Hackles and other flax processing equipment remind us of the constant labor needed to turn an agricultural crop – flax – into raw materials for other uses, specifically linen fiber to spin and weave into tape or cloth, and flax seed for future crops or for linseed oil production. A grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has helped deepen access to some of these tools in The Henry Ford’s collection.
One site within The Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Daggett farmhouse, conveys the work of flax processing and linen tape-weaving to guests.
The Henry Ford acquired the Daggett Farmhouse in 1977, and it is an anchor of living-history programming focused on colonial life. Samuel Daggett built the house in 1754. He and his wife Ann Bushnell Daggett, and their family worked an 80-acre farm in northeastern Connecticut. In addition to building houses and farming, Samuel made furniture and served the rural community in numerous ways. Ann managed the family economy. She processed wool and flax fibers, made clothes, cooked, tended the garden and ensured the health and wellbeing of the family. The three Daggett children, two girls and a boy, helped.
Rear of Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, USA, September 2007, with nasturtiums in the foreground. Photograph by Michelle Andonian. THF53544. The Farris windmill is in the background to the left.
Acquiring linen starts with planting flax seeds (Linum usitatissimum). This is an annual plant (requiring planting each year). Farm families like the Daggetts harvested their flax for linen production before the seeds matured. The Daggett family probably left some of their flax crop in the field longer so they could save the mature seeds for the next year’s planting or could sell the seeds to other tradesmen who pressed the seeds into linseed oil (a common ingredient in paint). Farm families who retained flax seed might provide it to their neighbors for a price. Samuel Daggett provided seed to his neighbors regularly between the 1740s and 1770s, according to his account book (in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society).
Farm families used a “comb” made of long iron spikes mounted in a board to remove the seeds from the flax plant. To use the comb, they held a handful of flax plants firmly and drew the end with the seed pods through the spikes to remove both immature and mature seeds. This retained the length of the plant, critical for the next steps in the linen production process.
This hackle could have been used to remove seeds from flax, but most tools to remove seeds had only one row of long teeth. Two people could work at the same time using a tool like that, often mounted over a box or on a cloth to catch the seeds. This hackle was made around 1800. THF194479.
Flax is a dicotyledonous plant. The phloem (also known as inner bark or bast) contains the fibers. Separating those fibers from the other layers of the flax stem requires retting, a process that dissolves the material (tissues and pectin) that surrounds the fiber. Retting involves either submerging the flax plant (after removing seeds) in stagnant water (a pond for instance) or exposing the fiber to heavy dews (a technique that results in less-high quality linen fibers).
After retting, the rest of the dissolved plant material is knocked away by using a flax break. The person using the break held flax stems in a small bundle, placed them atop the wooden break, and then moved the hinged bars up and down to break up the plant material.
This model represents one of the flax brake designs developed in America, shown open (THF174781) and closed (THF174780). Made around 1900. This might have been used on a table, but most breaks stood on the floor and were about waist-high to the user.
After breaking families then used a swingling knife and scutching board to further clean the flax fibers.
Swingling knife. THF196563.
After swingling (or scutching) processing shifts to preparing flax fibers for spinning. This involves drawing the fibers through a series of hackles--boards with sharp metal spikes--to align the long fibers and remove debris and short fibers. Samuel Daggett “set a ‘hechol’” for Daniel Newcomb in February 1762, and set a “hitchal” for Stephen Spain in May 1770. Daggett also (at least once) traded “hicholded flax” to neighbor Joseph Griswold in in May 1758, evidence of the family contribution to the farm economy (7 shillings for one-half pound of hackled flax).
You can take a look at all the hackles processed during the IMLS grant-funded project, but some highlights follow.
For convenience, this double hackle bench combines a coarse hackle at one end with a finer hackle at the other end. THF171105.
This 1746 hackle is one of the earliest marked examples in the collection. THF194449. The date of 1746 is carved in one end of the board, and two “S” scrolls are carved in the other end.
This hackle made in 1783 has the date and initials punched into both sides of the tin that wraps around the underside of the board. THF194055.
Hackles came in different forms. This version (with circular placement of spikes) was more common in Europe or Scandinavia. A person could use this hackle while seated, stabilizing it by putting their foot through one hole and holding the other end with one hand while they draw the flax through the hackle.
Hackle, made around 1800. THF194519.
This hackle, made in 1846, is one of the most elaborate in THF collections. It includes sheet metal rosettes with T.L. punched into one, and 1846 punched into the other.
Hackle. THF194577. Made in 1846.
The last part of flax fiber processing involves spinning.
Wheels for spinning the flax fiber into linen vary in size and shape depending on where and when they were made. You can view the range of flax wheels in THF collections HERE.
This Saxony-style wheel, as its name suggests, was developed in northern Europe but was widely used in America. The built-in distaff held the cleaned flax fibers, and the spinner drew the fibers from the distaff as they mobilized the wheel with a foot treadle. Joseph Gregg (1741-1803), a woodworker in Londonderry, New Hampshire, made this wheel between 1765 and 1803.
This photograph from 2007 shows a presenter spinning flax into linen thread in the formal parlor in the Daggett farmhouse. THF54228. October 2007. Photograph by Michelle Andonian.
The final step in flax processing involves weaving the finished yarn into cloth, or tape as this presenter is doing.
Tape loom in operation at Daggett farmhouse. August 4, 2023. Photograph by Debra A. Reid.
Funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services has allowed for increased access to materials from THF’s agriculture and environment collections. Thanks to this funding, these flax-processing items have been catalogued, digitized, and now await further research.
Text prepared by Debra Reid.