The Scutching Machine

Scutching is the process of removing the outer layers from the retted and dried flax stems. It's a long, dusty, labour intensive process to do by hand and over the years there have been a variety of machines developed for the job. In the 1940's a new type of scutching turbine was designed by Mackies. It was extremely efficient and less dangerous than its water driven predecessors.
The picture below shows a scutching mill with just such a machine in the heyday of the linen industry in this area.

A few years ago we purchased a Mackie's scutching machine that had lain in pieces in a barn for many decades. We think it was probably in operation up until the 1970's. As there were no longer any facilities for scutching in Northern Ireland, we needed to restore this machine in order to process our crop of flax. 

 The long process of piecing together this massive jigsaw puzzle of a machine began. Luckily for us, at some point in its life, someone had taken the time to number various pieces. Maybe it had been moved before, or maybe whoever took it apart hoped its scutching days weren't over. Whatever the reason, these numbers helped us a lot! 

The first stage of the scutching process involves breaking the flax stems, which have been retted and dried.

The next stage straightens out the flax after it has been through the first set of breakers and feeds it through a second set to break the other side of the stems.The broken flax is then carried through two turbines which scutch first one side then the other. This is the really magical bit where it turns from a tangled, crimped mess into beautiful golden fibre.
The different elements of the machine are now run on variable speed motors so we've spent a lot of time adjusting and tweaking. It's amazing what a difference a small variation can make to the smooth travel of the fibre. We are also realising just how important it is to get the retting just right. If the flax has been under retted, it will come out with some shives (the non fibrous outer parts of the stem) still attached. If it has been over retted, it just disappears.
Scutching yields two types of fibre…line and tow. Line is the long smooth fibre  that can be spun to make fine linen and tow is the coarser fibre that was traditionally used here to make rope, once a huge industry in Northern Ireland. It has lots of other interesting uses too…some plastics are being replaced with natural fibre composites using plants like flax and hemp.

We're excited to see this amazing machine slowly and steadily coming back to life. 

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