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The Story of the Golden River (1850-1950)

The medieval County of Flanders owes its wealth and reputation to the weaving and processing of woolen fabrics or cloth, as we have all learned in school. Much less known is that from the fifteenth century onwards, linen production became a foundation of the Flemish rural economy. Nevertheless, this industry would provide prosperity and livelihood security in our region for over four centuries. According to tradition, Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) expressed it as follows: "I fear nothing for Flanders as long as the fields bear flax, there are fingers to spin it, and arms to weave it. The Flemish will always be rich as long as the thumbs of their spinners are not cut off."

A global industry in the household

Linen production does not have large centers. It is spread throughout Flanders, across thousands of farms. In the summer, farm families work in the fields, while in the winter, women spin yarn from flax fibers and men weave linen. Generally, it is sold in local trade centers. Many Flemish cities still have a Flax or Linen Market. With this income, along with the proceeds from their harvests, Flemish farmers can live in relative prosperity.

The linen industry took place for centuries in small units with simple tools, as an additional source of income on farms. Photo: Texture

The system under pressure

The prosperity it brings also creates problems. The population keeps growing, while the agricultural land remains more or less the same. With each generation, farms diminish in size until many families can no longer sustain themselves from the food they grow. They become dependent on their linen income to survive. The system functions until the beginning of the 19th century, but then the collapse occurs rapidly. English factory linen and much cheaper cotton flood the market. Flemish home weaving cannot compete with those industrial production methods. Crop failures, famine, and epidemics in 1845-1846 become the final blow.

Down to the fibers

The small Flemish farmers have to look for other sources of income. They have little money to invest; their labor and skills are their main capital. In the Lys Valley, they focus on what they already know: flax processing. Only retting, scutching, and hackling remain from the old linen industry. What used to be an intermediate step becomes an entirely separate industry, with flax fibers as the end product. The farmers sell them to large industrial spinning mills, which process them into linen yarn. Some farmers still grow their flax, but large quantities are imported. It turns out to be a golden move.

The flax workers line up in the scutching mill, amidst noise and dust. Each of them kept a quantity of scutched flax to determine their wage, Ooigem-Wevelgem, early 20th century. Photo: Texture F01403, F01494, F03005

Along the Lys and Mandel rivers

The concentration of flax processing in the region around Kortrijk is no coincidence: since the 1820s, it has been officially allowed to ret flax in the river Lys, which is a great advantage for the young industry. This retting method produces paler fibers, ideal for weaving the whitest possible linen. The Lys (and the Mandel) is also suitable because it flows slowly: the flax is safe, and at the same time, the water is refreshed quickly enough. During the retting season, from May to October, there is great activity. Once the load is retted, the flax is spread out along the riverbank to dry in thousands of ‘chapels’.

The flax is dried on the riverbanks in thousands of chapels. This was often a group activity where children also helped, early 20th century. Photo: Texture F00914

Myth and marketing

'Courtrai Flax' was being considered of very fine quality. This gives rise to various myths about the quality of the water, but they are nothing more than myths. The experience, skill, and hard work of the flax farmer are crucial in obtaining the best quality flax. It is quite an art to keep the flax submerged just deep enough, or to determine when it is ready to be taken out of the Leie. A wrong decision by the 'hekkenier' could completely ruin the expensive batch of flax.

The bundles of flax remain constantly submerged underwater using heavy stones, overlooking the Leie in Kortrijk, ca. 1910-1920. Photo: Texture F02716

Thousands of wooden crates, hundreds of bundles of flax, and the typical "vlaskotje" where the materials and equipment were stored, overlooking the Leie between Bissegem and Kortrijk, ca. 1910-1920. Photo: Texture F02723

A Complex Trade Network

In the 19th century, high-quality flax fibers were in high demand by the spinning mills that emerged in Northern France and the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution. British buyers went on prospecting trips to Flanders. Initially, they limited themselves to the flax region around Sint-Niklaas because it was closest to the port of Antwerp, but in 1829, they also appeared on the flax market in Kortrijk for the first time. These flax buyers and representatives quickly realized that they would never find their way in the local flax world. They didn't know the language, and there were simply too many small businesses. As a result, a new circuit of intermediaries emerged who selected, purchased, gathered, and resold the flax in Kortrijk.

The pure and high-quality fibers were traded in 100 kg bales, here marked with 'Vansteenkiste Wevelghem', early 20th century. Photo: Texture F1753

A British Colony

With a tremendous amount of manpower, enormous quantities of flax are now being processed. In 1913, it amounted to 120,000 tons. The British left their mark by constructing prestigious buildings and introducing sports such as football and tennis. They also gave the Leie its nickname, the Golden River. According to some, "golden" refers to the sparkling of the sun on the river, while others attribute it to the specific golden-yellow color of retted Leie flax. However, the reality is somewhat more prosaic: it mainly refers to the fortunes they earned from the flax trade.

Transportation by boat, train or truck of a load of flax, ca. 1930. Photo: Texture F01045, Collection PWVL

Resistance and Protest

For decades there was little need for innovation. The mechanization of the flax industry in Belgium was a response to the economic downturn of the 1930s, leading to the development of innovative technologies by clever engineers. The introduction of warm water retting techniques faced resistance due to concerns about separating flax factories from the Lys River and potential effects on product quality. However, as the crisis subsided, mechanization significantly improved flax production, making it faster, less labor-intensive, and of consistent quality, evident by the widespread appearance of root pits in the landscape.

A new direction

After World War II, the Lys Valley experienced a period of prosperity through mechanization. Flax farmers enjoyed golden years, particularly during the Korean conflict, as flax was in high demand for military equipment. One kilogram of flax fibers was worth approximately one square meter of land. However, a miscalculation occurred when the Soviet Union began supplying flax fibers at dumping prices in 1958, and synthetic fibers gained popularity. This led to bankruptcies in the flax industry, but some resilient and risk-prone businesses diversified into related sectors like carpets, linseed animal feed, or particleboards. Leveraging their flax background and the region's trade network, some of these businesses grew into multinational companies. Despite the challenges, around 50 flourishing flax companies today contribute to the industry's vitality in the Lys Valley.

Joint promotional campaigns highlight the qualities of flax and linen, ca. 1950. Photo: Texture TEX02232, 2010-002-855

The flax industry has shaped the economic and social life in the area around Kortrijk for centuries. It is a fascinating history of dizzying highs but also deep lows. An international story with thinkers, risk-takers, and doers in the lead, deeply rooted in the DNA of the region and with the Lys River as the common thread. The flax crisis from the late 1950s could have dealt a fatal blow to the business in the Kortrijk area. Instead, it became the starting point of a new story.

Text by Sylvie De Coster, Texture, Museum of Flax and Textiles in Kortrijk, Flanders, Belgium.


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