A Thread through History – Flax and the Pilgrims

A version of this article first appeared in the June 2021 Howland Quarterly

Mayflower II, early spring 2013. Drying the full suit of hand sewn linen-canvas sails.

During the season of fair weather the Pilgrims enjoyed after finally leaving England, one can image the passengers gazing up at what must have been an ordinary site for the time: A ship propelled by its sails made of Flax canvas. (The sails could also have been made of hemp canvas we don’t know for sure.) Flax it turns out is an extraordinary plant. Versatile and hardy, one species of the plant came to be known by the Latin name, Linum Usitatissium, or “of greater use” and has been in use for centuries.

The earliest evidence of spun, knotted and dyed flax fibers were discovered in a cave in the Republic of Georgia and date to 30,000 years ago during the upper paleolithic period. Ancient Egyptians cultivated flax plants, the fibers used to produce items ranging from ordinary Egyptian’s clothing to bolts of finely woven material, intombed in the pyramids for use by the Pharaohs in the afterlife. 5,000 years ago, the use of flax for textiles ranged from China to Germany and Switzerland.[i]

                      In 2003 Plimoth Plantation artisans soaking flax cloth imported from England, 
                                 to pre-shrink the canvas under tension in preparation for making 
                                        the sails of the Howland Society shallop, Elizabeth Tilley. 

Flax, wherever planted throughout Europe, required a laborious process to render the plant to its constituent parts, from which long lasting and strong cloth, thread, and line could be made. Its seeds can be pressed, to produce linseed oil, useful as a wood preservative, as a binder in paint, or as a vehicle in medicinal recipes. Even the mash, the crushed seed husks, left over from pressing can be fed to live-stock. It was a versatile plant making it valuable to grow and worth the effort expended.

Some of the clothing the pilgrims wore while gazing at the sails were made of linen. Undershirts, called shifts, were light-weight linen, and some men’s breeches and sailor’s cassocks were made of heavier linen canvas. Linen waistcoats and aprons were common. As long wearing and reliable a product linen clothing was it was not indestructible and required repair or replacement over time. In England, the importance of having flax on hand to process into thread for sewing or weaving into cloth, is reflected in the law created in the 16th century, requiring that a quarter of an acre (one rood) of flax be planted for every sixty acres under cultivation.[ii]

            In the early years after settling Plymouth, the colonist relied on ships coming out of England for nearly everything manufactured they needed including furnishings, tools, shoes, and clothing. As Bradford noted upon landing in his Of Plymouth Plantation, they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.”[iii]

            Bradford knew that for the colony to be viable long term, they would have to become more self-reliant. Rather than wait for cloth, and clothing to come from ships out of England, the colonists would, in time, manufacture their own. In 1639 the Plymouth Colony passed a requirement that “every house holder, sow one rodd of ground square at least with hemp or flax yearly.”[iv] A rod is a measurement 16.5 feet in length so a square rod would equal 272.25 square feet.

In the Jabez Howland house, (the original structure was built in 1667) there are a number of spinning wheels exhibited reflecting the importance of textile production to the colonists. Presumably Jabez and his family grew flax in the back garden.
A distaff, treadle wheel used for spinning flax into linen thread

The inventory of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley’s home at Rocky Nook at John’s death in 1672 records they had on hand “17 yards of flax” among the textiles and owned at least 3 wheels for spinning.
The above walking wheel is on display at the Jabez Howland House. 
It was used for wool or cotton spinning.

Like so much of life in Plymouth Colony, textile production was a laborious process that started with sowing the seeds for flax in early spring. The seeds are broadcast in prepared ground in the same manner as grass seed. The plants grow close together and once matured leave little room for weeds to take hold among them.

The plants grow to about 2-3 feet in height and mature in about 100 days. To harvest, the entire plant was pulled from the ground, roots and all and left to dry for a several weeks. When the stalks have dried the seeds are separated from the stalks by passing them through iron combs in a process called rippling, and saved for processing on their own. The multi-step process of separating the inner part of the plant, the bast, from the outer bark layer takes several weeks and is called retting.

Retting softens the outer bark with moisture, either the ambient moisture in the air if the stalks are left on the ground, in a pond of water, or in a running stream that carries away the decomposing plant matter. In general, a stagnant water source like a pond or a bog will ret the flax more quickly but results in the build-up of foul odors from biological break-down of the outer fiber.[v] In the Plymouth Colony records in 1641 land around the “Eel River swamps” was reserved for growing flax or hemp.[vi]

When thoroughly wet and partial decomposed the whole plant must be dried again which will take several more weeks.

Through another series of steps, the linen fiber is finally separated from the outer layer of the plant. The dried plant is first beaten against a brake, that is, a wooden board or a bench or something solid. Then a blunt wooden knife is used to skutch the flax, knocking off the outer bark. Then the fiber is drawn through a series of metal combs or spikes to remove any remaining bark, or outer fibers from the linen. It is estimated that over 85% of the plant is removed in producing the linen fibers for spinning.[vii]

From left to right: Dried flax, Scutching knife, brake, hackling comb, and finish flax ready for spinning.

Of course, this is only the first step to produce linen cloth. The fiber must be spun on a wheel, then soaked and dried to set the spin of the thread, before woven on a loom to produce bolts of cloth from which clothing can be made. These steps require more skilled labor but many people in the colony would be familiar with the process. Those who had lived in the Netherlands before coming to Plymouth would be familiar with, if not proficient in many textile producing techniques.

Commercial looms and spinners eventually took over from the householders for the production of linen in Plymouth colony but that was all in the future, a future those pilgrims gazing up at the white linen sails of Mayflower as they made their way across the sea could only dream about.

This is a fun video from the Monreagh Heritage Center in county Donigal, Ireland in which 
Colm Clarke explains how they produced linen in Ireland until the 1950’s starting with sowing the seeds in early spring.

The site, New England Flax & Linen is a great resource of 
online information about all things flax and linen

The start of our flax bed at the Jabez Howland House 
(The 3’x10′ bed is only about 10% the size of a square rod’s worth of flax plants)
The sail shaped marker was designed as inspiration for the young flax plants. 


[i] Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax
[ii] National Park Services website: http://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/flax-production-in-the-seventeenth-century.htm
[iii] Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation, Morison edition, pg. 61.
[iv] Plymouth Colony Records, XI part 1, pg. 32. June 4, 1639.
[v] Website: https://www.decktowel.com/pages/how-linen-is-made-from-flax-to-fabric
[vi] Plymouth colony Court Records: July 6, 1641. Pg. 247.
[vii] National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/flax-production-in-the-seventeenth-century.htm

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