Flax (also known as common flax or linseed), with the binomial name Linum usitatissimum, is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. It is a food and fiber crop that is grown in cooler regions of the world. The textiles made from flax are known in the West as linen, and traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes and table linen. The oil is known as linseed oil. In addition to referring to the plant itself, the word "flax" may refer to the unspun fibers of the flax plant. The plant species is known only as a cultivated plant, and appears to have been domesticated just once from the wild species Linum bienne, called pale flax.
- 1 Description
- 2 History
- 3 Uses
- 4 Production
- 5 Harvesting
- 6 Processing
- 7 Preparation for spinning
- 8 Genetically modified flax contamination
- 9 Symbolic images
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Several other species in the genus Linum are similar in appearance to Linum usitatissimum, cultivated flax, including some that have similar blue flowers, and others with white, yellow, or red flowers. Some of these are perennial plants, unlike L. usitatissimum, which is an annual plant.
The earliest evidence of humans using wild flax as a textile comes from the present day Republic of Georgia, where spun, dyed, and knotted wild flax fibers were found in Dzudzuana Cave and dated to the Upper Paleolithic, 30,000 years ago. Flax was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region. There is evidence of a domesticated oil-seed flax with increased seed size by 9,000 years ago from Tell Ramad in Syria. Use of the crop steadily spread, reaching places as far as Switzerland and Germany by 5,000 years ago (3,000 BCE). In China and India domesticated flax was cultivated by at least 5,000 years ago (3,000 BCE).
Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Egypt, where the temple walls had paintings of flowering flax and mummies were entombed in linen. Egyptian priests only wore linen, as flax was considered a symbol of purity. Phoenicians traded Egyptian linen throughout the Mediterranean, and the Romans used it for their sails. As the Roman Empire declined, so did flax production, but Charlemagne revived the crop in the 8th century CE with laws designed to publicize the hygiene of linen textiles and the health of linseed oil. Eventually, Flanders became the major center of the linen industry in the European Middle Ages. In North America, flax was introduced by the colonists and it flourished there. But by the early 20th century cheap cotton and rising farm wages had caused production of flax to become concentrated in northern Russia, which came to provide 90% of the world's output. Since then flax has lost its importance as a commercial crop, due to the easy availability of more durable fibers.
Flax is grown for its oil, used as a nutritional supplement, and as an ingredient in many wood-finishing products. Flax is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. Flax fibers are used to make linen. The Latin species name usitatissimum means most useful.
Flax fibers are taken from the stem of the plant and are two to three times as strong as those of cotton. Additionally, flax fibers are naturally smooth and straight. Europe and North America depended on flax for vegetable-based cloth until the nineteenth century, when cotton overtook flax as the most common plant used for making rag-based paper. Flax is grown on the Canadian Prairies for linseed oil, which is used as a drying oil in paints and varnish and in products such as linoleum and printing inks.
Flaxseeds come in two basic varieties: 1. brown; and 2. yellow or golden (also known as golden linseeds). Most types have similar nutritional characteristics and equal numbers of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The exception is a type of yellow flax called solin (trade name Linola), which has a completely different oil profile and is very low in omega-3 FAs. Flaxseeds produce a vegetable oil known as flaxseed oil or linseed oil, which is one of the oldest commercial oils. It is an edible oil obtained by expeller pressing, sometimes followed by solvent extraction. Solvent-processed flaxseed oil has been used for many centuries as a drying oil in painting and varnishing.
Although brown flax can be consumed as readily as yellow, and has been for thousands of years, its better-known uses are in paints, for fiber, and for cattle feed.
One hundred grams of ground flaxseed supplies about 534 calories, 41 grams of fat, 28 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of protein.
Flaxseed sprouts are edible, with a slightly spicy flavor. Excessive consumption of flaxseeds with inadequate water can cause bowel obstruction. In northern India, flaxseed, called tisi or alsi, is traditionally roasted, powdered, and eaten with boiled rice, a little water, and a little salt.
Whole flaxseeds are chemically stable, but ground flaxseed can go rancid at room temperature in as little as one week, although there is contrary evidence. Refrigeration and storage in sealed containers will keep ground flax from becoming rancid for a longer period; under conditions similar to those found in commercial bakeries, trained sensory panelists could not detect differences between bread made with freshly ground flax and bread made with milled flax stored for four months at room temperature. Milled flax is stable to oxidation when stored for nine months at room temperature if packed immediately without exposure to air and light and for 20 months at ambient temperatures under warehouse conditions.
Linum usitatissimum seeds have been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally (directly soaked or as tea) and externally (as compresses or oil extracts) for treatment of disorders of the respiratory tract, eyes, infections, cold, flu, fever, rheumatism and gout.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||2,234 kJ (534 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||27.3 g|
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||
|Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
In a 100 gram serving, flaxseeds supply 534 calories and contain high levels (> 19% of the Daily Value, DV) of protein, dietary fiber, several B vitamins and dietary minerals (table). Flaxseeds are especially rich in thiamine, magnesium and phosphorus (DVs above 90%, table).
As a percentage of total fat, flaxseeds contain 54% omega-3 fatty acids (mostly ALA), 18% omega-9 fatty acids (oleic acid) and 6% omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid); the seeds contain 9% saturated fat, including 5% as palmitic acid. Flaxseed oil contains 53% 18:3 omega-3 fatty acids (mostly ALA) and 13% 18:2 omega-6 fatty acids.
Flaxseed and its oil have repeatedly been demonstrated to be non-toxic and are generally recognized as safe for human consumption. Present in many common foods and having low content in flax, cyanogenic glycosides are non-toxic when consumed in typical amounts, but may be toxic in large quantities from consuming staple foods like cassava. Flaxseed has low concentration of cyanogenic glycosides (0.48% in a sample of defatted dehusked flaxseed meal), but these can be removed by special processing.
Flax fiber is extracted from the bast beneath the surface of the stem of the flax plant. Flax fiber is soft, lustrous and flexible; bundles of fiber have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description "flaxen". It is stronger than cotton fiber but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damasks, lace and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine and rope, and historically for canvas and webbing equipment. Flax fiber is a raw material used in the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes and rolling paper for cigarettes and tea bags. Flax mills for spinning flaxen yarn were invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington, England in 1787. New methods of processing flax and the rising price of cotton have led to renewed interest in the use of flax as an industrial fiber.
The soils most suitable for flax, besides the alluvial kind, are deep loams, and containing a large proportion of organic matter. Flax is often found growing just above the waterline in cranberry bogs. Heavy clays are unsuitable, as are soils of a gravelly or dry sandy nature. Farming flax requires few fertilizers or pesticides. Within eight weeks of sowing, the plant will reach 10–15 cm (3.9–5.9 in) in height and will grow several centimeters per day under its optimal growth conditions, reaching 70–80 cm (28–31 in) within fifty days.
Production by country
|Top ten linseed producers – 2011|
|Country||Production (metric tons)||Footnote|
|No symbol = Official data, * = Unofficial figure, A = Aggregate (may include official, semi-official or estimated data)|
Flax is harvested for fiber production after approximately 100 days, or a month after the plant flowers and two weeks after the seed capsules form. The base of the plant will begin to turn yellow. If the plant is still green, the seed will not be useful, and the fiber will be underdeveloped. The fiber degrades once the plant is brown.
Flax grown for seed is allowed to mature until the seed capsules are yellow and just starting to split; it is then harvested in various ways. A combine harvester may either cut only the heads of the plants, or the whole plant. These are then dried to extract the seed. The amount of weeds in the straw affects its marketability, and this coupled with market prices determines whether the farmer chooses to harvest the flax straw. If the flax straw is not harvested, it is typically burned, since the stalks are quite tough and decompose slowly (i.e., not in a single season). Still being somewhat in a windrow from the harvesting process, the straw would often clog up tillage and planting equipment. Flax straw that is not of sufficient quality for fiber uses can be baled to build shelters for farm animals, or sold as biofuel, or removed from the field in the spring.
There are two ways to harvest flax fiber, one involving mechanized equipment (combines), and a second method, more manual and targeted towards maximizing the fiber length.
Harvesting for fiber
The mature plant is cut with mowing equipment, similar to hay harvesting, and raked into windrows. When dried sufficiently, a combine then harvests the seeds similar to wheat or oat harvesting.
The mature plant is pulled up with the roots (not cut), so as to maximize the fiber length. After this, the flax is allowed to dry, the seeds are removed, and it is then retted. Dependent upon climatic conditions, characteristics of the sown flax and fields, the flax remains on the ground between two weeks and two months for retting. As a result of alternating rain and the sun, an enzymatic action degrades the pectins which bind fibers to the straw. The farmers turn over the straw during retting to evenly rett the stalks. When the straw is retted and sufficiently dry, it is rolled up. It will then be stored by farmers before extracting the fibers.
Threshing is the process of removing the seeds from the rest of the plant. Separating the usable flax fibers from other components requires pulling the stems through a hackle and/or beating the plants to break them.
Flax processing is divided into two parts: the first part is generally done by the farmer, to bring the flax fiber into a fit state for general or common purposes. This can be performed by three machines: one for threshing out the seed, one for breaking and separating the straw (stem) from the fiber, and one for further separating the broken straw and matter from the fiber.
- Take the flax in small handfuls in the left hand, spread it flat between the third and little finger, with the seed end downwards, and the root-end above, as near the hand as possible.
- Put the handful between the beaters of the breaking machine, and beat it gently till the three or four inches, which have been under the operation of the machine, appear to be soft.
- Remove the flax a little higher in the hand, so as to let the soft part of the flax rest upon the little finger, and continue to beat it till all is soft, and the wood is separated from the fiber, keeping the left hand close to the block and the flax as flat upon the block as possible.
- The other end of the flax is then to be turned, and the end which has been beaten is to be wrapped round the little finger, the root end flat, and beaten in the machine till the wood is separated, exactly in the same way as the other end was beaten.
Preparation for spinning
Before the flax fibers can be spun into linen, they must be separated from the rest of the stalk. The first step in this process is retting, which is the process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer parts intact. At this point there is still straw, or coarse outer stem (cortex and epidermis) remaining. To remove this the flax is "broken," the straw is broken up into small, short bits, while the actual fiber is left unharmed. Scutching scrapes the outer straw from the fiber. The stems are then pulled through "hackles," which act like combs to remove the straw and some shorter fibers out of the long fiber.
There are several methods of retting flax. It can be retted in a pond, stream, field or tank. When the retting is complete, the bundles of flax feel soft and slimy, and quite a few fibers are standing out from the stalks. When wrapped around a finger the inner woody part springs away from the fibers.
Pond retting is the fastest. It consists of placing the flax in a pool of water which will not evaporate. It generally takes place in a shallow pool which will warm up dramatically in the sun; the process may take from a couple of days to a few weeks. Pond retted flax is traditionally considered of lower quality, possibly because the product can become dirty, and is easily over-retted, damaging the fiber. This form of retting also produces quite an odor.
Stream retting is similar to pool retting, but the flax is submerged in bundles in a stream or river. This generally takes two or three weeks longer than pond retting, but the end product is less likely to be dirty, does not smell as bad and, because the water is cooler, is less likely to be over-retted.
Both pond and stream retting were traditionally used less because they pollute the waters used for the process.
In field retting, the flax is laid out in a large field, and dew is allowed to collect on it. This process normally takes a month or more but is generally considered to provide the highest quality flax fibers, and it produces the least pollution.
Retting can also be done in a plastic trash can or any type of water-tight container of wood, concrete, earthenware or plastic. Metal containers will not work, as an acid is produced when retting, and it would corrode the metal. If the water temperature is kept at 80 °F (27 °C), the retting process under these conditions takes 4 or 5 days. If the water is any colder, it takes longer. Scum will collect at the top, and an odor is given off the same as in pond retting. 'Enzymatic' retting of flax has been researched as a retting technique to engineer fibers with specific properties.
Dressing the flax
Dressing the flax is the process of removing the straw from the fibers. Dressing consists of three steps: breaking, scutching, and heckling. The breaking breaks up the straw. Some of the straw is scraped from the fibers in the scutching process, and finally the fiber is pulled through heckles to remove the last bits of straw.
The dressing is done as follows:
- Breaking: The process of breaking breaks up the straw into short segments. To do it, take the bundles of flax and untie them. Next, in small handfuls, put it between the beater of the breaking machine (a set of wooden blades that mesh together when the upper jaw is lowered, which look like a paper cutter but instead of having a big knife it has a blunt arm), and beat it till the three or four inches that have been beaten appear to be soft. Move the flax a little higher and continue to beat it till all is soft, and the wood is separated from the fiber. When half of the flax is broken, hold the beaten end and beat the rest in the same way as the other end was beaten, till the wood is separated.
- Scutching: In order to remove some of the straw from the fiber, it helps to swing a wooden scutching knife down the fibers while they hang vertically, thus scraping the edge of the knife along the fibers and pull away pieces of the stalk. Some of the fiber will also be scutched away, this cannot be helped and is a normal part of the process.
- Heckling: In this process the fiber is pulled through various different sized heckling combs or heckles. A heckle is a bed of "nails"—sharp, long-tapered, tempered, polished steel pins driven into wooden blocks at regular spacing. A good progression is from 4 pins per square inch, to 12, to 25 to 48 to 80. The first three will remove the straw, and the last two will split and polish the fibers. Some of the finer stuff that comes off in the last hackles is called tow and can be carded like wool and spun. It will produce a coarser yarn than the fibers pulled through the heckles because it will still have some straw in it.
Genetically modified flax contamination
In September 2009, it was reported that Canadian flax exports had been contaminated by a de-registered genetically modified variety called Triffid which had food and feed safety approval in Canada and the U.S. However, Canadian growers and the Flax Council of Canada raised concerns about the marketability of this variety in Europe where there was a zero tolerance policy regarding unapproved GMOs. Subsequently de-registered in 2010 and never grown commercially in Canada or the U.S., Triffid stores were destroyed, but future exports and further tests at the University of Saskatchewan proved that Triffid persisted among flax crops, possibly affecting future varieties. Canadian flaxseed cultivars were reconstituted with Triffid-free seed used to plant the 2014 crop. Laboratories are certified to test for the presence of Triffid at a level of one seed in 10,000.
Flax is the emblem of Northern Ireland and displayed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In a coronet, it appeared on the reverse of the British one-pound coin to represent Northern Ireland on coins minted in 1986, 1991 and 2014. Flax also represents Northern Ireland on the badge of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and on various logos associated with it.
Common flax is the national flower of Belarus.
In early tellings of the Sleeping Beauty tale, such as "Sun, Moon, and Talia" by Giambattista Basile, the princess pricks her finger not on a spindle but on a sliver of flax, which is later sucked out by her children conceived as she sleeps.
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