SOUTH COVENTRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Heidi Barr wants you to know that flax is linen and linen is flax.
The word “linen” has been corrupted over the years to the point where most Americans, when they hear the word, often think of sheets and towels, things commonly found in a linen closet.
But those sheets and towels are more often made from cotton or synthetic fibers than flax, which is why Barr wants you to know what linen really is, and what bringing flax back into production on the farm fields of Pennsylvania could mean for the economy and the environment.
A fiber artist based in Philadelphia, Barr co-founded the Pennsylvania Flax Project with Chester County farmer Emma de Long in 2020, “out of a desire to see a climate-beneficial textile crop produced regionally,” she said.
Flax fibers have been used as a raw material for textiles for a long time. The ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies in linen, Barr said.
“The oldest known manmade flax fiber was discovered in the country of Georgia, and it was 37,000 years old,” she said. “So it’s thousands — tens of thousands of years — that we’ve been collaborating with this plant to meet our clothing needs.”
Flax was an important crop for Colonial America too, Barr said, and was first brought to Pennsylvania in the 1690s from Germany and the Netherlands.
“Flax for linen was on every small farm,” Barr said. “Everybody grew a half of an acre of flax for linen for their clothing needs for the year, even to the extent that if a woman was widowed, she might lose her farm, but she would be left that half an acre to grow flax for linen so that she could have clothing.”
Homespun linen was eventually supplanted by cheap cotton, thanks in part to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
“And also cotton was heavily subsidized with the labor of enslaved people,” Barr said, “so it sort of won the economic race.”
Flax for linen took another hit in the 20th century with the advent of synthetic fibers made from oil, such as polyester.
“The synthetic textile industry is the prime example of an industry that exploits both human labor and the natural world,” and is responsible for a tenth of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, Barr said.
“Crops like flax can be part of the solution to that,” she said.
Emma de Long was getting married in 2020 and was looking for a local seamstress to make her wedding dress when she found textile artist Barr, owner of Kitchen Garden Textiles.
Barr wasn’t able to make the dress, but during the conversation she somehow managed to convince de Long to grow flax for linen on her farm.
“From there we planted an eighth of an acre of flax in 2020, and we’ve been planting at Kneehigh Farm ever since,” de Long said. “The PA Flax Project has just exploded from there.”
Kneehigh Farm is a small, diversified vegetable farm in South Coventry Township, along the banks of the French Creek.
“We grow on 4 acres and have also incorporated flax for fiber, as well as indigo as a dye plant,” de Long said.
Short-term goals of the PA Flax Project include educating the public about flax and “teaching people that there is currently no production of flax for refined linen from seed to spinnable fiber in North America, and to educate about the benefits of revitalizing that industry,” Barr said.
Another goal, Barr said, is to purchase harvesting equipment, “so that we can get our plants off the field. We have farmers ready to grow. We need mechanical harvesting equipment to get our plants off the field, ready to go into a mill.”
The long-term goal of the PA Flax Project is to build an operational long-line flax scutching mill that would produce a high-quality fiber ready to be spun into linen.
“Within all those goals, Barr said, “is building out our cooperative model and building out our co-ops so that our farmer members would benefit from it and to secure national and international contracts to sell that fiber.”
What the organization needs most right now is funding, Barr said.
Flax Harvesting Event
The need for harvesting equipment was made clear on a Saturday morning in late August, when Barr and de Long co-hosted a harvesting educational event at Kneehigh Farm.
About 15 people attended to learn about flax and take part in the ancient tradition of harvesting flax by hand.
“We get a real cross-section of people, people who are interested in the textile, people who are interested in farming, people who just have never heard of flax for linen and think it would be a cool thing to do,” Barr said.
Hand harvesting is pretty straightforward, pulling it out of the ground, roots and all, which Barr said serves two functions: “to preserve the moisture in the plant for the next step when you’re laying it down for retting” and to preserve the full length of the fiber, which continues all the way into the root system.
Cutting the fiber off at the ground would also cut into your fiber yield, Barr said.
Alyssa Kariofyllis attended the event to learn more about flax.
“I sew clothing and quilts at home,” she said, “and I use a lot of linen, so I was really excited to see this event and learn more about, you know, where my fabric started.”
Roan Farnum is a member of the PA Flax Project and said harvesting this year was a bit easier than last, when the crop was planted using a broadcast method. This year, the crop was planted in rows with a seeder.
“I think it’s a little more organized when you can pull it in rows,” Farnum said, “and it’s also nice to have a lot of people helping.”
International Flax Industry
According to USDA, 244,000 acres of flax were harvested in the U.S. in 2022, all of which was harvested for flaxseed and grown in North Dakota and Montana.
The domestic flax fiber industry is essentially nonexistent, but in Europe, the flax fiber industry is steadily growing. According to the Alliance for European Flax-Linen and Hemp, Europe produces about 75% of the world’s long fibers of flax — roughly 360,000 acres — with France, Belgium and the Netherlands as the main producers.
Smitten with Flax
Barr has developed a personal and intimate relationship with the flax plant.
“It’s very seductive,” she said. “It waves in the wind, and it gets a beautiful blue flower on it. And it looks very delicate, but it grows straight and tall, up to about 2 1/2 or 3 feet. And when it’s in full bloom, it actually sort of looks like a rippling water in the field.”
The flowers each only last one day, opening in the morning and closing by the afternoon and dropping to the ground.
“The first year, we had a flax flower dinner, which was hilarious because all the flowers were closed,” Barr said. “So you got to have a brunch for that.”
Learn more about the Pennsylvania Flax Project on this episode of the Hemp Podcast:
Pennsylvania Flax Project
Kitchen Garden Textiles
News Nugs and Hemp Events
To protect consumers, make CBD medicine only, restrict delta-8 THC to pot shops
Industrial hemp plant in eastern Idaho will soon begin production
Whitefield Global Holdings
Hart Hemp Field Day Sept. 7
Cornell Grain & Fiber Hemp Field Day Sept. 14
Cornell’s Hemp Sciences MPS Concentration
Thanks to our Sponsors
Tin Bird Shadow
The Pennsylvania Flax Project advocates for bringing flax back to area farms, which could lead to economic and environmental benefits. Read More