(also known as common flax
) (binomial name: Linum
) is a member of the genus Linum
in the family Linaceae
. It is native to the region extending from the
eastern Mediterranean to
India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent.
This is called as
Agasi/Akshi in Kannada, Jawas/Javas (जवस) or Alashi (अळशी) in
Marathi. Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Egypt
. Dyed flax fibers have been found in the
Georgia in a prehistoric cave that date to 34,000 BC. New
is not related to flax, but was named after it as
both plants are used to produce fibers.
Flax is an erect annual plant
to tall, with slender stems. The leaves
green, slender lanceolate
, 20–40 mm long and 3 mm
broad. The flowers
are pure pale blue,
15–25 mm diameter, with five petals; theycan also be bright
red. The fruit
is a round, dry capsule
5–9 mm diameter, containing
several glossy brown seeds
shaped like an
pip, 4–7 mm long.
In addition to referring to the plant itself, the word "flax" may
refer to the unspun fibers of the flax plant.
Flax is grown both for its seeds
and for its
fibers. Various parts of the plant have been used to make fabric,
dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets, hair gels and soap. It is also
grown as an ornamental plant
Brown Flax Seeds
Flax seeds come in two basic varieties, brown and yellow or golden,
with most types having similar nutritional values and equal amounts
of short-chain omega-3 fatty
. The exception is a type of yellow flax called Linola
or solin, which has a completely different oil
profile and is very low in omega-3. Although brown flax can be
consumed as readily as yellow, and has been for thousands of years,
it is better known as an ingredient in paints, fiber and cattle
feed. Flax seeds produce a vegetable
known as flaxseed or linseed
, which is one of the oldest commercial oils and
solvent-processed flax seed oil has been used for centuries as a
in painting and
One hundred grams of ground flax seed supplies about 450
kilo-calories, 41 grams of fat, 28 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of
One tablespoon of ground flax seeds and three tablespoons of water
may serve as a replacement for one egg
baking by binding the other ingredients together. Ground flax seeds
can also be mixed in with oatmeal
or any other food item where a nutty flavor is
appropriate. Flax seed sprouts
with a slightly spicy flavor. Excessive consumption of flax seeds
with inadequate water can cause bowel obstruction. Flaxseed is
called 'Tisi' in northern India particularly Bihar region. Roasted
'Tisi' is powdered and eaten with boiled rice, a little water and a
little salt since ancient times in the villages. It is aromatic and
is considered soothing for stomach, laxative and good for
Flax seeds are chemically stable while whole, and milled flaxseed
can be stored at least 4 months at room temperature with minimal or
no changes in taste, smell, or chemical markers of rancidity.
Ground flaxseed can go rancid at room temperature in as little as
one week. Refrigeration and storage in sealed containers will keep
ground flax from becoming rancid for a longer period of time.
Flax seeds contain high levels of lignans
Omega-3 fatty acids
. Lignans may
benefit the heart, possess anti-cancer properties and studies
performed on mice found reduced growth in specific types of tumors.
Initial studies suggest that flaxseed taken in the diet may benefit
individuals with certain types of breast
. However, the Mayo Clinic
(http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/flaxseed/AN01712) reports that
the alpha linolenic acid in flaxseed may be associated with
risk of prostate cancer, and cautions that those
with, or at risk for, prostate cancer should not take flaxseed. A
recent meta-analysis found the evidence on this point to be mixed
and inconclusive (Am J Clin Nutr (March 25, 2009).
doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736Ev1). Flax may also lessen the severity
of diabetes by stabilizing blood-sugar levels. There is some
support for the use of flax seed as a laxative
due to its dietary fiber
content though excessive
consumption without liquid can result in intestinal blockage.
Consuming large amounts of flax seed can impair the effectiveness
of certain oral medications, due to its fiber content.
As of 2009 November, conflicting research suggests lignans in the
outer shell of flax is helpful, but the ALA in the oil inside
promotes prostate cancer.
Flax fibers are amongst the oldest fiber
in the world. The use of flax for the production of
goes back at least 5000 years. Dyed flax
fibers found in a cave in Dzudzuana (prehistoric Georgia
) have been dated to
30,000 years ago. Pictures on tombs and temple walls at Thebes
depict flowering flax plants. The use
of flax fiber in the manufacturing of cloth
northern Europe dates back to Neolithic
times. In North America, flax was introduced by the Puritans
. Currently most flax produced in the USA
and Canada are seed flax types for the production of linseed oil or
flaxseeds for human nutrition.
Flax fiber is extracted from the bast
or skin 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
Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine
. Flax fiber is also
a raw material for the high-quality paper industry for the use of
and rolling paper
. Flax mills for
spinning flaxen yarn were invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington in 1787.
significant linseed producing countries are Canada (~34%),
China (~25.5%) and India (~9%),
though there is also production in USA (~8%),
Ethiopia (~3.5%) and
throughout Europe. In the United States,
three states, North
Dakota, and Minnesota, raise nearly 100% of this plant.
Linseed output in 2005
|Top ten linseed producers — 2007
|No symbol = official figure,
P = official figure, F = FAO estimate, * =
Unofficial/Semi-official/mirror data, C = Calculated figure A =
Aggregate (may include official, semi-official or estimates);
Source: Food And Agricultural Organization of United
Nations: Economic And Social Department: The Statistical
most suitable for flax, besides the
kind, are deep friable loams
, and containing a large proportion of organic matter
. Heavy clays
are unsuitable, as are soils of a gravelly
or dry sandy
Farming flax requires few fertilizers
. Within six weeks of sowing,
the plant will reach 10–15 cm in height, and will grow several
centimeters per day under its optimal growth conditions, reaching
70–80 cm within fifteen days.
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.
There are two ways to harvest flax, one involving mechanized
equipment (combines), and a second method, more manual and targeted
towards maximizing the fiber length.
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 amount of weeds in the straw affects its marketability, and
this coupled with market prices determined whether the farmer chose
to harvest the flax straw. If the flax was not harvested, it was
typically burnt, since the straw stalk is quite tough and
decomposes slowly (i.e.
, not in a single season), and
still being somewhat in a windrow from the harvesting process, the
straw would often clog up tillage and planting equipment. It was
common, in the flax growing regions of western Minnesota, to see
the harvested flax straw (square) bale stacks start appearing every
July, the size of some stacks being estimated at 10-15 yards wides
by 50 or more yards long, and as tall as a two-story house.
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 is then retted
Dependent upon climatic conditions, characteristics of the sown
flax and fields, the flax remains in 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 scutching to
Flax grown for seed is allowed to mature until the seed capsules
are yellow and just starting to split; it is then harvested by
and dried to
extract the seed.
A tool for threshing flax
Threshing is the process of removing the seeds from the rest of the
plant. As noted above in the Method 1
threshing could be done in the field by a machine, or in another
process, a description of which follows:
The process is divided into two parts: the first part is intended
for the farmer, or flax-grower, to bring the flax into a fit state
for general or common purposes. This is 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. In some
cases the farmers thrash out the seed in their own mill and
therefore, in such cases, the first machine will be
The second part of the process is intended for the manufacturer to
bring the flax into a state for the very finest purposes, such as
, and very fine linen
This second part is performed by the refining machine only.
The threshing process would be conducted as follows:
- Take the flax in small bundles, as it comes from the field or
stack, and holding it in the left hand, put the seed end between
the threshing machine and the bed
or block against which the machine is to strike; then take the
handle of the machine in the right hand, and move the machine
backward and forward, to strike on the flax, until the seed is all
- 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
- Put the handful between the beater 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
Preparation for spinning
Flax stem cross-section, showing
locations of underlying tissues.
Ep = epidermis; C = cortex; BF = bast fibers; P = phloem; X =
xylem; Pi = pith
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 called retting
. Retting is the
process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer fibers
intact. At this point there is still straw, or coarse fibers,
remaining. To remove these the flax is "broken," the straw is
broken up into small, short bits, while the actual fiber is left
unharmed, then "scutched," where the straw is scraped away from the
fiber, and then pulled through "hackles," which act like combs and
comb the straw out of the fiber.
There are several methods of retting flax. It can be retted in a
pond, stream, field or a 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 only a couple days to a couple weeks. Pond
retted flax is traditionally considered lower quality, possibly
because the product can become dirty, and easily over-retts,
damaging the fiber. This form of retting also produces quite an
Stream retting is similar to pool retting, but the flax is
submerged in bundles in a stream or river. This generally takes
longer than pond retting, normally by two or three weeks, but the
end product is less likely to be dirty, does not smell as bad and,
because the water is cooler, it is less likely to be
Both Pond and Stream retting were traditionally used less because
they pollute the waters used for the process.
Field retting is laying the flax out in a large field, and allowing
dew to collect on it. This process normally takes a month or more,
but is generally considered to provide the highest quality flax
fibers, and produces the least pollution.
Retting can also be done in a plastic trash can or any type of
water tight container of wood
. Metal containers will not work, as
is produced when retting, and it would
the metal. If the water temperature
is kept at 80°F, the retting process under these conditions takes 4
or 5 days. If the water is any colder then it takes longer. Scum
will collect at the top and an odour is given off the same as in
pond retting. Currently 'enzymatic' retting of flax is being
researched as a retting technique to engineer fibers with specific
properties (Foulk Akin Dodd (2008). “Pectinolytic enzymes and
retting,” BioResources 3(1), 155-169) (Foulk Akin Dodd (2001)
"Processing techniques for improving enzyme-retting of flax,"
Industrial Crops and Products 13 (2001) 239–248).
Dressing the flax
Dressing the flax is the term given to removing the straw from the
fibers. Dressing consists of three steps: breaking, scutching, and
heckling. The breaking breaks up the straw, then some of the straw
is scraped from the fibers in the scutching process, then 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 an unapproved, illegal, genetically modified
known as "Triffid". The Flax
Council of Canada
had raised concerns about this variety in
2001 and the Canadian
Food Inspection Agency
had declared it illegal to grow. Despite
these precautions the flax crop has now been contaminated with this
GM variety, threatening Canada's flax growers, who export 70% of
their product to Europe.
As a symbolic image
the emblem of Northern
Ireland and used by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
coronet, it appeared on the reverse of the British one pound
coin to represent Northern Ireland on coins minted in 1986 and 1991.
Ireland on the badge of the Supreme Court
of the United Kingdom and on various logos associated with
flax is the national flower of Belarus.
In early tellings of the Sleeping
tale, such as Sun, Moon,
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.
- Alister D. Muir, Neil D. Westcot, , page 3 (August 1,
- Balter M. (2009). Clothes Make the (Hu) Man.
- Kvavadze E, Bar-Yosef O, Belfer-Cohen A, Boaretto E,Jakeli N,
Matskevich Z, Meshveliani T. (2009).30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax
Fibers. Science, 325(5946):1359. Supporting Online Material
- Illegal GM Flax Contaminates Canadian Exports,
Canadian Business, 10 September 2009, accessed 11 September