F is for Flax

Written by Kerry E.B. Black


Humans have harvested flax since ancient history. Archeologists discovered flax remnants in Stone Age lake-side dwellings in Switzerland. The ancient Egyptians created fine linens from flax fibers, as well as the wrappings for royal mummies. Phoenicians apparently brought linen to Gaul and Britain, and the Romans spread linen production through their empire. The plant most likely originated in the Mediterranean region.

Flax is mentioned in the Bible several times. Leviticus tells priests wore garments made of flax. Exodus instructs the devout on using twined flax linen to create curtains for the tabernacle. When men were sent to scout out Jericho in the Book of Joshua, the men hid under stacks of flax. Ezekiel describes a sail made of fine flaxen linen from Egypt, and the dead are wrapped with flaxen linen before their internment in the tomb.

Walt Whitman’s “Faces” mentions using flax for fabric production in “Faces” (“…Her ample gown is of cream-hued linen, hand grandsons raised the flax, and her granddaughters spun it with the distaff and the wheel…”) and again in “A Carol of Harvest for 1867.” (“…Clip the wool of California or Pennsylvania, cut the flax in the Middle States…”) Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Work and Contemplation,” Jonathan Swift in “To Stella Who Collected and Transcribed His Poems,” and Countee Cullen in “Heritage” mention working with flax, as did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his tribute to “Keats.” Ralph Waldo Emerson lists it among important plants on a farm in “Hamatreya.”

Judy Grahn in “Helen in Hollywood” takes a different approach to the plant, describing a starlet with the line “… her flesh is like flax, a living fiber…” In the Christian Hymn 125, Christ’s compassion for the weak and tempted is described thus: “…He’ll never quench the smoking flax, but raise it to a flame; the bruised reed he never breaks…”

The flower of the plant is described by Longfellow in “The Wreck of the Hesperus” (…blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, her cheeks like the dawn of day, and her bosom white as the hawthorn, that ope in the month of May…”) as did A.E. Housman in “Bring in This Timeless Grave to Throw.” (…but if the Christmas field is kept awns the last gleaner overstept, or shriveled flax whose flower is blue, a single season, never two…”)

Producers grow two types of flax, seed flax which is grown for its linseed oil, and fiber flax grown for the fibers in its stems. Linseed meal is fed to livestock, and chickens fed a diet of flax produce high omega-3 eggs. Flax is included in some skin treatments and makeup products, and consuming it is believed to keep human hearts healthy. Linseed oil is used in oil painting and varnish. Flax continues to be made into textiles, ropes, and papers. In fact, these days, a major flax paper product is cigarette paper.