The PeaceHavens Project

Copyright 2022 Ged Dodd

 aka PeaceHavens Project

 Click here for the terms

 of free copy and share.

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




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.

For a list of the terms used for different Flax and Hemps click here


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

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

see https://www.academia.edu/859238/From_Flax_to_Linen_in_the_Medieval_Rus_Lands?email_work_card=view-paper&fbclid=IwAR3rXaAQL7K6rPAcR_0KmNOTu0Dvz8tMKwyUfdNe967_u2-xGZfSqYUONXA


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 thumb nail

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*)

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 are dated mid 18 to late 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 Northern 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.

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

While naval stores and undressed flax were obtained from Narva, Reval or Riga, spruce linen yarn came usually from Konigsberg and Elbing. The advance of the 1730s is noticeable also in the volume of leading imports, as given in the official customs returns.
If anything, these figures will understate the volume of trade because of smuggling, though there is no reason to suppose widespread smuggling in the sort of goods in which Hull traded.  Admitting, then, the possibility of under-recording, the official volume of undressed flax rose by 73 per cent between 1728 and 1737, linen yarn by 233 per cent, hemp by 224 per cent, deals by 49 per cent and iron by 54 per cent. More significant, however, than the growth in volumes was the gradual yet momentous change in the geographical distribution of trade. In 1717, for Instance, no ships at all had arrived in Hull from Narva, only 2 from St. Petersburg and 9 from Riga; but in 1737, following the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1734 (which, among other things, made life easier for British factors residing in Russia), 11 ships came from Narva, 7 from St. Petersburg and 20 from Riga.  The eastern Baltic increasingly supplied the flax and yam required by the growing linen industry of England, and the hemp that was necessary for Hull's own rope-makers. Joshua Gee, writing in the l730s, commented that 'hemp and flax are so useful in navigation and trade, that we cannot possibly do without them; the first for cordage of all sorts, the latter for making sail cloth,
as well for the linen manufactures that are carried out in this kingdom'.
  By the early 1780s Spruce linen yam from Prussia and raw Dutch from Hamburg and Amsterdam had together reached over five million pounds, and Hull was the leading port in the trade, despite Liverpool's position as intermediary between Manchester and the Irish flax industry.

 The importation of flax was also expanding apace, much of it soon to be diverted to Marshall's mill at Leeds, where they were beginning to spin yam as good as most of that imported from the Baltic. Tow had also made its appearance, probably in the sixties, but the great expansion in the trade came later, when Marshall's also developed a machine for spinning it.
  Russia and Prussia stand supreme among Hull's trading partners at the turn of the century with St. Petersburg alone accounting for one out of every four or five ships entering Hull, while Hull in turn was receiving about one in five of the ships clearing from St. Petersburg. Ships from Russia passed the 150 mark for the first time in 1792, from Prussia in 1802.
  Linen cloth of Baltic or Scottish origin was to be found in almost every coaster and there were also small shipments of linen yam, flax and, of course, the cotton wool that was used by the Strutts and other canon people to the east of the Pennines.

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 Mill was supplied through the Port of Lancaster and it is possible that Aked High and Little Patrick at West End and West House Mills were also supplied through the Port of Lancaster as well as via 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 there, 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_


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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 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 to the plant stems. Which is why flax seals can be found in the fields today and were not melted down as scrap lead. One does not go picking through retted flax for lead seals for scrap. Retted flax really stinks in the worse possible way.


      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 are two 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.

   Another view on Retting:

 Water Retting is the most widely-employed practice and produces the highest quality fibers. It is best accomplished in stagnant or slowly-moving waters, like ponds, bogs and streams. As a rule, the more stagnant the water source, the more abundant the bacterial fauna and the faster the retting process.  Flax bundles weighted down in ponds and bogs generally ret in anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on water temperature. Because the water is stagnant and the micro fauna abounds, pond or bog retting is particularly foul-smelling. Stream retting usually takes a few weeks longer, but yields cleaner (and less stinky) fibers.
    Dew Retting is the preferred method in areas where water sources are limited but that enjoy warm daytime temperatures and heavy night-time dews. Flax stalks are spread out evenly across a grassy field, where the combination of air, sun and dew causes fermentation, which dissolves much of the stem within 2-3 weeks. Dew-retted fibers are typically of poorer quality and more darkly pigmented than natural water-retted fibers.
    Tank Retting takes place in large vats that are typically made of cement, as the acidic waste products of the bacteria corrodes metal. Stalks are first leached, or soaked, for 4-8 hours to remove dirt and pigment from the bundles. This water is then changed, and the bundles allowed to soak for 4-6 more days to complete the retting process. There are two cement tanks at West House Mills which the farmer thought were water tanks .. but they are below the level of the farm ...
     Flax can also be retted chemically, which speeds up the process. It is, however, more harmful to both the environment and the fibers themselves, and is therefore not preferred.
     Dressing the flax
The retted stalks, called straw, are dried mechanically or in natural air, and are then usually stored for anywhere from a few weeks to months in order to allow curing to take place. After curing, the woody stalks that still cling to the bast fibers are further broken, usually by passing the brittle straw through rollers that crush the wood into smaller pieces that can be more easily removed, a process called scutching. Scutching involves scraping a small wooden knife down the length of the fibers as they hang vertically, pulling the broken woody bits away from the fiber. This is a labour-intensive process. One person scutching can produce only about 15 pounds of flax fibers per day; less if the fibers are coarse, hard, or have been poorly retted. The small pieces of leftover bark that remain after scutching are called shive, and are sometimes used as a filler in thermoplastic composites.
  When the retting is complete, the flax is set up in sheaves to dry.


      Sometimes the old ways are best. 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 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




A very comprehensive collection of facts on plant fibres

  41 uTube Videos of Flax Processing



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


compiled by Chad Theodore Everson at Temerity Magazine








Copyright 2022 Ged Dodd

 aka PeaceHavens Project

 Click here for the terms

 of free copy and share.

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

One of the original naughty French postcards was a young lady posing as spinning flax.