Flax for Food and Fiber
By Jill Jepson
Few plants are as useful to humanity as flax. For 10,000 years, people have woven flax into linen fabric for clothing. Paints, varnishes, and enamels made from flaxseed oil – also known as linseed oil — have decorated and protected homes and furniture for centuries, and strong rope and twine have long been made from flax fiber. From medicine and food to fine linen papers and durable floor coverings, flax has been an essential part of our lives.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence that 10 millennia ago the prehistoric Swiss Lake Dwellers spun and wove flax. The Book of Exodus mentions the cultivation of flax, as does the Talmud, and both forbid the blending of flax with “impure” wool. Ancient Egyptians grew flax along the Nile and wove linen fabrics for clothing, bed sheets, diapers, sails, even wrappings for mummies.
In contrast to the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans preferred woolen fabrics. Neither civilization cultivated much flax, though Roman emperors did import linen from as far away as Egypt, Babylonia, Germany, and Spain. Culinary uses for flax were also known at this time: both the Greek historian Thucydides and the Roman Pliny mention the use of flax for food.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, flax cultivation dwindled until the 8th century, when Charlemagne pronounced flax more sanitary than wool and ordered his subjects to cultivate it. European production flourished, and the uses for this versatile plant expanded. The medieval herbalist Bartholomew listed dozens of applications — clothing, sheets, sacks, purses, sails, fishnets, thread, ropes, bowstrings, measuring lines, matches, and even ships’ caulking. Bartholomew considered flax the most beneficial of all herbs, writing, “None herbe is so needfull to so many dyurrse uses to mankynde as is the flexe,” or, in modern English, “No plant is as useful to humans in so many ways as flax.”
Image by Adobe Stock/Aleksandr Lesik
Magic and Myth
The value of flax to these early cultures is reflected in the rich folklore that surrounds the plant. Flax was believed to be a blessed plant — one that could bring good fortune, restore health, and protect against witchcraft. To the ancient Egyptians, white linen was a symbol of divine light and purity associated with the great mother-goddess Isis. The Norse goddess Hulda taught mortals the arts of spinning and weaving flax. It was believed that no evil witchcraft could be practiced in a flax field, only good magic.
German folklore also associated flax with luck. A German bride of old might put a few flaxseeds in her shoes to protect her fortune, and or tie a flaxen string around her left leg to make her marriage thrive.
Early Bohemians believed that a 7-year-old child who danced in a flax field would become beautiful, no matter the child’s original appearance. And in Mediterranean countries, a baby who wasn’t thriving would be laid upon the ground in a flax field and sprinkled with flaxseeds: It was believed that the child would recover as the seeds sprouted.
Non-European cultures developed their own uses for flax. In parts of North Africa, flax was a food staple and an important medicine. The Chinese created oilcloth — a protective fabric made of canvas coated in flaxseed oil — perhaps 2,000 years ago.
Image by Adobe Stock/Yevhenii
Native Americans occasionally gathered fibers and seeds from the few species of flax that grew wild in North America, using the fibers to make fishnets and twine. However, the wild species were never cultivated.
In the 17th century, colonists brought seeds of European flax to Massachusetts and Virginia, along with spinning wheels. At that time, cloth production was deemed so important to the survival of the colonies that laws were passed requiring every household to spin a certain amount of flaxen or woolen yarn each year. Later, as colonists moved westward, families took flaxseed with them. Flax was often the first crop planted as a homestead was set up.
Although much of the importance of flax derived from the popularity of linen, the fiber isn’t the only useful part of the flax plant. Linseed oil is just as important. When first pressed from the seeds, linseed oil is a thick, sticky fluid, but when exposed to oxygen, it gradually hardens and dries. When painted on wood or other surfaces, linseed oil makes a pliant and strong protective coating.
In the 19th century, households used so many linseed-oil products that most families wouldn’t have been able to operate normally without them. Oilcloth, first produced in the United States in 1809, was made into tablecloths, shelf paper, floor and wall coverings, rain gear, and carrying bags. Paints and varnishes had a linseed-oil base, and linseed oil was a common finish for furniture and other woodwork.
“My grandmother, Amanda, always had linseed oil around her house,” says Alice Correia, a 79-year-old Kentucky native. “Every winter, my father would rub linseed oil on our shoes. It softened the leather and helped waterproof them.”
Rachel Johnson, 78, and also from Kentucky, recalls, “We always treated wooden garden implements and other wooden tools with linseed oil. It was an excellent protection.”
In 1863, it was discovered that boiled linseed oil, when mixed with cork, applied to a burlap backing, and rolled into sheets, made an excellent floor covering. Within a decade, linoleum decorated most of the houses in North America, and flax production soared.
Image by Adobe Stock/Marina Lohrbach
Until fairly recently, households around the world benefited from the medicinal qualities of flax. Flaxseed tea was used to treat coughs and urinary tract disorders. A mixture of linseed oil and limewater was taken internally as a laxative and applied externally to scalds and burns. When flaxseeds are steeped in water, they become soft and gummy, making them useful as a skin emollient. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Maud Grieve notes: “The crushed seeds … make a very useful poultice, either alone or with mustard. … (A) linseed poultice allays irritation and pain and promotes suppuration.”
Alice Correia remembers: “Once when I was 9 or so, I dropped a tiny bead into my eye. The bead was so small, we couldn’t see it to get it out. Grandmother took a flaxseed, soaked it in a little water, and placed it under my eyelid. The wet seed was sticky, so that when it was taken out, the tiny bead came with it.”
In some parts of the world, pregnant women still take flaxseed. “In my country, powdered flaxseed is added to hot water and honey,” says Yewoubdar Beyenne, a medical anthropologist from Ethiopia. “Women start drinking this mixture about a week before their due date to cleanse the system and also to make for an easy labor.” Like many folk customs, this one has a basis in fact. According to Beyenne, flaxseed contains prostaglandin, a substance believed to ease labor.
Flaxseed has never been a major part of the diet in Europe or the United States. This is unfortunate, because its subtle, nutty flavor is delicious in breads, muffins, and breakfast cereal. “In Ethiopia, flaxseed is eaten almost daily,” Beyenne says. “The powdered seed is made into salad dressing and dip, and we use the moistened powder as a substitute for cooking oil. Flaxseed powder is considered a soothing food, good for the stomach.” Roasted flaxseeds can be substituted for coffee, and unripe fruits can be used in chutneys. In Nature’s Kitchen, herbalist Fred Rohe observes that flaxseed is an excellent source of nutritional fiber and protein. It’s also loaded with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids: A single tablespoon yields more than four grams, about the same as a tablespoon of peanuts, sesame seeds, walnuts, or pecans.
In North America, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1794, which made cotton fabric cheaper and easier to produce than linen by mechanizing fiber processing. At about the same time, hemp rope supplanted rope made from flax. Now, 200 years later, vinyl floor coverings and latex-based paints and varnishes have largely replaced linseed oil-based products, and plastic substitutes have made oilcloth virtually obsolete.
Flax is still a desirable natural product, however. Linen clothing is popular for spring and summer wear. Woodworkers continue to use linseed oil on unpainted carvings. Wooden tools and other implements still are treated with linseed oil to protect them against water. Weavers use a mucilage made from boiled flaxseeds to size linen warps. Even the meal left over after pressing linseed oil is useful. Made into bars called oilseed cakes, it serves as a nutritious feed for cattle and poultry.
Fiber flax is still produced in Russia, China, Egypt, and parts of Europe, and there are pilot projects to revive the U.S. fiber flax industry, starting in Maine and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Industrial flax production in the United States and Canada is mainly for seed, with just a few producers based in both Dakotas, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
Jill Jepson is a medical anthropologist and freelance writer in central California. She specializes in herbal medicines and other plant uses.
Onion Flax Crackers
Recipe by Jill Jepson.
Serve these delicious crackers alongside a hearty soup, or enjoy them with a mild, creamy cheese.
Yields about 4 dozen crackers.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3/4 cup flaxseed
- 2/3 cup water
- Additional flour for dusting
- 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1. Place flour, sugar, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne in large bowl and stir until well mixed. Cut in butter with two knives or pastry blender.
2. Add flaxseed and mix well. Add water, stirring until mixture just comes together in a pliable dough.
3. Cut dough in two. Place one half on lightly oiled 12-by-14-inch sheet of aluminum foil. Pat into 8-inch round. Dust rolling pin generously with flour and roll dough to about 1⁄16-inch thickness.
4. Cut out rectangle about 8 by 12 inches. Score it with knife or pizza cutter into 2-inch squares (do not cut completely through dough). Place foil and dough on cookie sheet and sprinkle with half the kosher salt. Repeat with remainder of dough and salt.
5. Bake at 400 F for 7 to 9 minutes, or until edges of crackers are light golden. Lift foil carefully and turn it over so dough is face-down on cookie sheet. Peel off foil and bake dough 5 to 7 minutes longer, or until crackers are beige to very light brown.
6. Remove from oven and place on rack to cool. When crackers are cool, break into squares and store in an airtight container.
Recipe by Jill Jepson.
These loaves are also delicious with 1/4 cup chopped walnuts or wheat germ added to the flour mixtures before kneading.
Yields 2 loaves.
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3⁄4 cup milk
- 2-1/2cups all-purpose flour
- 2-1/2cups whole-wheat flour
- 1⁄3 cup flaxseed
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 tablespoon flaxseed
1. In large bowl, combine yeast and warm water, and stir gently until dissolved. Add molasses, salt, oil, and milk; stir to blend.
2. In separate bowl, mix together flours and flaxseed. Add flour mixture gradually to liquid ingredients and stir until blended.
3. On lightly floured surface, knead dough 8 to 10 minutes, or until elastic. Add a little more flour if necessary to keep dough from sticking to your work surface. Place in oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 to 1-1/4 hours, or until doubled in bulk.
4. Punch down dough and divide into two portions. Shape each portion into smooth ball. Cover and let rest 10 minutes.
5. Shape each portion into a loaf, place in oiled 81⁄2-by-41⁄2-inch loaf pan, and let rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
6. Heat oven to 350 F. Meanwhile, beat egg yolk with 1 tablespoon milk. Gently brush mixture on tops of loaves. Sprinkle each loaf with 1/2 tablespoon flaxseed.
7. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Turn loaves onto rack and cool for 1 hour.
Recipe by Jill Jepson.
I like to eat this granola as a quick breakfast or a late-night snack.
Yields about 12 cups.
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup flaxseed
- 1 cup walnut pieces
- 3/4 cup sunflower seeds
- 6 to 7 cups rolled oats
- 3/4 cup wheat germ
1. In large saucepan over low heat, heat molasses and oil until thin. Turn off heat.
2. Mix in flaxseed, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and rolled oats one by one, coating each thoroughly with molasses mixture.
3. Spread on four ungreased cookie sheets and bake at 350 F for 15 minutes.
4. Stir in wheat germ, and then bake
15 to 20 minutes longer, stirring every
5 minutes. When granola has browned, remove from oven and cool on cookie sheets.
5. Break up any large chunks and store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
Walnut and Caraway Rye Bread
Recipe by Cornelia Carlson.
If you use a bread maker, you can either remove the dough after the final rise and bake as described, or bake it in the bread machine’s pan for a much denser loaf. If you use a bread machine, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the order in which to put ingredients into the machine.
Yields 1 loaf.
- 1-1/2cups warm water
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast or bread machine yeast
- 3/8 cup flaxseed
- 1 tablespoon caraway seed
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2cup finely chopped walnuts
- 1-1/4 cups rye flour
- 1/2 cup vital wheat gluten
- 2 to 2-1/4 cups bread flour
- Cornmeal to sprinkle on baking stone or oil for oiling pan
1. If mixing by hand, put water in large mixing bowl. Sprinkle yeast over it, and let dissolve; allow to rest for about 5 minutes.
2. Stir in remaining ingredients in order listed, adding more bread flour as needed to make dough stiff.
3. Knead dough for 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place in deep bowl, cover with damp towel, and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 to 3 hours.
4. Punch down dough, and then shape into a ball. Place dough on baking stone sprinkled with cornmeal or in oiled 9-inch-round baking pan. Cover with damp towel and let rise again until doubled in bulk, about 1 to 3 hours.
5. Heat oven to 400 F. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 F, and then reduce heat to 350 F and bake for about 30 minutes more, or until loaf sounds hollow when tapped on bottom.
6. Cool bread on rack before slicing, and store in airtight container. For long storage, wrap intact loaf in plastic before freezing. Allow frozen bread to thaw for
30 minutes before slicing.
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