw flax fibers were then carefully stored in a dry place until they were brought out again during the long dark nights brought in the waning of the year.
Spinning was a winter chore performed by the women and girls of the household. An old proverb in the Pennsylvania German dialect was: “Lichtmess, schpinna fergess” which meant that all the winter spinning needed to be completed and the spools full of flax thread by Candlemas/Lichtmass day which was February 2nd. When the spinning was completed, the thread was then sent to the local weaver who produced the linen cloth. The weaver was most often a man, who would likely keep a portion of the cloth as payment for his services. It was rare for an 18th century household to have their own full-sized loom. These were very large and expensive pieces of equipment and were generally owned and operated by those who were weavers by trade. Many households did have a small table or hand loom that could produce a long narrow measure of cloth that was useful for smaller household needs. The total production time from stomping the seed into the cold wet soil to completion of a soft warm undergarment could take up to eighteen months or more.
The history of "Flaxbaue' (or flax culture) dates back to the late stone age. Archeological excavations around earthen dwellings in Switzerland show that the inhabitants there were familiar with linen. Through the ages, linen was used not only to fashion garments, but also to make sailcloth for great ships, rope and cording, nets for hunting and fishing, wicks for lamps, as well as for making pages for books and manuscripts. Linen was so revered that is was used as actual currency in some northern regions.
Though the blue flax flowers were often associated with the Virgin Mary during medieval times, this was surely a hold over from earlier cultures who understood the flax ‘creation stories’ to be linked with the various ‘spinning goddesses’.
The goddesses ( Holle, Hulda,Frigg, Brigit,Perchta, and the Wyrd Sisters) were charged with the gifting of the flax seeds to mortals, the protection and fertility of the flax crop and women, the teaching of spinning and weaving and finally, the spinning of threads of fate or creation and destruction. Spinning the thread could be compared to stirring the soup pot. Starting with seemingly nothing and creating something of great worth and usefulness to the folk. The spinning work contained all of the symbolism of the creation cycle: the beginning creative spark, the living, active work and then the ‘harvest’, completion or fulfillment of the worthy task. With the death of the plant, came the birth of the seeds for the next years’ planting and the beginning of a new cycle. It was these deeply held beliefs that insured that all phases of the flax culture were honored equally and thus were rich with tradition and ritual. Most ritual practices took place during the flax growing season to assure that the plants grew as tall as possible; for the longest lengths of raw fiber made for a stronger thread which was then woven into cloth that was longer lasting. The rituals which focused directly on the fertility and productive health of the fields fell naturally on the women of the village; From the manner in which flax seeds were sown, to the frequent visits to the flax fields during the growing season, the women were solely responsible for these rituals.Later, during the act of spinning, a woman would soon discover that listening to the rhythmic hum of the wheel and watching it circle round and around in front of the open fire, could induce altered states of consciousness. This was (and is) a perfect meditative exercise for the long dark nights of winter when contemplative thought and dreaming the future was all considered to be part of the ‘woman’s winter work’. Because the flax plant was considered to be overseen by so many beneficial goddesses, it was also a commonly held belief that the blue blossoms, the seeds and the fine linen cloth were strong deterrents to evil sorcery and witchcraft. These parts of the plant were routinely used in healing and protection ceremonies throughout the Middle Ages. A healing plant poultice was made that much more powerful by utilizing linen in the dressing. Many healing women also had special headdresses made of linen and wore them as a defense against demons.
In fairly recent times, the healthful benefits of flax seeds and flax seed oil have become common knowledge. The Omega 3 fatty acids in the flax seed oil help to ‘ward off’ the evils of heart disease and cancer and will reduce inflammation within the body, the source of many ills of today. The seeds (made into a ‘slimy’ tea by combining 1 cup of boiling water and 3 tsp of seeds) have demulcent and emollient abilities that will soothe coughs and sore throats, or help ease dry constipation and urinary or digestive system inflammation. Flax seed that has been cooked in milk or water and then used as a poultice will have a drawing effect: For bronchitis, pneumonia or asthma use as a chest plaster with mustard powder or combined with grated carrot and or marshmallow root for swellings or inflammation. A warm flax seed poultice will also draw a boil or abscess to a head. Some may think of flax today as a ‘new age’ or ‘ natural’ remedy but in understanding the incredible significance of the existence of flax in cultures worldwide for the past 25,000 years, the historic uses can be safely utilized and appreciated by families and practitioners yet today. Certainly makes this writer wistfully imagine a large waving blue patch out back. When my own seeds arrive, I will certainly enjoy starting a new ‘tossing and stomping’ planting ritual of my own!
I claim that in losing the spinning wheel we lost our left lung. We are, therefore, suffering from galloping consumption. The restoration of the wheel arrests the progress of the fell disease.