Every year for the last 109 years in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, there is a Flax Scutching Festival. Nowadays, it’s held to commemorate the process of turning Flax into Linen for spinning.
In the early 1700s, people would grow acres of flax plants because they needed to have the linen cloth made from it for their clothing, bedding and household items. The process is so labor intensive (as many things were then) that whole communities would come together to “scutch” their flax.
It starts with a summer harvest of flax plants after the seed pods emerge (where they got their seeds for the next year and where flaxseed for food and linseed oil comes from). The harvested stalks are laid in the fields to begin dew retting (think rotting a little). This is done by turning the stalks each day so that they can bake in the sun and begin breaking down the hard outer wood stalks.
Then the stalks are gathered and sheaved and stood to dry until the community is ready to scutch them in the Fall after the other harvesting is done. The stalks are put through a punishing process of breaking them to loosen the outer woody fibers. This process continues in intensity until the softer smoother inner fibers remain. These are dragged over a series of sharp nails (a hackle) to further separate shorter (called tow. Remember kids who are called “tow-headed” blondes?) from longer. These longer fibers are dragged through increasingly finer hackles until they are ready to spin.
Whew! That’s an incredibly intense process. The flax (for it is still called flax until it’s spun) is kept ready to spin by hand day in and day out to produce enough linen yarn to weave with.
I’m so glad the festival is still running and I was particularly glad to see some younger people learning the process and beginning to demonstrate so that this educational festival can remind us of a traditional art.