This blog post, part one of two, highlights the Oregon Flax Fiber Collection and the Oregon Custom Weavers Guild Linen Research Notebook at the Special Collections and Archives Research Center, which were recently processed by Public Services Assistant Rachel Lilley. Stay tuned next week for the full story of flax fiber in Oregon.
This post is contributed by SCARC student archivist Hannah Lawson, a chemistry major with a passion for art, conservation, and preserving history.
The flax fiber is durable, soft, and breathable – great for a multitude of textile applications, including paint canvas, sails, and clothing. These are all made from linen, which is the general term for any fabric that is made from woven flax. Flax is one of the oldest known plants specifically cultivated for use as a textile – modern technology and analytical methods show us that linen was used to wrap mummies in Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 BCE. The fiber itself is extracted from the bast, or the woody stem of the flax plant. It is primarily composed of the polysaccharide cellulose, which allows the fiber to be hydrophilic, or water-absorptive, which aids the breathability of flax as linen. The rigid structure, which comes from the cement-like lignin and crystalline molecular form, gives flax fiber excellent strength – it can be 2-3 times stronger than other cellulosic fibers, such as cotton. The recyclability of the natural fiber and the ability to use the entire plant during processing made flax an extremely economical fiber in early agriculture.
In The United States, flax production flourished for decades in the North, in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. But with the advent of the cotton gin, which made cotton farming vastly more profitable and efficient, the flax industry saw a sharp decline in those areas.
But while flax production fell in most areas of the country, it flourished in the state of Oregon, where the well-drained Willamette Valley soil and temperate climate were perfect for growing high quality flax. Oregon flax, which was noted by explorers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark during their 1804 expedition to be superior to flax grown in other parts of the United States, quickly became renowned for its finer texture, longer fiber strands, and lustrous finish. Samples of Oregon flax and its products (linen upholstery, linseed, and yarns) were recognized repeatedly by World Fairs and various expositions. In 1876, a farmer in Marion County was awarded a bronze medal and a certificate of merit for his flax exhibition in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. This brought immense attention to Oregon flax, but the industry still faced international competition. Countries like Russia and Belgium were normally the top competitors for flax distribution, but during the chaos of both World Wars, the international flax market was halted. Oregon flax was able to take the spotlight.
Tobin, LA. A history and analysis of the Oregon linen industry. Oregon State University, 1960.