Flax for linen was used by our paleolithic ancestors, possibly pre-dating the use of wool. It’s one of the oldest known agricultural crops, and varieties of it grow wild or cultivated in Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent and also Turtle Island (North America), in climates ranging from the cool, short summers of Scandinavia to the warmth of Egypt. When the first European settlers arrived on Turtle Island, they brought flax seeds with them to meet their fibre needs. Flax growing and processing was practiced in Canada at the household level by settlers as needed; the practices have been or are currently part of interpretive centres such as Upper Canada Village in Ontario and Ross Farm in Nova Scotia.
It wasn’t until the industrial age that cotton became the dominant cellulose fibre in Western societies. The costs of shipping and processing cotton dropped substantially; it became cheaper and easier to produce textiles from cotton grown far away than from linen grown locally. But as we begin to understand the environmental cost of cheap, abundant cotton and synthetic fibres, many of us are taking another look at linen and rediscovering the virtues that were beloved by our ancestors.
In Vancouver, EartHand artists and makers have been at the centre of the movement to re-skill ourselves in growing and processing flax for linen. Our aim is to expand cultural conversations around sustainability of food systems to include awareness of the sustainability of our fibre systems as well, and the social and environmental implications of the abundance of cheap and durable fibres that we take for granted.