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The How, Where, Why, What, When,

Which and Who of the Russian Flax

Trade with Great Britain during the

late 18th and early19th Centuries.

This site is an ongoing project involving the daily finding and identification of Russian Lead Flax Bale Seals and Lead  Trading Tokens from the old disused Flax Mills of Bentham Mills, West House Mill at  Blubberhouses, Little Patrick Mill, Aked's High Mill at West End, Folly  Ghyll Mill in Thornthwaite, and Cumbria with input from  many museums and other organisations.    For many decades in the late 18th early  19th centuries, Russia was by far the world's  greatest exporter of flax stems via Archangel, Konigsberg, Kronstadt, Libnau, Memel, Narva, Pernau, Revel, Riga, St Petersburg, Tilsit and Great Britain was Russia's major customer..   Many 1000's of  tons of raw flax was shipped in bales as shown in this picture of  merchants at Riga Harbour.

                          Note the "men in black quality inspectors" worked in pairs.

When we go seal hunting it is for Russian flax bale seals - not this cutie pie.

  Each Bale was sealed with a lead seal in Russia with a host of information.

 

 

From "The Commerce of St Petersburg" by CI Borissow in 1818

Petersburg procures its best flax from Novogorod* and Pskove ..

 

Here is an article about the Medieval Flax Trade in Novgorod ..click on a thumbnail.

Here is an article about England's trade with the Baltic from 1600 - 1660 ..  click on the thumbnail.

It shows nearly half of the trade was in Flax and Hemp from Elbing, Konigsberg, Narva and Riga.

After 1660 our trade with Poland via Elbing (German - Polish Elbag) and Konigsberg virtually ceased. Polish demand for our cloth almost disappeared due to their own industry growing, and being able to get much cheaper imports from Holland and with Russian products becoming more accessible.

Riga procures its flax from White Russia and Marienburg in Livonia.

 

Flax is divided into three sorts

1st sort or 12 heads (Novogorods*)

 2nd sort or 9 heads (Novogorods*)

3rd sort or 6 heads (Novogorods*)

 

These there are two other kinds of flax called Wasnikow and Carelia

which are superior in quality to the twelve heads Novogorods*

 

The terms 12, 9 and 6 heads are derived from the manner of binding and the

quality may be distinguished by the number of heads in a bobbin (bale) of flax.

 

 Every bobbin consists according to its quality of 12, 9 or 6 parts which are bound

together in such a way that each part can be distinguished at the top of the bobbin.

 

A 12 head bobbin (bale) of flax weighs from 3 to 3.5 poods, (107 - 124 lbs)

with a 9 head bobbin (bale) weighing from 2 to 2.5 poods, (71 - 89 lbs)

 and with 6 head bale proportionally less.  (63 poods make an English ton).

 

The exportation of 6 heads is quite low with most being for home consumption

with only 4 Cross seals of 6K being found in Denmark/Sweden and dated to the

16th century. Similar Cross seals in the UK are 9, 12 and dated 18/19th century.

 

   

   Flax bales on the Quay                            Novogorod Market

 

 The annual exportation of flax from the port of St Petersburg amounts to about

600,000 poods (952 tons) the greatest part of which is shipped in English boats.
 
 The trade in flax at Riga is more than at St Petersburg and as particular attention

 is paid to selecting cleaning etc. the quality of Riga flax is proportionally superior.

 

The quality of flax is likewise distinguished by its colour. The silver coloured is the

 best and that of Wasnikow and Carelia are remarkable for their shining whiteness.

 
Good flax should be long soft smooth clean and free from spills. The refuse which

 falls off after hackling or cleaning the flax is called flax codilla which is made up

in bundles of one pood each which are then shipped in large bundles of thirty.

 

 60 poods of flax and 40 poods of flax codilla make a "last" in St Petersburg.

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Some Facts on Russian Flax

The best flax and the largest quantities of it are raised in the Governments of Vologda,

Pskove, Novogorod, St Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Riga, Mohilef, Moscow, Smolensk, Twer,

Polotsk, Viatka and on the Volga,  the Oka and the Kama where the Russians cultivate

the beautiful Wattachianjlax which was first introduced by some Polish colonists and

grows to the length of seven spans producing much finer yarn than the common flax.

 

Some successful attempts have been made in Gatherinaslof with the Italian flax seed
was brought` from Bologna and it thrives so well that the stems rise to the height of
more than five arschines or about eleven feet eight inches English measure.

 

Both the Common and Siberian flax grow wild in Russia The latter in the northern
steppes Urval, and the former is the Volga at Zarazin and other places. Petersburg

procures its best flax from Novogorod and Pskove and Riga obtains it chiefly from

White Russia and the neighbourhood of Marienburg in Livonia.

 
Good flax ought to be clean and white though indeed there is some exceedingly gray.
Also it ought not to be flaky nor rough but woolly and soft and be 35" - 42" long.

 

The refuse or tow is tied  up in heads also and sewed into mats but this is not common.

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The greater part of the Russian flax goes to England and Scotland.

 

    The Flax bales were shipped to the UK in trading ships called Galliots

 and Galeas after the flax harvest during the Autumn months, to avoid

the stormy Winter weather via routes around the top of  Scotland.

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Some of the flax bales were imported through the Port of Hull

Imports into Hull from the Baltic States

1790 1800 1810 1820 1830
vessels tons vessels tons vessels tons vessels tons vessels tons
243 61,964 466 83.732 459 73.786 318 62,448 632 109,60

 

Bentham was supplied through the Port of Lancaster and it is possible that Aked High,  Little Patrick and West House Mills were also supplied through the Port of Lancaster as well as Hull.

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Production of flax in the UK

In 1850 Ireland had 325,000 spindles, England had 365,000 and Scotland 303,000 (ie there was roughly the same number in each country). Over the next fifty years, however, the number of flax spinning spindles in England decreased to near vanishing point with less than 50,000 spindles. Even Marshall's, the leading firm, found it necessary to wind up their business, close their famous mill in Leeds, and transfer the business to America. By the end of the century Scotland had also suffered a major reduction, the number of spindles being 160, 000.  While these two countries had lost production, Ireland's share had increased and by 1875 there were 906,000 spindles working, this number having reached 935,411 by the turn of the century.  One of the reasons for this great displacement in favour of Ireland was the fact that linen was the staple industry here, whereas England and Scotland had other textile industries which allowed a higher profit and the payment of wages on a higher scale. Towards the end of the last century an average sized flax spinning mill contained about 22,000 spindles, and gave employment to about 750 persons. According to 19th century figures it cost about 4 to 6 a spindle to erect. This meant that the average cost of building a factory at this time was in advance of 120,000. The work force employed in the mill was in the proportion of two or three females to one male. Children of both sexes at the age of 12 were also employed as learners. These were called "half-timers". They worked and went to school on alternative days and could not be employed unless they went to school.

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What went on in a flax mill? This video might help.

In part it shows flax scutching, The mill here is water powered. https://www.facebook.com/Irishfarmingvideos/videos/1381391021976747/?hc_ref=ARSsaforGs9MZgLf6KoD3VJM2mlAzY8WzlqZCH22xtUKsQsfZ9mpRBVp6Bcf4wNyJ8A

Cultivated Flax  (Linum usitatissimum)

Video from flax seed to finished thread ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFuj7sXVnIU&feature=share

Another home video .. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeCXLiwWqKw&feature=youtu.be

Video of large scale production ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZrZZefkohE&feature=youtu.be

   The linen fibre here consists of the "bast"  fibre cells surrounding the stem of species of the flax grown in Russia. All bast fibres are obtained near the outer surface of the plant stems. The pith and woody tissues are of no value to the linen manufacture and these are later spread on the fields as a valuable fertilizer mixed with night soil,  human excrement collected at night and with

 

 the bale seals still attached which is why seals can be found in the fields today.

 

      Parts of flax plant                        blue flax flowers                     linseed oil seeds

 

. The flax plant is an annual and to obtain the best fibres it must be gathered before it is fully ripe. When about 1 metre high, after the flowering and seed harvesting, it is important the whole plant is pulled out to get the maximum fibre length with tapered ends. To obtain seed from which the best quality of linseed oil can be made it is usually necessary to sacrifice the quality of the fibres to some extent by pulling it later .. a careful balance of needs.

 

    Unlike cotton, the flax is contaminated by impurities from which it must be freed before it can be woven into cloth. The first process to which the freshly pulled flax is submitted is that of "rippling" or the removal of the seed capsules.    Retting, next in order, is the most important operation. This is done to remove the substances which bind the bast fibres to each other and to remove the fibre from the central woody portion of the stem. This consists of steeping the stalks in water.

 

 

There are three methods of retting, (1) Cold water retting using either running or stagnant water. (2) Dew retting. (3) Warm water retting

    1) Cold water retting in running water is practiced especially in Belgium.

   Retting in stagnant water is the method usually employed in Great Britain, Ireland and Russia. The retting in stagnant water is rapidly done, but there is the danger of over-retting on account of the organic matter retained in the water which favours fermentation causing the fibre to be weakened.

   Retting tanks are quite common in the Northern mills, being  surprisingly small for the amount of material which must have passed through them.

    These tanks can easily be mistaken for water tanks although the Hollin Hill Mill near Glasshouses in Nidderdale has wonderful examples adjacent to the old demolished mill and there is one in the bleaching fields at West House Mills.

    2) In dew retting, the flax is spread on the field and exposed to the action of the weather for several weeks without any previous steeping. This method of retting is practiced in Germany, Russia as well as the UK and is particularly suitable for the type of high quality flax shipped out of Archangel.

     3) Warm water retting and chemical retting have met with limited success.

 When the retting is complete, the flax is set up in sheaves to dry.

      A very complex mechanical system to replace retting and scutching with a thrashing machine, a breaking machine, a cleansing machine and a refining machine to bleach the flax before spinning .... proved a costly disaster as it broke and weakened the flax ... and although merchants with money invested in the system did their best to get it accepted .. all the mills went back to the old fashioned tried and tested ways of retting   .. something to be learned here.

       The next operations consisted of the  "breaking," "scutching, cleaning" and  "hackling, dressing" and were done by  hand but sometimes still by the machinery.

   Breaking  removes the woody centre from the retted  and dried flax by being passed through a  series of fluted rollers. The particles of  woody matter adhering to the fibres are  detached by scutching. Hackling or  combing further separates the fibres into  their finest filaments, the "line" and "tow."  The "flax line" is the long and valuable  fibre; the "tow", the short coarse tangled fibre which is spun and used for weaving coarse linen. The "Tow" is on the left and the "flax line" on the Bench.

 


A, Unthrashed Straw;     B, Retted;     C, Scutched;     D, Hackled.

 

     When freed from all impurities the chief physical characteristics of flax are its snowy whiteness, silky lustre and great tenacity. The individual fibres may be from ten to twelve inches in length; they are much greater in diameter than cotton although it is less pliant and elastic than cotton and bleaches and dyes less readily. Linen cloth is a better conductor of heat than cotton and clothing made from it is cooler. When pure, it is, like cotton, nearly pure cellulose and the linen is used extensively in paper making.
 

          Inside the Flax Mill      In the Bleaching Fields Cloth.     Cloth Tags

The finished material was rolled into bales and held together with Cloth Clips also known as Alnage Seals which certified the quality of the cloth.

Cloth Bale Clips (Alnage Seals)

 

Cloth Bale Clips found at various mills during the PeaceHavens Project

 

 

    The finished material had various names and uses.

 

Beetling -- was a process applied to linen fabrics and now to cotton fabrics to produce a hard, flat surface with high lustre and also to make the texture less porous and resemble fine linen. In this process, the fabric, dampened and pounded with heavy wooden mallets. For the best class of beetle finish, the pieces are first impregnated with sago starch and the other softening ingredients.

This beetling machine has four sets of Fallers which are made of beech wood, each about 8 ft. long, 5 in. deep and 4 in. wide, and are kept in their vertical position by two pairs of guide rails. Each faller is provided with a tappet or wooden peg driven in at one side, which engages with the teeth or Wipers of the revolving shaft in the front of the machine. The effect of this mechanism is to lift the Faller a distance of about 13 in. and then let it drop on to the cloth wound on the beam. This lifting and dropping of the Fallers on to the beam takes place in rhythmical and rapid succession. To ensure even treatment the beam turns slowly round and also has a to-and-fro movement imparted to it. The treatment may last, according to the finish which it is desired to obtain, from one to sixty hours.  Beetling was originally used for linen goods, but to-day is almost entirely applied to cotton for the production of so-called linenettes.

 Below are photos of a Beetling Machine from an old mill in Ulster, NI, by Sebastian Graham.

Click Thumbnail

Buckram -- A coarse, heavy, plain-woven linen used  for stiffening.

Canvas -- A linen cloth of different weaves and widths, used for many purposes, sails, clothing, as a background for embroidery, hangings, spreads, etc.

Crash -- A strong, course linen cloth of different widths, used for towels, suits, table linen, hangings, bed spreads; in fact, there is no end to the uses to which this textile can be adapted.

Grass Cloth -- A fine, smooth, linen woven in checks of blue and white, red and white, etc., used for dish towels etc.

Holland -- A stout, plain-wove, unbleached, linen cloth used mainly for linings, window shades, etc.

Huchaback -- A corruption of huckster-back, meaning originally peddler's ware, towelling -- made of all linen, linen and cotton, and sold either by the yard or as separate towels

Irish Linen -- Full white bleached, fine, plain woven linen used for shirts, collars, cuffs, etc., of different widths.

 

Old Russian stamps showing flax production

Medieval spinning, weaving, dying and making spindle whorls

https://www.facebook.com/tecelao.rodrigo/videos/943084222451015/?fref=nf

 

http://archive.org/stream/textilerawmateri00zips/textilerawmateri00zips_djvu.txt

A very comprehensive collection of facts on plant fibres

  41 uTube Videos of Flax Processing

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOYKeJ0lADS2RezB_VBjsY28MjPfgNtKo

 

A play list of flax processing videos to assist growers and weavers.

 

compiled by Chad Theodore Everson at Temerity Magazine

 

 https://www.facebook.com/groups/TemerityMagazineGroup/

 

 

 

Website design and photos by Ged Dodd   Director of The PeaceHavens Project.
and powered with free uploading from 

COPYRIGHT 2013 x Ged Dodd aka PeaceHavens

 

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All flax bale seals are of interest to us .. all scans and seals gratefully accepted.