1220-2020: Flax Project

‘A modern woman sees a piece of linen, but the medieval woman saw through it to the flax fields, she smelt the reek of the retting ponds, she felt the hard rasp of the hackling, and she saw the soft sheen of the glossy flax.’

Dorothy Hartley

For centuries the beautiful blue bloom of the flax flower was a common sight in the fields and gardens of Cumbria and across the UK. This is because the linen cloth, strong twine and rope made from the flax plants were everyday utilities before cotton began to dominate the post industrialised world. Flax was grown and processed on both a domestic and small agricultural scale from the medieval period or earlier in the Milnthorpe and Beetham area, with the last flax and hemp mill on the river Bela only closing in 1884.

The ‘1220 -2020 Flax Project’ aims to bring small scale flax growing and fibre production back to the Beetham and Milnthorpe area – and across the UK with the help of visitors to the Mill – for the duration of the project and beyond.

The Flax Project is part of the Heritage Lottery Funded ‘800 Years of Milling’, which is a program celebrating the milling history at Heron Corn Mill in Beetham. The Mill dates from 1220, and is one of many different mills which were situated along the lower reaches of the River Bela, with flax, cotton, grain and paper all having been milled in the area over the last 800 years. This rich history will be explored over the course of the project by the youth and community groups who meet at Heron Corn Mill, and also the local community and visitors to the mill.

The medieval history of the site will be explored through the growing and processing flax, the baking of traditional bread, and the use of Minecraft.

How to get involved with the Flax Project

The sowing date for our flax seed may have now passed, but there are still a number of activities taking place over the next 18 months that you can get involved in. From processing the flax, to crafting traditional tools, to helping Stella spin and weave the fibres, there will be a variety of ways for the public to join in with the project.

Making Flax Tools and Processing Flax Fibre

There are several stages of processing which the flax stems have to go through in order to release and prepare the beautiful long flax fibres ready for spinning – retting, breaking, scutching and hackling. Many of these processes have their own specialist wooden tools, and we will produce our own tools for processing our flax plants at Heron Corn Mill.

Spinning, Weaving and Beetling Linen

When we have prepared our flax fibres we will hand spin them to create linen yarn, and then hand weave the yarn to make linen cloth. After we have made the cloth it will be beetled to finish it, a process involving mallets which is used to make the cloth softer.

Natural Dying

Before synthetic dyes were invented 1856, all of the dye colours for cloth came from natural sources including plants. We will grow our own dye plants at the mill, and use them to colour our linen cloth and yarn.

Paper Making and Making Rope and Cordage

In the medieval period paper was made from linen rags and flax fibre tow (the short fibres that weren’t suitable for spinning). We will experiment with paper making using our own flax tow and linen rags.

Flax fibres and spun yarn were also used to make ropes and cordage, we will experiment with rope and cordage making using some of our flax.

Flax and Linen History and Futures

As part of the ‘1220 -2020 Flax Project’ we will research both the history of flax and linen production and use, and also the future for flax and linen, as there has been a resurgence in interest in flax as an environmentally friendly fibre.

If you would like to get involved in any aspect of the ‘1220 – 2020 Flax Project’ mentioned above please download and complete the form located HERE and return it to Heron Corn Mill, and someone from the project will be in touch.

You can also join our special Facebook group located HERE.