top of page

Flax to linen at the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation

Updated: Feb 20


The Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation (CPP) is a living history museum interpreting the lives of English colonists living in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 18th century. The farm is called a “plantation” because of its size of 112 acres (45,3 ha); according to the terminology of the time, properties under 100 acres were called “farms”, those between 100 and 1000 acres were called “plantations”, and those over 1000 acres were called “manors”.

The historic farm is located within the Ridley Creek State Park, a 2,606-acre (1,055 ha) island of “undeveloped” land in what is now a densely populated area (population density of the area ranges from 2990 to 12,118 people per square mile).

The location inside a large park gives CPP a pristine setting that is unusual today, and its location in an area of high population density means that CPP is the first and perhaps the only “farm” in the experience of many visitors.

At the time of European contact, the area was inhabited by the Lenni Lenape people. English Quakers settled in the area of the park, including the site of the museum, in the late 17th century (the oldest house in the park dates to 1683). In the late 19th century, the land was purchased by the wealthy Jeffords family, who continued to lease the land, houses, barns, and other buildings to resident farmers. For this reason the area was not “developed” and remained agrarian into the 20th century. In the 1960s the Jeffords family sold the land and buildings to the State of Pennsylvania. A group of amateur historians formed a non-profit organization to preserve the site of the current Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation.

View of the site

Flax is not native to the eastern part of North America but it was an important crop in the countries from which the colonists came. In their new home they were quick to start cultivating it. The city of Germantown, which is about 15 miles east of CPP, was founded in 1683; since then the town motto has been “vinum, linum, et textrinum” and the seal incorporates images of a grape vine, a flax plant, and a weaver’s shuttle. In the rural areas, though, the labor to process the plants into fine linen was often in short supply.

Seal of neighboring city Germantown, Pennsylvania, from 1691, showing a grape fine, a flax plant, and a weaver’s shuttle. Germantown’s motto at the time of settlement was “vinum, linum et textilinum”.

Because of its importance in local history, flax is one of several crops that have been regularly grown at CPP, albeit on a small, experimental scale. We were not trying to be 100% historically accurate and the objective was to see if we could grow a small amount of flax, which we could then process for fiber, using the available resources, which included:

  • Cleared, arable land

  • Suitable climate

  • A small group of interested and fairly fit human beings with shovels

  • Other historic sites close by, and historians with resources to share

  • Flax processing tools and spaces to use them

Our methods

Soil preparation was done by hand as early in the spring as the ground could be worked. Historically, the flax ground would probably have been plowed the previous fall. The first year we applied manure to the plot but in subsequent years we did not. Too much available nitrogen can result in spindly weak stems that bend or lodge.

Interpreting a historic craft like flax processing involves understanding the “big picture”. In our case, we asked ourselves “how was the land prepared for flax in the 18th century?” The site was heavily forested at the time of European settlement. In such a “primitive” setting, oxen were the primary source of agricultural power in the beginning of the 18th century, gradually switching to horses as the area became more settled, and the frontier moved west. Thanks to the help of Howell Living History Farm staff, we were able to experience plowing with oxen.

Seeds for “fiber flax” (as opposed to oil/seed flax) proved challenging to obtain in more than tiny quantities, but eventually we found two reliable sources: Landis Valley Farm Museum in Lancaster, Pa and The Hermitage in Pitman, Pa.

Sowing: We broadcast the seed by hand, then raked and pressed the soil to create good contact. We tried to achieve the recommended 40-50 seeds per square foot (about 500 seeds per square meter) because the density of flax seedlings affects the quality of eventual fiber. Like farmers everywhere, we sometimes had to deal with outside forces: The picture shows a bare area caused by a snapping turtle that dug in the soil to lay her eggs just when the seeds were germinating.

Patchy germination of broadcast flax seeds. In the second picture, the bare area in the center foreground was caused by a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) disturbing the soil to lay her eggs.

Growing the crop: Some references stated that hand weeding was an important step in the cultivation of flax, at least in some areas and/or time periods, but we skipped this step and dealt with weeds at harvesting. If conditions are good, the flax will be ready to harvest in about 70 – 90 days depending on whether fine fiber or mature seeds are the desired crop. Historical records indicate that most of the flax cultivation in the area during the 18th century was for viable, mature flax seed, which was then exported back to Ireland. Since we wanted to experience processing our own fibers for textiles, we harvested the crop before the seeds were fully mature.

Growing flax. The picture on the left also shows small experimental plots of tobacco and broom corn.

Harvesting: when possible, we involved visitors to the site in the harvesting of the flax. Everyone had instructions to gather flax stems into bundles about 3 inches (75 mm ) in diameter, to exclude “weeds” (non-flax) from the bundles, and to align the root ends as much as possible. Visitors always seem to enjoy participating in this work. The bundles of pulled flax were allowed to dry in the open air until the seed heads were fully dry and brittle.

Visitors harvesting flax

Further processing: terminology and techniques

Flax to linen technology is commonly recreated at historic sites in Pennsylvania, but the staff at CPP was relatively inexperienced at the time, so we learned a lot by trial and error. The etymology of the words was an education in itself for me. In every language, many of the everyday words that were common to our ancestors have since become obscure and this presents obstacles for the student of historic technologies!

Etymology summary

The first step in processing retted flax for fine linen is to remove the seed heads, which can cause tangling and breaking of the long fibers. Seeds can also draw rodents and insects.

The word “ripple” is the term for removing the seed heads, and also the term for the tool that is used. As a part of flax processing, “ripple” derives from the same stem as “rip” as in tear; it does not derive from the same root as the word which describes a disturbance on the surface of water.

Rippling flax and a flax ripple

The next step in processing is to “ret” the fibers in a warm damp environment. Retting is basically a process of controlled rotting, and etymologically the words derive from the same stem. Site records indicate that in the 18th century, flax was retted in the wet-lands that adjoin the historic site, but environmental regulations have changed and we used a plastic water tank for immersion retting (“pond retting”).

By trial and error, and with help from more experienced historians (Joe Schott at Landis Valley Farm Museum) we learned how to determine when the flax is properly retted as the point when the outer bark of the stem fragments easily and falls away, leaving the intact bast fibers (phloem) clean of debris but still strong. In warm weather, retting proceeds faster and the flax must be checked (by a human, not a goose) at least daily.

When that point is reached, the bundles should be removed immediately and dried quickly, or else retting will continue and the fiber will be weak.

Retting by immersion and how correctly retted fibers should look like

At this point, we untied the flax bundles, but continued to handle them as individuals through the rest of processing.

The next step is to fragment the woody outer bark of the retted flax stems. This is called breaking (braking) the flax and a flax brake (break) is what you use do it. Different cultures have different tools, we had a handmade reproduction of an 18th century English flax brake available.

Two views of typical flax brakes

After breaking, the fragments of woody bark are removed. The English term for this is “swingling” and the tool is called a swingle. This is a very old word of Northern European origin; the word swingletree (wiffletree, singletree: for hitching a single draft horse) derives from it.

The word “scutching” is also used in English for the same process, but this word seems to derive from the Latin word “scute” which means a shield-shaped plate or scale. Its first recorded use in America is in the late 18th century.

After swingling (scutching), the flax fibers are combed again, this time through a series of very dangerous looking metal combs variously called hetchels, hatchels or heckles (plus other spellings). The modern English word heckle, meaning to irritate, harass or annoy comes from the same root.

Swingling and hetcheling flax

Additional picture showing a flax brake in the foreground, and heckling in the middle ground

The smooth long, shiny fibers resulting from the final combing are called “line flax”; these are twisted into “braids” to protect their smooth arrangement.

The bast fibers represents only about 10% of the weight of a stem of flax, and of that 10% most of the fibers will be short, even in an immature plant harvested for the finest fibers. So a great deal of tow is produced along with the line flax. Tow was in fact an important raw material for the British (and later the American) Navy for use in ship building.

Line flax, loose and plied into a “braid” for storage


Because of biology, plant fibers like flax require slightly different techniques for spinning as opposed to animal fibers like wool. The problem of how to make a long strand of cellulose adhere to other strands, but not until you want them to do so, has been solved in many different ways in the past. English colonists in North America typically used a distaff to arrange unspun line flax fibers, and a “flax wheel” for spinning the fibers into thread. As a beginner who was learning via trial and error, I found that the learning curve was too steep using period-correct techniques. Using modern techniques was helpful in getting started. For example, instead of a distaff, I spread the flax fibers out in a fan shaped pattern on my lap with one end tucked into my belt. Instead of a historically correct spinning wheel, I learned on a modern Louet spinning wheel.

Spinning wheels, one showing a distaff


Even though the original inhabitants of CPP probably did not spend their days weaving linen cloth, CPP has a well-developed textile program for such a small site. An original floor loom is warped each year and a length of linsey woolsey cloth is woven during the season when the site is open. Generally, purchased linen thread is used to warp the loom, and hand spun woolen thread is used as the weft. Other looms including table looms and tape looms are available on site and visitors are encouraged to sample techniques of weaving themselves. Because even the most modern person can relate to textiles, spinning and weaving are popular with visitors.

Different kind of looms: floor loom, table loom and tape loom

Prepared by Barbara Corson

Contact information for mentioned references/resources:

Joe Schott

Heirloom Seed Project

Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum

2451 Kissel Hill Road

Lancaster Pa 17601

Christian and Johannes Zinzindorf

The Hermitage

75 Grove Road

Pitman Pa 17965

Howell Living History Farm

mailing address:

101 Hunter Road

Titusville NJ 08560


Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth

By Linda Heinrich; 2010 Schiffer Books

History of Agriculture in the Northern United States 1620-1860

By Percy Bidwell and John Falconer; 1973 Augustus M Kelley publishers

bottom of page