Flax and linen

The spinning of flax fibres and the weaving of those into linen fabric has taken place in Scotland for centuries, initially for personal use and later as a burgeoning industry.

From the frequent mention of linen in the history of Scotland, it is evident that the inhabitants were acquainted with the processes of making cloth from flax six hundred years ago at least… There is good reason for concluding that the linen so successfully displayed on this memorable occasion [as crude flags at the battle of Bannockburn, 1314] was home-made. At first the flax was grown, dressed, spun, and woven by the people for their own use; but towards the close of the sixteenth century linen goods formed the chief part of the exports from Scotland to foreign countries. About the same time a considerable quantity of Scotch linen found its way into England. 

The linen manufacturers of Scotland derived great advantage from the [1707] union with England. The duties charged on goods exported to the sister kingdom were removed, and at the same time the colonies were opened to Scottish enterprise. A period of great industrial activity set in, and the quantity of linen goods produced was much increased. 

“The Industries of Scotland, their Rise, Progress and Present Condition” by David Bremner (1869). In Chapter 10: Linen and Jute Weaving.
Flax fibre ready to spin into linen. The fibre is rolled into a circle.
Handspun flax fibres being scoured (washed) in a metal pot. Steam rises from the pot.
Hand holding a scoured handspun flax skein, reading for weaving into linen.

My own ancestors were involved with flax spinning and linen weaving in Kirriemuir, Angus during the 1800s: one family among many living and working in the linen weaving trade in the area at this time.

The manufacture of Osnaburgs, scrims, birdies and other coarse linens has long been carried on in the town [Kirriemuir] to a considerable extent. The value of the cloth made from September 1791 to September 1792 was £38,000 sterling. This is more than had ever been manufactured before in one year and was owing to the then flourishing condition of the trade, which had never been better than in the end of the latter year. The number of weavers in the parish at that date was 228…

The Kirriemuir manufacturers now [in 1799] give employment to fully 2000 weavers, of whom about 1,500 are in the town and suburbs, and the remainder in the country. The number of warp and weft winders, warpers, lappers and others employed will not fall very far short of 2000, so that the total number employed in the linen manufacture in the district approaches 4000 people. The wages paid in the various trade amount to about £40,000 per annum. Power-loom weaving has not yet been introduced into Kirriemuir, but no doubt a very few years will see works of this kind started there, as well as in the neighbouring towns. The manufacturing trade of Kirriemuir has had its fluctuations as other places have but, notwithstanding, the increase has been on the whole progressive and steady. This may, perhaps, be owing to the fact that the manufacturers have been all along practical tradesmen, well qualified to judge of the work when executed, and they have generally been careful and industrious men. Some of them have acquired a moderate competency, and they conduct their business in a quiet unobtrusive manner, very much to their own comfort and profit. The description of goods now made in the district is chiefly Osnaburgs, hessians &c.

The Linen Trade, Ancient and Modern” by Alex Johnston Warden (1864). In Section IV, Part II, Chapter III: Modern Linen, The United Kingdom, Scotch, District Trade, Kirriemuir.

Discovering forebears who were brown linen weavers and linen yarn winders prompted my own explorations of flax spinning and linen weaving, specifically as part of my Intergenerational Connections project, and more widely for commissioned work.

Ancestral Connections

Handspun flax woven into brown linen fabric. Warp threads are visible above the woven fabric.
A length of handwoven linen fabric, woven in squares connected by unwoven warp threads. The fabric is handing on the side of a derelict building, with fields, sea and sky behind.

Ancestral Connections: A Thread Runs Through” was created in summer 2021 as a commission for Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, and was taken into the permanent collection of Aberdeen City and Shire Archives.

The brief was to create new work that explored identity by responding either to objects already in the gallery collection or to gaps in the collection. I chose to address a gap: the lack of utilitarian fabrics that were commonly made across north east Scotland, the creation of which underpinned the economic success of many families; and the corresponding lack of representation of objects originating from working class individuals. Where these fabrics do exist in gallery collections, they are typically valued due to their association with other objects – sailcloth from a ship, upholstery backing on furniture, or tailored clothing – and are not celebrated solely for the fabric or the skills needed to make it.

I created a work that would showcase and celebrate the materials and fabric, giving value to the skills required to make these. Flax tow (short) fibres were spun by hand using a spinning wheel before being scoured (washed). Scoured, single-ply yarns were used as warp and weft, handwoven in plain weave in the style of Osnaburg fabric.

Seven square sections were woven, linked together with unwoven warp threads, referencing the seven generations of my family involved with weaving. This also draws on the concept of seventh generation thinking that originates from First Nation peoples of North America, which urges us to consider the impact of our decisions on those who follow seven generations in the future. What [skills, knowledge, materials] do we value and how is this reflected in our decision-making and actions?

This work was exhibited at Aberdeen Art Gallery 18th December 2021 – 6th March 2022.

Flax Turns – Foundation Cloth

Over winter 2021-22, I’ve been working with visual artist Christine Borland and textile artist Daisy Williamson. Through teaching, research and practice, we collectively learned the processes and nuances of spinning line flax, before spinning flax grown in Huntly as part of Christine’s “Flax” project. Over spring 2022, I turned this handspun flax into handwoven linen.

Background and project information is available at Deveron Projects.

The gallery below illustrates the stages of turning Huntly flax fibre to handspun yarn.

Images to follow of the weaving process…