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Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Field of flax | Photo and copyright: Highland Folk Museum | https://blog.engineshed.scot/2018/10/04/traditional-materials-how-were-growing-paint/

Flax, also known as linseed, is a flowering plant with a distinctive pale blue flower. It is a herbaceous annual that grows to around 1 meter in length on average, and is one of the only natural fibres that are capable of being grown in Western Europe. Flax has been grown in Scotland for centuries, and the country was once central to the world’s linen trade. It’s thought to have been introduced to the country by the Romans and it’s cultivation can be dated back to 8,000 BC.

Flax has a wide range of uses, and there is a use for every part of the plant in industry. Weaving linen from flax fibres is one of the most well known uses for flax, and was an integral part of the Scottish economy for hundreds of years until the 20th Century. There isn’t a record that dates the introduction of linen weaving in Scotland, but it was certainly widespread and at the centre of the Scottish economy by the 17th Century. By the 18th Century, the linen trade was concentrated largely in the Tayside region – in Angus, Fife, and Perthshire – where thousands of people were employed in the production.

There is now only one remaining linen mill in Scotland, and any commercial flax that is grown in the country is used for the production of linseed oil.

Location and Sources

Flax was once widely grown across Scotland, particularly in the East of Scotland around the Tayside region in Angus, Fife, and Perthshire, but was largely halted in 1950’s in favour of other, more commercially profitable, crops. As an industry, the Scottish linen trade had been dwindling from the 19th Century onwards, but was revived briefly during both the First and Second World Wars (1914 – 1918, and 1939 – 1945) to produce linen again. In the Second World War linen mills near Blairgowrie, Cupar, and Aberdeen were under government direction to produce much needed textiles. The post-war period saw the closure of these mills and factories due to the prohibitive costs involved in treating Scottish flax.

As a crop, flax is adaptable to a wide variety of soil and climates, but grows best in well-drained sandy loam soil in temperate climates where cool, moist growing seasons produce the most desirable fibre. It’s a crop which has to be rotated to avoid soil exhaustion, and in most places planting flax in the same area of land is limited to once in six years.

Data is unavailable for the current commercial production of flax in Scotland, but can be found for the UK as a whole. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, the UK was the world’s 10th largest producer of flax/linseed in 2019, producing 27000 tonnes – this is considerably less that the biggest producer, Kazakhstan, who produced 1007244 tonnes.

Although still grown in the UK, flax is a much smaller crop than it once was and is predominantly used for the production of linseed oil.

Application and product output

Flax is an incredibly versatile plant and there is a use for every part of the plant in industry.

Linseed Oil

The flax currently grown in the UK is overwhelmingly used to create linseed oil, which has a variety of uses both in industry and at home. Linseed oil is used in the production of paints, printing inks, linoleum, and varnish.

Linseed oil has an unusually high amount of α-linolenic acid (commonly known as omega 3) which makes it a popular nutritional supplement in humans, as well as being added to animal feed (it’s said to give horses a glossy coat!). It also makes it very susceptible to oxidation on contact with oxygen in the air. This reaction with oxygen means that the oil quickly goes rancid if not stored properly, but is also what makes many of its other industrial uses viable. When the oils in linseed oil react with oxygen in the atmosphere they undergo a process called polymerisation which results in a solid, but flexible, material. This property is what makes it ideal in the production of linoleum – a hard wearing and durable floor covering.

Linoleum has been produced in Scotland since the late 1800’s, predominantly in the town of Kirkcaldy in Fife. Like linen, the production of linoleum dwindled in Scotland in the post-war period as cheaper alternatives such as vinyl became prominent, but it has seen an increase in popularity recently as it is seen as a more environmentally sustainable alternative. There is now only one remaining linoleum manufacturer in the UK – the same factory in Kirkcaldy where production started over 200 years ago.

While predominantly used as a floor cover, linoleum can also be used as a material for surfacing furniture and as a jewelry material. Roslyn Leith is a Designer/Maker who studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee and now lives and works in Fife. She combines linoleum produced nearby with precious metals to make bold, graphic jewelry inspired by mechanical forms and movement. Linoleum is also a popular printmaking material, and can be carved similarly to wood to create Lino prints.

Linoleum jewellery | Photo and copyright: Rosyln Leitch | https://www.roslynleitch.com

Other uses for linseed oil include the production of linseed paint – a traditional paint made from a mix of linseed oil and pigment which was popular and widely used in homes and buildings before the industrialisation of paint. It works particularly well on timber, which absorbs the paint to create a strong but flexible bond. Linseed oil paint has remained popular in many Scandinavian countries, and has been imported into the UK to be used predominantly by traditional and eco builders who are keen to minimise their dependency on paints produced using crude oil and synthetics. Over the last few years there has been an increase in its production in Britain, and several small firms now produce and sell linseed paint. Included in this, are a Linseed Paint Company – a small producer of Linseed paint based in Glasgow, Scotland.

Textile production

Linen production was once a huge industry in Scotland, but has been in steady decline since the 19th century. There is now only one remaining linen mill in Scotland which produces linen textiles – Peter Greig & Co. in Kirkcaldy, Fife. The mill was established in 1825 and has been in operation since producing linen textiles for the Furnishing, Industrial and Apparel markets. The flax used to weave this linen will be imported from outside the country.

Linen remains a popular choice for clothing and furnishings as it is a more environmentally sustainable product than cotton, and it’s naturally absorbent nature means that it absorbs and releases moisture quickly which means linen garments keep the wearer cool.

Tows, the short strands of fibre that are left over from linen production, can be dry spun to produce coarse threads which can then be woven into canvases and carpet backing. And straw pieces from the flax plant can be used in the production of chipboard.

Bio-composite

Flax can also be used to produce lightweight, flexible and highly rigid composite materials. One area where their use has been explored is in the Sport and Recreation industry. Flax fibres have inherent dampening properties and vibration control which improve shock absorption as well as making them stiff but flexible, making them ideal for use in sports products.

In 2019 “Our Linen Stories”, a touring exhibition in Scotland exploring the history of linen in the country, exhibited a pair of Scottish designed and manufactured skis made from a flax fibre bio composite. They were produced by Lonely Mountain Skis – a micro manufacturer based in Perthshire who make small runs of handmade skis using a hardwood core with a flax fibre laminate that gives the ski spring and smoothness.

Lonely Mountain Skis using flax fibre laminate | Photo and copyright: Lonely Mountain Skis | https://www.lonelymountain.ski

Production and sustainable consumption

Flax is a renewable and sustainable resource and has limited environmental impact. It grows well on land that is unsuitable for food production, and can be grown without the need for chemical fertilisers if crops are rotated and land is well managed. It also requires minimal water to grow.

This need for minimal water is one of the main reasons linen is heralded as a sustainable alternative to cotton – for every litre of water used to manufacture linen it takes 1,000 litres to produce the same amount of cotton. Products made from linen are also up to 12 times stronger than equivalent cotton products, which helps to increase its lifespan and longevity. When it reaches the end of it’s lifespan, undyed linen is completely biodegradable. 

Supported by the Connections Through Culture programme of the British Council, our Materials Library Expansion Project is the first collaboration between UNESCO Creative Cities of Design #Cebu and #Dundee.  #MATIC #CreativeDundee #BritishCouncilPh #BritishCouncilCTC

Works Cited

Curtis, Roger. “Traditional Materials: How We’re Growing Paint”. The Engine Shed, https://blog.engineshed.scot/2018/10/04/traditional-materials-how-were-growing-paint/. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

“Flax… From Seed to Fibre”. Carnegie Birthplace, https://maticph.files.wordpress.com/2021/04/41503-flax.pdf. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

“Flax”. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/plant/flax. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

O’Daly, Bevan. “Linen”. Bawn Textiles, https://bawntextiles.com/blogs/news/linen. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

“Warfare and Peace”. Our Linen Stories, https://ourlinenstories.com/exhibition/exhibits/creating-industry/ch-5-trains-boats-planes/. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

“Linen – A Surprisingly Scottish Story”. Oscha Slings, https://www.oschaslings.com/blog/linen-a-surprisingly-scottish-story/. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations. “Countries by Commodity”. FAOSTAT, http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#rankings/countries_by_commodity. Accessed 3rd February 2021.

Architecture and Design Scotland. “Linoleum Flooring. Material Considerations: A Library of Sustainable Building Materials, https://materials.ads.org.uk/linoleum-flooring/. Accessed 4th February 2021. 

Sharkey, Martin. “Kirkcaldy: Linoleum capital of the world”. BBC Scotland News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-44128557. Accessed 4th February 2021.

Leitch, Roslyn. “About”. Roslyn Leitch, https://www.roslynleitch.com/blank-page-2. Accessed 4th February 2021.

Samson, Ross. “Linseed Paint Company”. Linseed Paint Company, http://www.linseedpaintcompany.co.uk/index.html. Accessed 4th February 2021.

Wilson, Chris. “Jamie Kunka – Wood and Snow”. V&A Blog, https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/projects/jamie-kunka-wood-and-snow. Accessed 4th February 2021.

Kunka, Jamie. “About Us”. Lonely Mountain Skis, https://www.lonelymountain.ski/about-us/. Accessed 4th February 2021.

“Flax Materials in Sports and Recreation: A Perfect Fit”. Bio-Sourced, http://www.bio-sourced.com/flax-materials-in-sports-and-recreation-a-perfect-fit/. Accessed 4th February 2021.

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