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Exploring part of New England’s textile history from seed to garment

Michelle Liu
A metal comb is one tool used to break flax down for processing into linen.

Off a side road in Durham, a barn that belongs to the University of New Hampshire houses some unique devices from days gone by. Now, they are back in use by staff and students who are turning homegrown flax into linen.

Among them is a wooden block with spikes, which Kimberly Alexander pulls strands of flax through. Alexander is the Director of Museum Studies and a senior lecturer in the history department at UNH. She, along with other faculty and students, is leading the Flax to Linen Project.

The metal comb is used to break flax down by hand, but this isn’t the way linen is made in mass production now. Alexander says tools like this give her students hands-on experience with how New Englanders of the past would’ve made linen.

Michelle Liu
Kimberly Alexander, Director of Museum Studies at the University of New Hampshire, pulls strands of flax through a metal comb.

“If you are growing it for commercial production, often it's cut and processed in a very different manner than home production,” Alexander said.

She partnered with Becky Sideman, the chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems Department. Part of the draw for Sideman was that she has roots in New England, and flax production is a part of her family history.

“My grandmother [and] my great grandmother were apparently very accomplished weavers,” Sideman said. “That is something I just didn't know a lot about, which is one of the reasons I was really interested.”

The interest was mutual with Alexander’s students, including Sophie MacDonald, the research assistant on the project. She’s put in countless hours of work, including building a “flax break” by hand. It’s a device that resembles a guillotine and breaks down the flax fibers. She says she and her dad spent about 100 hours at the Portsmouth Makerspace putting it together.

“You just pull it through, and you just do it over and over and over and over again, until you've finally gotten the outer stem away from that inner fiber,” MacDonald said.

As she chops away at the flax, plumes of flax dust fall to the floor. And the fibers soften up.

This step alone requires some serious elbow grease, and it takes a lot of work just to get there. MacDonald, Sideman, Alexander and other students were out in the field in Durham planting seeds in May. The flax then took months to grow and needed weeding and maintenance.

Then came the harvesting and drying of the flax, followed by the arduous processing by hand.

Sideman says being a part of the whole process gave her a greater appreciation for how textiles are made.

“I think that everyday consumers, just people experience these crops that provide us sustenance and clothe us, and we don't think about the implications of what it takes to grow them and process them and turn them into food and clothing,” Sideman said.

To understand those implications, Alexander relied heavily on historical documents to replicate the flax to linen process. That included old New Hampshire day books with information about harvests. And the history actually aligned with the present day.

“We replicated what people were doing 250 and 300 years ago in the Seacoast,” Alexander said. “We found that harvesting flax was happening in the first two weeks of August, exactly when we were doing it.”

Julia Furukawa
Becky Sideman and Kimberly Alexander are leading the Flax to Linen Project at the University of New Hampshire.

Alexander and Sideman say knowing the time it takes to produce just one garment has given them an appreciation for the work of New Englanders of yore.

“Now when I see a reference to linen or flax or striped linen or checked linen in a daybook… before, I would have just noted it,” Alexander said. “Now I know that behind that reference were thousands of hours of work to get to that point.”

Alexander and Sideman say the process is relatively inexpensive and can be replicated at home for those looking for a new hobby or a hands-on connection to New England’s textile history. They’ve picked up an interest in flax their lives outside of academia. Alexander and Sideman have both taken flax home and have found working with it to be a grounding practice.

Their goal for the project now is to start on the smaller side and create some neckerchiefs with the spun flax that started as mere seeds in the ground. And there’s a resounding agreement when it comes to who gets first dibs on the neckerchief: MacDonald.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.

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