Charlie Mallon has reintroduced flax to his farm in County Tyrone. He is committed to growing and processing flax using traditional techniques that are sustainable and environmentally responsible. In this post we take a closer look at all the stages involved in linen production.
1. Soil preparation
Here at Mallon Ireland we have a long term plan of a seven year crop rotation using potatoes, flax, oats and grass. Planting potatoes in a field the year before we sow flax, ensures that the soil is in optimum condition before it is ploughed in preparation for planting.
We sow the flax seeds in May using a traditional tool called a fiddle. It is the same way our grandparents would have completed this task and ensures the small flax seeds are evenly dispersed across the field. The seeds we use are also important. We have been working with Irish Seed Savers Association to build up stocks of some heritage varieties such as Stormont Motley and Northern Princess. Some seeds are more suitable for textile production and others don't grow as tall and are best for other uses, so it is important to sow the correct ones. A field of tall flax with blue flowers swaying in the breeze is a breathtaking sight. The 'wee blue blossom' as it is affectionately known here was such a part of Northern Ireland's agricultural and industrial heritage that it is now the logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
After 100 days the flax should be ready for pulling. We pull by hand rather than cut to maintain the optimum length of the fibre. When we started growing flax again on the farm we were told that it would take "5 good men a day to pull an acre". We have lots of good family and friends who come to help us for the harvest and we haven't quite reached that level yet! There is always great fun and camaraderie in the field, although the weather here in Ireland can be changeable even in August. Some days we need sunscreen, other days we need waterproofs!
We bundle the flax together into beets and they are stacked in the field and then hung around the fences on the farm to dry.
Rippling is the process of taking the seeds off the flax plant. We use some of the seeds to produce linseed oil for our Mallon polish and others are kept for sowing again the following year.
In the past this has been the part of linen production that could damage the environment. Retting was known to cause problems in rivers, but we have worked with a Rivers Trust Agency to find solutions that ensure our methods are both environmentally friendly and sustainable. We use only natural rainwater and have repurposed a tank from a cheese factory to use for retting. The water can be dispersed gradually into the field which ensures the river is never affected. We have been experimenting with both tank and dew retting techniques.
After retting we lay out the flax to dry on the hill.
Back in January last year we purchased an old 1940's Mackies scutching machine and this year we finished building a mill to house it at the farm. Restoring the machine has been a painstaking labour of love but every time we get another part of the machine functioning, it is a wonderful sight! The windows and floor of the scutching mill were made from 100 year yellow pine boards that were originally used in a mill in Randalstown. It is lovely to see elements from the linen industry that once thrived in this area getting a new lease of life in our mill.
9. Hackling (heckling)
This process gets the fibres ready for spinning using a tool called a hackle, similar to brushing tangled hair with a comb. Indeed, the pale, smooth, fine fibres that result are the source of the phrase "flaxen hair". The short fibres that are left over are not wasted; they are called "tow" and can be made into strong rope, once a huge industry in Belfast.
Great skill and dexterity is required to spin by hand and the process is very similar to that used for wool. Years ago many farmhouses in the area would have had a spinning wheel, and indeed a loom.
As with spinning, this can be done by machine or by hand on a loom. At this stage the fabric will have a wonderful natural pale brown colour. Other processes such as bleaching, dyeing or beetling the linen can follow. Beetling involves pounding the fabric to create a beautiful sheen.
We have some small quantities of linen produced from some of the last crops to be grown in Ireland. The yarns came from local mills, rescued as they closed, one by one. They have been preserved for a generation by Hermann and Marion Baur of Flaxmill Textiles in Dungiven, skillfully woven by hand or by vintage looms into precious pieces of history. Click here to view the full range.