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Welcoming our Flax Year

February marks the month in which the Year On The Field Project will start its regular reports and blogposts on Flax (Linum usitatissimum). It will be a mix of grower reports, guest contributions and insights in flax growing and processing experiences on a global scale.

Here is a first promotional clip:

In order to set the stage for the upcoming posts, we want to give our kind readers a short and brief introduction in the cultural-historical significance of Flax:

Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is a plant that has been cultivated for thousands of years for its fibres and seeds. We want to introduce our flax year by giving a short outline of the use through the history of humankind.

Ripened Flax seed vessels on a field in summer 2022

The oldest archaeological finds of flax fibres were found in a cave in Georgia and are dating to the 36th to the 31st millennium BC perhaps suggesting that flax fibres were already used for making yarn and ropes. The oldest finds of flax seeds come from the Near East dating to the 9th millennium BC, and show that the seeds were gathered at that time. In the Neolithic period, flax was already widespread in Europe. Linen textiles, including nets and cords, have been well preserved, for example in the Neolithic wetland settlements of the Alpine foothills, which have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011. While the moist and quickly covering sediment ensured good preservation here, drought and heat made finds possible elsewhere. Notably, for example, in Egypt, where flax fibres were used to make linen for clothing, sails and mummy wrappings. In ancient Greece and Rome, flax was also an important crop, used both for textile production and as a source of food and medicine. Well known from written sources from this time is the so-called linothorax, a linen breastplate of incredible value.

Naples, National Archaeological Museum, Alexander Mosaic with Linothorax, Battle of Isus. (CCA-SA 3.0 Unported license; Wikimedia, Attribution: Berthold Werner)

In the Middle Ages, flax was an important agricultural crop in Europe and was used to make linen for many purposes such as clothing and bedding. Because linen clothing takes a long time to make, clothing in pre-industrial times has had a much higher value overall.

In the 19th and 20th century, flax production declined due to the increasing popularity of cotton and later the following the introduction of synthetic fibres. However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in flax, due to its health benefits and environmental sustainability.

At this point, a basic distinction has to be made, because there are two different varieties of the domesticated flax plant: oil flax and fibre flax differ in their looks, properties and usage. Oil flax is grown for its oil-rich seeds (with at the same time shorter stems), which are a source of unsaturated Omega-3 fat-acids (linoleic acid) that are vital for humans but cannot be produced by our bodies. Therefore, oil flax is commonly cultivated for food production and animal feed, but also for industrial purposes such as the production of paints and varnishes. Fibre flax, on the other hand, is grown specifically for its strong and long fibres, which are used in the production of linen. This textile has many good characteristics: it is particularly tear-resistant, long lasting and absorbs little water. For clothing, it’s pleasantly cool and doesn’t scratch on the skin.

The advantages of both oil and fibre flax are obvious. Flax is an ancient and versatile plant that deserves more attention.

However, both the cultivation and processing of flax require a lot of knowledge. We are therefore looking forward to the upcoming contributions of the participants who will give us an insight into their methods of flax cultivation and processing.

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