‘There wasn’t a lot of flax-growing in Fathom those days.
It’s a very stalky plant, dark green at first, turning light green. It produces a lovely blue flower. It was the phloem – inside – of the plant that was valuable as linen thread. Harvesters pulled it physically out of the ground. It was gathered in bunches -beets, they were called – sheaves about two feet in diameter. There were twelve beets to a stook, the twelfth laid crosswise over the others, to determine the dozen. It was a hard pull, especially from clay soil that hardened in the summer time.
The beets were then placed in a flax-hole to rot [this was called retting – the purpose was to separate the useable stalks from the rest]. Spring water was no use. It needed anaerobic respiration for the process, that is, a lack of oxygen. The beets were weighted down with rocks and sods. It took 8-9 days and the stench was terrible. Then at night they were lifted to the bank and tied with rush bands [or grass ropes made with twisted hay]. They were carted away the next morning. It took 1-2 days to dry. It was winter time when they went to the scutch mills. Long ago these were water-driven. There were four paddle beaters on the end of the driving shaft. They slapped down on the flax to break it. We’d run the beets through a crinkler first to crack the ‘shoughs’. These were the solid parts, like an old rush. They’d break off when dry. The beaters were flat boards about 0.75 inches wide. Put the tail in, the ‘shoughs’ would come off: spin her round and all would come off. You’d be left with the silky flax.
Women would gather these and put them in 2.5 feet long boxes of 1 stone weight. They’d twist them first. The ‘rough stuff’ – shorter lengths – would fall off. This was the ‘tow-targer’, or ‘waste’. After battering, a second, shorter thread could be gathered. It would all be bleached and taken away to the spinning mill.
You’d get thirty stone to the bushel, three bushels to the care and there might be ten acres sown. Seasonal workers from round about would arrive on bikes for the pulling. Many’s the time I stood up to my shoulders putting beets into or pulling them out of a flax-hole. Sometimes I’d be there at the damming, to create a stagnant flax-hole. The final process we were involved in was spreading them on a bleaching green.
There was still a ‘cottage industry’ of linen up to the thirties, in Rathfriland, for example, hemming linen handkerchiefs. The local grocer was the middle man. With his couple of shillings the woman bought the groceries for the next week.