This blog post, part two of two, highlights the recent work done by Rachel Lilley, Public Services Assistant in processing the Oregon Flax Fiber Collection and Oregon Custom Weavers Guild Linen Research Notebook, both of which are housed in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center.
This post is contributed by SCARC student archivist Hannah Lawson, a chemistry major with a passion for art, conservation, and preserving history.
The flax industry held a particular importance to Oregon State University. As one of the leading land grant universities, agriculture was a primary focus of OSU research, and naturally that included flax growing and processing. The impressive Home Economics and Extension Services programs offered at the time extended that research towards the textile applications of the flax fiber. Joan Patterson, a professor specializing in textile design and home furnishings, revolutionized a weaving process for linens that resulted in beautiful, clean textiles that could be used for upholstery. In a newspaper article titled, “Flax has a Future”, Patterson’s linen designs are described as revolutionary. When describing her vision for the future of fiber flax, Patterson’s enthusiasm for the product clearly shows through: “…Its eternal beauty, its exquisite feel, can’t help but make me believe it will find its way into American homes.”
Patterson’s hand woven patterns and techniques nearly landed her a multi-million dollar deal with Chevy automobiles. Unfortunately, while Patterson was featured in multiple magazines and newspapers for her fine linen patterns, the deal eventually fell through, due in part to the financial youth of the Chevy company at the time.
Another important contributor to the research of flax processing and production was Jesse Harmond, who came to OSC from the US Department of Agriculture. While at OSC, Harmond was involved with the design and manufacturing of new mechanical machines for processing flax fibers. Harmond released several publications on these machines, some of which mechanically deseeded flax, aided in harvesting flax, or dried extracted flax fibers. In one of these publications, Harmond acknowledges that the future of the flax industry hinged on the mechanization of flax processing.
Additionally, Jesse Harmond was the force behind the creation of a linen-wool fabric he called ‘Marilinn’, named after Marion County, where the linen originated, and Linn County, where the wool originated. The Marilinn fabric was yet another attempt to expand the commercial market for Oregon flax and linens. The combination of 80% wool and 20% flax made a fabric which was soft yet strong, and had better colorfastness, or the ability to retain dye colors, which linen alone did not.
Harmond and Patterson formed Oregon Custom Weavers, a company that specialized in the production of fine linens made from Oregon flax. Their hopes were to expand their business to a national market. Unfortunately for Jesse Harmond and Joan Patterson, their research was concurrent with the beginning of the end for commercial flax growing in Oregon.
The flax industry in Oregon reached its’ peak during World War II, when flax and linen were deemed essential war products. Oregon was once home to 14 different flax processing plants, and over 18,000 acres of flax crops. However, the removal of farm subsidies in the post-war years, as well as the introduction and expansion of new synthetic fibers like polyester and rayon in the early 20th century, were devastating blows to the once booming industry. The labor-intensive nature of flax production and processing prevented the industry from becoming an essential portion of modern Oregon agriculture, despite the efforts made to revive it at Oregon State University through Joan Patterson, Jesse Harmond, and many others. While Patterson and Harmond’s reports and research were promising – and Patterson’s linen products extremely well-received, the languishing flax industry proved to be too great of a hurdle to cross. Flax production was unable to match the demand for linens and yarns that Patterson’s designs created.
Today, Oregon flax maintains an important part of Oregon’s history and the history of Oregon State University. Independent farmers in Oregon still produce flax, both for its use as a textile and for its benefits as a healthy food product for livestock and humans. The Oregon Fiber Flax Collection in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center houses a rare array of flax yarns and products, a humble glimpse at what once was a signature product in Oregon agriculture and craft.
Tobin, LA. A history and analysis of the Oregon linen industry. Oregon State University, 1960.