Flax to Linen: Breaking and Scutching

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

brake and scutching board with flax

I first saw flax being processed for spinning about 25 years ago at the Museum of Frontier Culture near Staunton, Virginia. I really didn’t understand what I was seeing and thought it was an insane way of getting fiber for making clothes and other textiles. Now that I know what it is all about and I’ve actually done it at home, I think it is wonderful! I can plant flax in the early spring, harvest here in Virginia in June, rett it by laying it in the grass for a few weeks, then process it into fiber to spin. That processing, however, can be a bit tricky if you don’t have tools to do it.

Most importantly, you need to have a flax brake. Traditionally, it is a free-standing trestle style tool made out of wood. You can see mine in the photo. To operate, lift the handle and lay the flax straw across the surface. The handle has beveled wooden knives that, when dropped onto the surface, go between the fixed wooden knives in the body of the brake. The flax is caught between the two and, in the process, the outer and inner parts of the flax stalks are broken up, leaving the long fiber. In the photo you can see flax that has just been broken hanging on one side and the part that hasn’t been worked on yet, sticking out the back.

It doesn’t happen all at one time. You have to hit it many times to do the breaking. I begin at the middle of the stalks, then gradually pull it back as I work until I reach the end. Then I turn it around and hold what I just worked on while I break the other half of the stalks. Once done, the fiber will be covered with broken-up pieces of the stalks, which is called boon. Removing the boon is called scutching.

Traditionally scutching boards and wooden scutching knives were used to remove the boon by scraping the fiber. In the photo you can see my scutching board and knife. What is hanging on the scutching board is flax ready to be cleaned. I’ll scrape it with the scutching knife, then turn it around and scrape the other end. You could substitute any board and a piece of wood trim for your scutching tools.

You will find more information about flax brakes and scutching boards, including many photos, at Homeplace Earth. After scutching, the flax needs to be hackled to produce fiber ready to spin. I’ll write about that another day.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

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