Experimental archaeology – growing flax

After testing out my practical skills on the intensive textile course at the TRC, Leiden,  I bought flax seeds to try some experimental archaeology. I grew flax successfully last year, with the basic aim of getting a better understanding of the plant and its fibres.

This year I set myself a bigger challenge, to follow eighteenth-century instructions to uncover more of the challenges of flax growing, as well as raising new research questions. There are a multitude of guides to flax production, but I settled on a combination of two guides, Directions for Raising Flax (1772) which was published by the Commissioners and Trustees for Fisheries, Manufactures, and Improvements in Scotland to improve the production of flax fibre in Scotland and was given out free at all linen stamp offices and an undated manuscript from Berkshire Record Office ‘Derections to sow fflaxe’ (D/Ewe EP).

Calculating the quantity of seed

The ‘Derections’ suggest a minimum of 2 bushels of flax seed per acre, ‘the Better the ground the thicker to be sowed’. The Directions suggest 3 bushels per acre for seed from Holland or Riga and 2.5 bushels of Philadelphian seed (p.3). Arthur Young in A Tour in Ireland, wrote that people in Armargh used 2.5 to 3 bushels of seed per acre (second edition, vol 1, p. 133). I therefore decided to try a ratio of 2 bushels per acre.

The calculations that I used were as follows, 1 bushel = 72 pints, 2 bushels = 144 pints. 1000ml = 1.75 pints. Therefore the number of ml needed per acre is 144/1.75*1000=82,268ml, with 2ml of seed needed per square foot. (If anyone has problems with my calculations please contact me!)

Choosing the seed

Both guides agree that flax should be planted by the end of April. The ‘Derections’ state that flax should be planted after the last frost in April and the Scottish Directions, that it should be planted between mid-March and April (p.3). The unusually cold spring meant that I left off planting until the end of April. After some time spent calculating the weight of seed needed for 1 square foot of soil, I prepared the soil, making sure that it was flat and that big clods were broken up and stones removed (p.2) and planted the seeds. Within two days, all the seeds had been eaten. – This was my first lesson, while my crop was small, it showed me one of the problems that farmers faced and continue to face.

I then planted my second crop in early May. I used two sets of seeds, one that I had bought in Leiden and were at least two years old and different seeds which I bought from a seed company this year. They were the same species, Linum Usistatissimum, but different varieties. Both the Scottish Directions (pp. 2-3) and the ‘Derections’ offer advice on the choice of seed. Both considered bright, heavier seed as more productive, with the ‘Derections’ specifying plumpness, roundness and a uniform colour; and the Directions giving instructions for bruising and tasting the seed as further criteria for seed quality.

Old flax seedNew flax seed

Old flax seed (left) ; new flax seed (right)

Working out which was heaviest proved impossible. Brightness and uniformity of colour were easier to judge, based on how healthy the seed looked. Plumpness and roundness were more difficult, given differences between the two varieties – most of the new seeds were pitted in places. The photos above show what proportion of the same weight of seed fulfilled the criteria: in each image the pile on the left is seed, that the instructions considered was not fit for purpose. This however excludes uniform colour – the majority of the tips on the old seed were pale – it would have categorically failed this test.

Old flax seed, bruised New flax seed, bruised

Old flax seed, bruised (left); new flax seed bruised (right)

The next instruction in the Directions was ‘that which appears, when bruised, of a light or yellowish green, and fresh in the heart, oily, and smells and tastes sweet, may be depended on’ (p.2). The new seed met these criteria much better. When I bruised them (with a spoon) some specks of oil came of of the old seed, but lots oozed out of the new seed (right hand image) oil came out of both seeds, but more came out of the new seed. (Flax seeds are used to produce linseed oil and are edible). The core of the new seed looked fresher although it was white, rather than the yellow of the old seed. I couldn’t smell either seed, but the new seed had a pleasant almost fruity taste whereas the old seed had little flavour apart from a sweet aftertaste.

Planting the seed

Old seedNew seed

Old seed (left); new seed (right)

To prevent this batch of seed from being eaten again I planted it in two pots – separating the old and new seed, and ahistorically taped clingfilm over the top until they had germinated. The pots were 30cm in diameter, which meant that the area was smaller (at 706.5 cm squared) than the one square foot (900 cm squared). I oversowed because I was unable to measure any smaller volume than 2ml, and reasoned that up to 4 bushels could be sown per acre, so I was still following contemporary instructions.

The ‘Derections’ state that ‘to know if you have sowed thick enough wet the underside of your thumb and see if it take up of the seed sown 14 or 15 seeds at once’. I only picked up 5 or 6 seeds on my thumb, so next year I will try a really dense sowing to see how it affects the growth of the flax.

Germination took a long time because the atmosphere was too hot under the clingfilm. When the weather cooled the flax started to germinate. Clearly I’m going to need to change this next year. The seed that did grow, grew well however and had gone to seed by mid-July. The majority of seed did not germinate at all, not helped by a squirrel digging a hole in one of the pots! I am not sure which factor was most responsible for low germination  – the heat under the clingfilm, animals, the ‘dud’ seed, or something else and as a result I am going to repeat the experiment next year to try and work out the answer.

Flowering flax

The new flax seed flowering

However, I did successfully grow two crops of flax. The difference of the varieties was apparent in the flowers – the new seeds bought from a seed company had larger, more attractive flowers.

What have I learnt?

  • Two very basic points which I saw for myself; birds and mice could decimate crops and the impact of unusually hot or cold weather.
  • Distinguishing between good and bad seed is relatively common sense – because the seed is supposed to be shiny any problems are quite obvious. The most helpful  test was bruising the seed.  The quantity of oil that comes out reveals how old the seed is. There was a noticeable difference in taste too. It would also be easy to learn which seed to choose if taught by someone else.
Posted in Spinning Project | 4 Comments

Learning to Spin

In May 2012 John and I visited the excellent Textile Research Centre (TRC) in Leiden, Holland to take the Intensive Textile Course with six other people run by Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood. The course provides a highly practical introduction to textiles – you learn the basics of spinning, weaving, dyeing and other processes. Gillian encourages you to find answers through experimentation.

The first day was an introduction to different fibre types and we each built up a reference collection of fibres. We developed our fibre identification skills and got to see different individual fibres under the microscope for the first time. This proved a conclusive way of telling cotton and linen apart (worn linen develops a fuzzy texture and it can be difficult to tell it apart from cotton).

One dye was used for each column

Our dyed wool. Each column shows the effects of different mordants on one dye.

We learnt about dyeing next and used natural dyes to dye wool. This was particularly interesting because we used different mordants – each mordant produced a different colour from the same dye! We can also confirm that indigo does smell of manure, although our dyeing attempts were unsuccessful. We also managed to dye madder more effectively than cochineal (see the 4th and 5th rows from the left).

My attempt at spinning wool

My attempt at spinning wool

John tries out a spinning wheel

John tries out a spinning wheel






Spinning was the next challenge, we tried out spindle whorls and spinning wheels. Neither John nor I are natural spinners and a morning was not enough to teach us the techniques and the rhythm needed to use a spindle whorl. However trying out the tools developed our understanding of spinning and reinforced the idea that for experienced spinners the process is intuitive and automatic as well as highlighting the importance of rhythm.

Recreating a textile

Recreating an archaeological textile

The result of our labours

The result of our labours

I much preferred weaving. After trying out weaving a tabby and different twills I helped Hedwig Landenius Enegren out with some experimental archaeology. We worked on recreating a design from the bottom of a garment based on a fragment of an archaeological textile. In the meantime John created a colour-coded treadle system on one of the basic looms.

Linen from the dead sea scrolls. Copyright Alice Dolan and Textile Reseach Centre, Leiden

Linen from the dead sea scrolls. Copyright Alice Dolan and Textile Reseach Centre, Leiden

The next few days were spent learning about decorative techniques and handling textiles from the CTR’s outstanding collection. One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing some of the linen that was wrapped around the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So what did we learn?

  • We developed our textile knowledge and gained a new understanding of the different processes involved in textile production before industrialisation.
  • Our practical understanding of textiles improved. We learnt about the physicality of the processes, the rhythm needed for spinning and the smells of dyes.
  • I had a go at experimental archaeology which can both provide (or suggest) answers and inspire new research questions. The outcome of this was that I tried growing flax to see how this changed my understanding of the fibre, the topic of another blog post.

We both heartily recommend the Intensive Textile Course as a solid foundation for academic textile research.


Posted in Spinning Project | 4 Comments

Inspiration in Copenhagen

Spending a week at the Centre for Textile Research in June this year proved an inspiration. CTR brings people together to share ideas and inspiration – one of its strengths is that academic writing and experimental archaeology are undertaken alongside each other. You are as likely to see someone trying out a warp-weighted loom to recreate ancient textiles as proof-editing. Everyone at CTR (too many to name!) was extraordinarily welcoming and made me feel at home.

Joining the annual summer trip, to Christiansø and Frederiksø, two islands in the middle of the Baltic gave me a chance to get to know everyone. The following day I got a new insight into Chinese costume through the joint expertise of Manlin Wu (Chinese textiles) and Laila Glienke (embroidery).

I also got to share ideas and methodologies with Paula Hohti, who has just joined CTR and is working on a fascinating new project on the clothes worn by ordinary people in early modern Scandinavia.

When I wasn’t working in the CTR, I visited a few of the historic textiles in Copenhagen – Mette Bruun, the administrator at CTR gave a great tour of the Islamic galleries in the David Collection, which has a fantastic collection of decorative arts and saw Tiraz textiles for the first time, which were status symbols associated with rulers.

A visit to the National Museum with student assistant Sidsel Frisch was another highlight. Denmark has extraordinarily rich prehistoric survivals due to low oxygen levels in bogs. There are astonishing textile survivals (some of the images are distressing). The Egtved girl was buried c1370 BC yet her clothes still survive, including a corded skirt. Scholars at CTR have been involved in investigating the textiles and uncovered the original colours of the striking outfit from the 2nd century BC worn by the Huldremose woman.

P1080273 P1080269 P1080270

Viking ship museum Roskilde: inside the museum; recreation of a woollen viking sail; rope workshop.

While John was at CTR we visited the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde to meet Jörn Bohlmann an enthusiastic PhD student whose practical knowledge of boat building lays the groundwork for his thesis on sails. Jörn showed us around the museum while we animatedly talked about sails, spinning, linen and hemp and ended up with more questions than answers! The biggest questions that we asked were about the supply of yarn for sail making. Different ships require sails using different qualities of yarn, yet spinners specialised in producing a particular quality (or width) of yarn. How (if at all) did the process of putting-out change when different sails were needed? Also how did the putting-out system cope when countries went to war – how was the need for more sails managed? It is these kinds of basic, but unanswered questions that the Spinning Project aims to explore. Have a look at this Old Bailey Case t18031130-35  to see the putting out system in action – it even features childbirth! The researchers at the Viking Ship museum are keen to collaborate with people working on subjects that intersect with Vikings and boats.

This trip to CTR was the beginning of a longer research collaboration that will be developed through the Costumes, Clothing, Consumption, Cultures network.

All images are (c) Alice Dolan

Posted in Spinning Project | Leave a comment

The silk throwing mill at Caraglio, Italy

The three-story silk throwing mill at Caraglio, Piedmont, Italy, constructed 1676-8.

The three-story silk-throwing mill at Caraglio, Piedmont, Italy, constructed 1676-8.

This enormous water-powered silk-throwing mill, at Caraglio in Piedmont in north-western Italy, was built in 1676-8. Mills like this were the model for the first successful English factory for manufacturing silk warp yarn [organzine] by water power, built by Thomas Lombe at Derby about 1720. The Spinning Project is currently exploring the links between Lombe’s silk-throwing machinery and subsequent mechanical inventions for spinning cotton, culminating in Richard Arkwright’s water frame of 1768. Lombe’s Derby factory used machines copied from those in Piedmont.

‘The East Prospect of Derby, c. 1728’. The two large brick buildings in the centre of the painting, on an island in the river, are Thomas Lombe’s silk factories, on the left the three-story doubling works and on the right the five-story, water-powered throwing works.

‘The East Prospect of Derby, c. 1728’. The two large brick buildings in the centre of the painting, on an island in the river, are Thomas Lombe’s silk factories, on the left the three-story doubling works and on the right the five-story, water-powered throwing works.

The working reconstruction at Caraglio demonstrates the huge scale of this machinery and its use of a flyer mechanism similar to that employed in Arkwright’s machine.

Posted in Spinning Project | 3 Comments

‘Threads of Feeling’ travels to America

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

‘Threads of Feeling’, the exhibition of textiles from the London Foundling Hospital curated by John Styles, opened at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Va., USA on May 25th, 2013. The exhibition continues there until May 26th, 2014.

John was at Colonial Williamsburg for the opening event on May 29th. The previous day he gave a public lecture on ‘Foundlings, Philanthropy and Textiles in Eighteenth-Century London’.



Williamsburg ladies on their morning walk.

Williamsburg ladies on their morning walk.


At Colonial Williamsburg, he particularly enjoyed visiting the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop and talking to Angela Burnley of Burnley and Trowbridge, expert re-creators of historic fabrics.





Posted in Spinning Project | 1 Comment

The wheel starts to whirr

Welcome to the website for the Spinning project, a European Research Council funded examination of ‘Spinning in the era of the Spinning Wheel.’

You can find a full description of the project on the About page, see pictures of cloth viewed through a microscope on the Gallery page, and read about our team and our colleagues.

More material will be added as this project progresses, and news of it will be added to this blog. You can keep up with our progress through our RSS feed.


Posted in Spinning Project | Leave a comment