The Country Life: Growing our Clothes

As the summer heat drags on, we turn our focus to an important crop we’ve been growing in the Kitchen Garden: flax.  This reed-like plant has been used for thousands of years to create a light-weight, durable fabric called linen, which was a staple textile for common folk and aristocrats alike. 

Flax plants starting to grow in the hot beds at Pennsbury, 2011

Linen production in the Delaware River valley began primarily in Swedish settlements as farmers began cultivating flax. By the time William Penn held the proprietorship of the colony, local leaders were urging settlers to increase growth of this fiber crop.

 The harvest of the flax begins in late July. Farmers would pull the crop from the ground and tie them into small bundles in which they would be laid out to dry for several days. Next step would be to pull the fibers apart in a tool referred to as a “ripple comb.” During this stage, the seeds would be removed and could either be used for planting or sent to an oil mill for pressing.   



Following this, the separated fibers would be wetted and laid out to soften. After separating them again, they would begin a process known as “hackling” or “hatchling.”  Workers would draw fibers through a board with fixed steel teeth, providing fibers for grades of linen varying from rough working clothes to finer table clothes and sheets. 

combs for “hackling” the linen fibers

Flax was not initially a popular crop because of its need for fertile soil and the time-consuming, strenuous process of harvesting.  However, flax became more profitable up into the mid-1700s as a major export of the region. Soon, with the rise of cotton in the 1800’s, linen production would nearly cease to exist.  

Bolts of modern linen from Pennsbury’s clothing program

On an estate such as Pennsbury Manor, linens of all kinds would be common, from the roughest weave to the finest bleached linen. Visitors can see evidence of it’s colonial role all around, from the tools of flax harvest found in the kitchen house to the linen press kept in Penn’s Great Hall to store his expensive investment.  Linen was one of the key fabics of its time, and continues its popularity today!

By Ray Tarasiewicz, Intern

Edited by Hannah Howard


Come by next Sunday, July 22 and see what else is growing in the Kitchen Garden!  Horticulturalist Mike Johnson will be on hand to talk about the summer season with visitors.


4 comments on “The Country Life: Growing our Clothes

  1. Tom Turner says:

    A little footnote on flax. Flax grows beautifully in the cool climate up in Canada. In Wilmont, Ontario there is a historic house museum called Castle Kilbride, an Italianate Victorian mansion built by a man named James Livingston, who was described as a ‘flax magnate’. Who knew there were flax magnates? Turns out the guy made a fortune growing the stuff.

  2. […] simple linen waistcoat and justacorps (also featured previously) was fashionable yet serviceable.  Linen is a hard-wearing fabric that would last, which is important when every piece of clothing you buy is […]

  3. Jim McNeill says:

    I thought you and your readers may enjoy the folowing C17th poem:

    “A Paper Mill near German-Town doth stand,
    So that the Flax, which first springs from the Land,
    First Flax, then Yarn, and then they must begin,
    To weave the same, which they took pains to spin.
    Also, when on our backs it is well worn,
    Some of the same remains Ragged and Torn;
    Then of those Rags our Paper it is made,
    Which in process of time doth waste and fade;
    So what comes from the Earth, appeareth plain,
    The same in Time returns to Earth again.”

    Poem by Richard Frame Printed by William Bradford in 1692 in his “A Short Description of Pennsylvania”

  4. Pennsbury Manor Staff says:

    Thanks Jim, what a cool poem! Until recently, I just never thought about it being so influential. It must have been quite an industry to inspire poetry like this, and make men so wealthy like Tom was saying. I wonder if we have anything comparable in our industry today? Do people write odes to their iPhones??

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