In this text I present Swedish dialectal terminology on flax and linen. Only words describing the material are presented, not the specific tools or words connected to them. The text is based on the material found in the collections of The Institute for Language and Folklore (Isof) in Uppsala where I work. The text was originally published in Swedish on the Isof website.
Various place-names in Sweden are mentioned in the text, most of which are provinces. The location of these provinces are shown on the map below. Two (out of three) regions, Götaland and Svealand, also appear in the text. Götaland covers the south and southwest of Sweden, while Svealand adjoins in the north and east and surrounds the capital of Stockholm.
Map of the provinces of Sweden. From Svenskt ortnamnslexikon published by Isof 2016.
Flax in bloom. Photo: Annette Meyer/Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/sv/photos/vild-lin-ensam-smalbladigt-lin-4322342/).
In most parts of Sweden, the month of May is considered the right time to sow flax. Ideally, one would sow when it was »linseed weather», as they used to call it in Hälsingland, meaning no wind and preferably sunny. But often enough the occasion was not chosen freely. Predetermined days in the middle or end of May were regarded as particularly suitable for flax sowing. Those days were named after whose name day it was. Karolina Day (May 20) was one of these days; the reason for this being that the length of the name was thought to ensure that the flax would be long as well and that the word »lin» is included in the name. Other days particularly highlighted were Erik (May 18), Urbanus (May 25) and Beda (May 27). In this context, Erik's day was often called lin-Erik or hör-Erik.
When the flax was ready to be harvested at the end of the summer, it was pulled up from the ground. Then followed processing in several steps to remove the woody parts of the stem and the shortest flax fibres. In the end, only the longest fibres should remain, and from them the finest linen yarn was spun. However, all flax, regardless of the length of the fibres, was made use of and the various qualities had different names.
Preparing of flax in the 1920s at Södra gården in the village of Lia in Frövi parish, Västmanland. Photographer unknown. Örebro stadsarkiv. CC BY. https://digitaltmuseum.se/0210111643062/linberedning-pa-sodra-garden-i-lia-i-frovi-1920-tal.
Lin and linne
In both standard Swedish and many dialects, the term lin has been used both for flax in general and for the very finest quality. Lin is related to or a borrowing of the Latin word linum. Linnaeus gave the plant the specific epithet usitatissimum 'the most useful', thereby showing how important he thought it was.
In some dialects lin has also denoted parts of clothing, such as a waistband or a lining: Du faur sy lin pau tjortelen, ’you have to sew a waistband on the skirt’ (Skåne or Scania). Lined va lased män böisårna va bra, ’the lining was in shreds but the trousers were good’ (Halland).
An adjective linnen was formed as a derivation of lin to describe something is made of linen, as in the phrase linnena lasa, ’rags of linen’ from Blekinge. From its neuter form linnet, the noun linne gradually evolved to denote textiles made of linen. Today the noun can be used about home textiles and garments that are no longer made of linen, such as sänglinne ‘bed linen’ and nattlinne ‘night gown’ or just linne for a sleeveless top.
The word lin is attested in our dialect collections from most parts of the country, but from southern Sweden it is often remarked that lin came in late and hör is the word traditionally used. The records about hör are very numerous from Skåne (Scania), Blekinge, Småland, Halland and Västergötland in particular. Considering the closeness to Denmark it is not surprising that hør is the standard Danish word for ’flax’. Just like lin, hör can refer to both flax in general and the finest variety.
To is a word that has been used about most natural fibres, including flax. Its exact meaning varies across the country and meanings overlap each other geographically. Mainly in Blekinge, Småland and Östergötland, to has been used specifically for flax as a plant or under preparation: Di hade ju en liten åker di hade to på, ’they did have a small field where they grew »to»’ (Östergötland). Dä ä ett drytt göre o häkkle to, ’it is heavy work to hackle »to»’ (Småland).
In a more northerly area, consisting of mainly Småland, Södermanland, Uppland, Gästrikland, Hälsingland, Härjedalen and Medelpad, to has been used only for the shorter fibres of linen, the tow: ’at home we used to weave sackcloth from yarn made of »to» and sewed sacks of it’ (Uppland). On the island of Gotland and in parts of Småland, Västergötland and Östergötland only the finest flax has been called to.
In large parts of the regions of Götaland and Svealand, the flax fibres have often been called tågor (or tåjer, taujå, tåver, tôwe, tåver and other forms). It could be used about all fibres regardless of quality, and also the fibres in the stem, as in this brief description from the middle of Skåne (Scania) of how you go about retting:
Så skolle vi bre-en po marken po en rustobb, där skolle han liddja te vi konne se tövårna, ’then we had to spread it (i.e. the flax) out on the ground on a stubble of rye, where it had to lie until we could see the »tågor»’.
Flax is spread out to be retted at the Kärr farm in Västergötland. Photo: Anders Johansson, Västergötland museum. CC BY-NO-ND. https://digitaltmuseum.se/021017204268/linet-utbredes-till-rotning-pa-garden-karr.
But it is just as common that tågor denoted only the very finest fibres: Dä-ä stât garn fö dä ä ao taojå, ’it is a strong yarn for it is made of »tågor»’ (Småland). Duktyger ä utå tåger, blåner spinnes te lakan, ’table cloth fabric is made from »tågor», tow is spun to bed sheets’ (Östergötland).
Terms for the shorter flax fibres
The shorter flax fibres, the tow, which are separated during various stages of the preparation, have often been called blår or blånor.
Samples of tow and the finest quality of flax. Photo: Kulturparken Småland AB / Kulturparken Småland / Småland museum. CC BY 4.0. https://digitaltmuseum.se/021026706961/prov.
These fibres were always put to good use and transformed into coarser yarns and weaves. They were utilized in many other ways as well, as the following examples show:
Aggust spinner allti blår te tö:w, ’August always spins tow to rope’ (Halland)
Da usspareste blaonera hade da te täkkeståpp, ’the most inferior tow was used as duvet padding’ (Småland)
He had mös å blår å driva husa me, ’he had moss and tow to weatherproof the houses with’ (Halland)
Je mäj litte blår te å jöre ren börssa mä, ’give me some tow to clean the gun with’ (Dalsland)
The word blår was in use already in Old Swedish, then as blar. The form blår appeared when the long vowel a in most parts of Sweden changed into å. Blår is found in many dialects in the regions of Götaland and Svealand. Blånor is also very wide-spread in the dialects and is today the standard Swedish word. Blån is another form recorded primarily from Sörmland, Västmanland, Uppland, Värmland, Dalarna, Västerbotten and Norrbotten. In Västergötland blå has been used, as in spinna blå, ‘spin tow’. According to the Swedish Academy Dictionary (SAOB) the form blån(or) is the result of an expansion of the stem in the word blår. The etymology of blar is uncertain.
All these words seem to have been used for inferior flax in general, but it is not uncommon that they referred only to the best tow, that is the fibres separated at the final hackling. Yarn made from tow has often been called blagarn or blaggarn. Bla is the singular form of the older blar, whereas garn means ‘yarn’. In these compound words the transition of long a to å has not occurred, probably due to the fact that the a was shortened before that happened. The SAOB suggests that the stress was not on the first syllable as today, but the last -garn, making it more likely that the first vowel was shortened.
People used to insist on keeping all types of tow apart, since their varying qualities made them suitable for different purposes. Equally important was to distinguish these qualities linguistically and one way of doing so was to add contrasting first elements. Among a large number, only a few are mentioned here: grov- ‘coarse’/grann- ‘fine’, topp- ‘coarse’ (from the top end of the stem)/fin- ‘fine’ and varp- ‘warp’/väft- ‘weft’ (more inferior tow was used for the weft than for the warp).
Spinning of flax and tow. From left Klara Johansson and Axelia Axelsson, Tisselskog parish in Dalsland, 1922. Photo: Adolf Karlsson / Vänersborg museum. Public domain. https://digitaltmuseum.se/021015601166/spinning-av-lin-och-blanor-fran-vanster-klara-johansson-och-axelia-axelsson.
There are several words for tow that are solely dialectal. One of them is the above mentioned to. Another one is stry (or stryg, stri) which has denoted all kinds of tow. It has been used in the parishes of Särna and Idre in the northwest of Dalarna, Härjedalen, Jämtland, Medelpad, Lappland, Ångermanland and Västerbotten: Vi ha dreve ålle sprönjern å nåta vä stry å schwynbôrscht, ’we have caulked all slots and joints (in the rowboat) with »stry» and pig bristles’ (Ångermanland).
Another common word in northern Sweden is yster (or öster, ister). It is documented from Ångermanland, Västerbotten, Lappland and Norrbotten: Ja ska jöra na sjortyg bårtte östren, ‘I will make some shirt fabric from the »yster»’ (Västerbotten).
Instead of using a scutching knife, the flax is here pulled through a “draga”. Vännäs parish in Västerbotten, 1934. Photo: Ingrid Pettersson, ULMA 8187, Isof.
Further south we find two words which both seem to have been used more often about the coarsest tow, the scutching tow. One of them, dån (or dön) or dun, is documented from Dalarna, Gästrikland and Västmanland: Spinn blån du so ta ja dönä, ’you spin the finest tow and I will take the coursest’ (Dalarna). If the material was of particularly poor quality, it could be called dön-dön. The second word, noppor (or nôpper, näpper), has been used south of the area for dån, in Blekinge, Småland, Östergötland, Närke and Sörmland: Fyra öre marka va prise för finblår å tre för näpper, å nåra öre mer för tåger ’four »öre» per »mark» (a certain amount of flax) was the price for fine tow and three for »noppor», and a couple of »öre» more for »tågor»’ (Sörmland).
Flax in Sweden today
The cultivation and preparation of flax declined sharply in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, when it faced competition from foreign flax producers and from cotton. In 1966, state aid to flax cultivation was withdrawn and soon thereafter all large-scale production ceased. Since then, an interest in growing flax on a smaller scale has been retained within various groups and by individuals. In recent years, the interest in growing flax has increased significantly in Sweden largely due to a project called »1 sq.m. of flax» (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_Handicraft_Association#1_square_metre_of_flax).
It was launched in 2020 in the county of Västra Götaland (basically the provinces of Västergötland, Bohuslän and Dalsland) and the idea was to give everyone interested in growing flax enough seed to grow 1 square metre of it. The project was an immediate success, as around 700 people took part the first year. The following year, the project was widened to cover the whole of Sweden and then about 6,000 people joined in to grow flax. In 2022, the project was further expanded to the entire Nordic region, Estonia and Scotland and it has continued this year.
Flax is a material with several environmental advantages. One reason for this is that it is a hardy plant that can handle cold climates. In areas with cooler temperatures there are fewer pests, which reduces the need to use pesticides. In addition, the availability of water is usually greater there, so artificial irrigation is rarely needed. The preparation of flax is a chemical or mechanical process. The impact on the environment depends on what chemicals are used as well as how much and what type of energy is used during the mechanical processes (Hallå konsument! https://www.hallakonsument.se/miljo-och-hallbarhet/material-i-klader-och-textiler/ (this page is only in Swedish)).
Anyone who grows flax at home has of course every chance to do it in an environmentally friendly way.
Text by Eva Thelin, Research archivist at ISOF (Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore);
reviewed by Cozette Griffin-Kremer