The flax industry has a rich history and traditions that date back to ancient times. Part of these traditions are the historical sowing rituals performed by farmers and flax growers to ensure a successful harvest. These rituals were passed down through testimonies, as well as through regional literature, proverbs and sayings. Flax growers in Belgium had many methods to ensure their harvest was successful, such as sowing at the right time and place, singing purposeful songs and reciting prayers, but also some rather eccentric practices. In this way, they tried to invoke the support of the divine and obtain a bountiful harvest.
The sowing period
According to the saying “March flax, best flax”, flax is traditionally sown between March 15 and April 15. Flax blooms for only a few hours in June, with harvesting taking place in the second half of July, making the entire flax cultivation period about one hundred days. For sowing, people in Flanders often chose a feast day of Our Lady or another sowing saint, such as Saint Denis. Holy Thursday was also popular, and sometimes the position of the moon was used to determine the sowing time.
Before 1800, flax was also sown in fall with the harvest taking place in June and July, resulting in a strong and tough fiber. In recent years, winter flax is regaining popularity due to global warming, with research centers such as Inagro conducting experiments in collaboration with flax growers.
Sower with sowing apron on a field. Flanders, around 1920-1940.
Flax seeds have their own shape and characteristics. They are flat, oval-shaped, glossy, light and brown in color. A good harvest begins with high-quality seed that germinates quickly and well. To ward off evil forces, various beliefs and practices existed. Some of these were religiously inspired and related to devotion to Our Lady. For example, the seed could be sprinkled with holy water, blessed palm branches, or a few drops of wax from the Easter candle. Incantations were also sometimes read at the three corners of the field to drive away worms. Why three? So the pests would have a way out...
In addition to religious practices, there were also non-religious beliefs. For example, it was known that adding crushed, boiled eggs to the seed could increase the yield. It was believed that the egg yolk would color the buds of the flax yellow and the egg white would make the fibers and linen whiter. Sometimes ash from burned palm branches, worn liturgical linens, lacework, or flowers and plants were mixed in with the seed.
Achiel Jonckheere and Honoré De Gryse (Belgian Flax Association) inspecting the plants on a trial field. Flanders, around 1930-1940.
Sowing flax was a task that required great skill and almost ceremonial practice. The most skilled flax sower was highly respected and valued for their ability to ensure a bountiful harvest while keeping weeds at bay. Whether sowing by hand or with a special seeder, precision was key to ensure that the seeds landed close together in the field.
In many parts of Flanders, the flax sower was given special feed to get strong flax. In Deerlijk, for example, the flax sower was fed ten eggs so the flax would grow ten hands high. Elsewhere, eating a piece of fat pork was believed to promote strong flax growth. The sower's clothing, particularly their apron, had to be clean and freshly washed, so that the flax would be nice and white later. Indeed, the seed from a dirty sowing apron would make for black flax and lots of weeds. These traditions around ‘het zaecleet’ existed as far back as the Middle Ages, as evidenced by estate records from 1438.
The sowing violin with linen bag was in use for a short period, as a tool to spread the seed evenly. Flanders, around 1910-1930.
On the day of the sowing, many rituals were performed before the actual process could begin. The seed was taken by cart to a corner of the field. In some parts of Flanders, such as the region around Oudenaarde, the farmer would walk on March 24, midnight, across the field with a goat or billy goat crosswise to keep weeds at bay. The seed could also first be sprinkled with holy water or a few drops of consecrated candle were poured into it, after which the sower said a short prayer.
The seed was then poured into the sowing apron. In many places in Flanders, sowers required a beautiful young girl to do this, believing this promoted the fertility and beauty of the flax. Before the first step, a cross was pounded into the loose soil with the feet or spade. The sower made a sign of the cross at each corner and used holy water or a consecrated palm branch to protect the field from disease. According to superstition, the seed had to be thrown high to get high flax. In some places people placed sticks in the flax to influence the gods and already show the desired length of the flax stalks.
Weeding was a delicate task and mostly women’s labor in which young daughters of the family helped. Meulebeke, around 1920-1950.
And then it was up to nature to do its work... A successful harvest was incredibly important in rural society, which was organized within an elaborate but fragile system of small holdings, the so-called ‘Flemish Husbandry’. The sowing rituals performed were deeply rooted in the folk devotions of the common people, who felt powerless in the face of weather conditions and supernatural forces. Although these rituals are no longer practiced, their history remains alive. Flax remains an important crop for many farmers, and the traditions and knowledge are passed down from generation to generation.
Prepared by Greet Verschatse and Sylvie De Coster, Texture, Museum of Flax and Textiles in Kortrijk, Flanders, Belgium. Based on Bert Dewilde, ‘20 Centuries of Flax in Flanders’, 1983.