Flax Facts

I missed the boat on an earlier version of this post; it should have been called “flaxing eloquent”. Or maybe not.

It wasn’t intentional, but I wound up looking into how linen was made and found a treasure trove of lovely vocabulary. (Sources are noted below)

Flax is harvested in order to extract fibers to make linen. First the stalks are cut close to the base in a process called winnowing. The fibers are loosened from the stock by retting them. After retting, the stalks are ready for scutching, which removes the woody portion of the stalks and allows the fiber to be separated. Then the stalks are heckled, in order to pull out the fibers. I found all this to be fantastic because I’ve never run across these words before. I’m sure if you make linen, though, they’re old hat.

A bit of etymology:

Winnowing: late 14c., from Old English windwian “to fan, winnow,” from wind “air in motion, paring down,” see wind (n.1). Cognate with Old Norse vinza, Old High German winton “to fan, winnow,” Gothic diswinþjan “to throw (grain) apart.” (Source etymonline.com). So the “paring down” part makes sense because that is when you cut the flax stalks.

Retting: is late middle English or Dutch meaning to rot. Wikipedia gives this definition: retting is a process employing the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fiber bundles. Here we’re letting nature do its thing.

Heckle: This is noun, and the verb version here means using a flax heckle in order to separate the flax fibers (it appears to be unrelated to the verb “heckle” when someone in a crowd berates a speaker.) It is from the word that means a “flax comb,” c. 1300, hechel, perhaps from an unrecorded Old English *hecel or a cognate Germanic word, from Proto-Germanic *hakila- (source also of Middle High German hechel, Middle Dutch hekel), from PIE root keg “hook, tooth.” (source is here: https://www.etymonline.com/word/heckle)

Scutching: mid 18th century: from obsolete French escoucher, from Latin excutere ‘shake out’. The process is to separate the woody fibre from (flax, hemp, etc.) by beating; to swingle. (Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scutch and etymonline.com)

I’ve never run across such a rich source of words that are nearly forgotten, unless of course you are processing linen. I’ve just taken off Foro’s wooly sweater that he wears in winter. I’m going to have to get my hands on some linen and make him a summer vest!

Foro is bare chested, getting ready for the first really warm day which is announced for tomorrow!

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