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Flax

by Linda Inoki
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wint’ry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.
Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds
That ope in the month of May.

From “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82)

As summer advances, and the heat and humidity reach their peak, we turn gratefully to clothes made from natural fibers such as cotton, hemp and especially linen. The history of cultivating flax (Linum usitatissimum) to produce textiles goes back many thousands of years, and it is possibly the first plant that mankind made into a textile. The Ancient Egyptians were highly skilled in the art of weaving gossamer-fine linen. Linen was a symbol of light and life, and inside their golden tombs the bodies of rulers and nobility were wrapped in linen shrouds. Linen has a remarkable ability to shrug off moisture, insects and bacteria, and Egyptian shrouds more than 3,000 years old have been found in near-perfect condition. Long ago, linen cloth was a form of currency, and even modern paper currencies such as U.S. dollar bills are made from a hard-wearing mixture of linen and cotton. But have you ever seen a flax plant in bloom? The small flowers are about 2 cm across, with five silky, sky-blue petals. Each flower lasts just a day, but a field of flax in full bloom is a wonderful sight — a sea of blue, waving on long, slender stems. It is these stems that provide the long, glossy, incredibly tough fibers that we spin and weave to make textiles. In addition, the seeds produce linseed oil, which artists have long used for mixing their oil paints. And the finest artists’ canvases? Well, of course, they are made from linen too!