My youngest son, Andrew, and I are fascinated by sailing ships. We have different interests though. Andrew’s interest in sailing ship largely came from the “Hornblower” series. As a result, he can identify not only all the classes of British, French, and American sailing vessels of the Napoleonic era, but he can identify almost all ships individually at a glance. Andrew’s ideal day would be crewing a square-rigger. I am more interested in the development of sailing ships. In the next age, I anticipate getting my chisels and planes out and building a few sailing ships.
This fall in the Western Civilization class at Gutenberg, we start with the ancient world. This gives me an excuse to spend time learning more about the ships of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Greeks. I have been aware for a number of years that early sailing ships mostly used linen for sails. It’s hard for me to think about linen sails. I can’t answer basic questions. How strong were they? How strong were they when wet? How long did they last in the elements?
But these sorts of questions lead to more questions, like these: When did early man first figure out how to make linen out of flax? How complicated was it to learn to process the flax into thread? What is the general history of the use of flax? Some of the questions are easy to answer with a little research.1 The first recorded finding of linen was in a Stone Age lake dwelling in Switzerland. By the time of Mesopotamia and early Egypt, the craft of making linen was well established.
In America, flax came first to Pennsylvania with early German settlers. Early settlers raised about two acres of flax to meet their families’ needs for clothes and bedding.
Closer to home, a species of flax is native to Oregon. Merriweather Lewis collected some in 1805 while in eastern Oregon. A commercial linen industry started in Oregon in the late nineteeth century. A major part of the early story of the Oregon linen industry is that flax was grown and processed by the state penitentiary personnel and inmates. It was their experience that provided the farmers with the knowledge of how to grow and process flax into cloth. In the first half of the twentieth century, Oregon was internationally known for its linen. However, the commercial linen industry ended rapidly after World War II. Oregon linen could not compete with western European linen and the introduction of synthetic materials like nylon. As a result, the farmers in the Willamette Valley turned to grass seed. Curiously, in the last few years farmers have expressed a resurgent interest in flax as the grass-seed market has declined.
The question about how early man first figured out how to make linen is more difficult to sort out. It certainly occurred before writing. To help me think about that I decided to grow some flax and process it by traditional means. Obtaining flax seed suitable for fiber is difficult. Almost all the flax seed available today is for oil, not fiber. However, one of my favorite heirloom seed sources came to the rescue. The Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has a heritage seed project. They collect and maintain varieties of plants that were important to the German settlers in Pennsylvania from 1750 to 1940. I was able to obtain some fiber flax seeds from the museum.
I planted a few of the seeds in the corner of a raised bed to see how to grow it and to experiment with it. I planted the seeds Memorial Day weekend (at least a month late for Oregon). The flax came up and grew rapidly. Right on schedule, sixty days from planting, the flax blossomed. Fiber flax is much taller than oil flax, averaging about 31 to 47 inches high. Most of my flax is 53 inches high—well taller than average.
Harvesting is about thirty to forty days away—when the lower half of the plant has turned yellow. The flax is pulled up by the roots and dried. Then begins the processing. I will let you know how it goes.
I think it would be very interesting to build a wooden boat and make a set of linen sails. It would be a real challenge to sail such a craft here in the Siuslaw estuary, given our challenging winds. It would challenge even Odysseus’s skill. (Homer tells of Odysseus making several trips to Egypt to obtain people with the skill to make linen sails.) I will end with a quote from Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD):2
How audacious is life and how full of wickedness, for a plant to be grown for the purpose of catching the winds and the storms…out of so small a seed springs a means of carrying the whole world to and fro…
1) The best reference is Heinrich, Linda. Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, 2012, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, Atglen, Pennsylvania. Most of the historical information in this post is from that book.
2) Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX, 1, p.423.