Linen and Hemp production in The Isle

Flax and hemp were important plant crops in the medieval world. Flax was used to produce linen cloth and canvas and hemp primarily ropes. Demand for hemp from the Royal Navy and trading companies alike meant hemp farming in Britain was commonplace. During the reign of Henry VIII Acts of Parliament of 1533 and 1563 stipulated that farms of sixty or more acres had to grow a quarter acre of hemp for every 60 acres under cultivation. This was to ensure the supply remained steady. (Some claim these laws are actually still on the books today, although not enforced!). 

The growing and processing of flax and hemp in the Isle of Axholme has been an important industry for a long time. In her paper “The Isle of Axholme before Vermuyden”, Joan Thirsk describes how the importance of the industry was underlined by local probate inventory. To the average peasant family of the 16th century it was profitable by-employment whereas to the poor it was one of the principal ways of earning a living. Of the victories won by the inhabitants of Axholme in their prolonged legal battle with Vermuyden was an award in 1636 of £400 for stock to employ the poor in the making of sackcloth to compensate them for the loss of fishing and farming rights.

Harvesting and processing flax was a summer activity. Like so many other agricultural tasks, it was laborious and time consuming, starting with either pulling up the entire plant or cutting the stalks down to the ground. Before anything else could be done, all of the seeds would have to be carefully removed so that they could either be used for their oil or saved for planting a new crop of flax.

Harvesting flax


The next step in the process was retting. The most popular method of doing this was to leave the stalks in water to rot, this method was the fastest and it whitened the fibres, which was preferable. Since a large amount of water was necessary, ponds and streams were used, even though this tended to pollute the water. Retting in a water source that also served as the community’s drinking water was likely to make you very unpopular. Acts of Parliament of Henry VIII made it unlawful to put ‘any manner of hemp or flax in any river … where beasts used to be watered, but only in the ground or pits‘, and by the 19th century ‘rotten‘ or ‘retting pits‘ are listed on the Tithe Award maps, in place to limit this type of retting.

Now pluck up thy hemp, and go beat out the seed,

And afterward water it, as ye see need;

But not in the river, where cattle should drink,

For poisoning them, and the people with stink.

  There is extensive evidence of retting pits all around Haxey in the form of dark green crop marks. The soil is deeper and richer where pits have been filled in.

Retting pits east of Haxey the dark rectangles / crop marks are the outlines of old pits
Retting pits east of Haxey

Another method of retting, if a water source was not available, was to bind the flax stalks in bundles and leave them out for the dew to break them down, turning the bundles on occasion. This method took considerably longer, possibly several months, and the resulting fibres were not as white.

Beetling, scutching and hackling fibres

Once the stalks of flax had rotted, the flax or hemp would be dried out and then beaten between wooden blocks to break them apart—a process that was sometimes called beetling. Next would come scutching, where the woody bits of the plant were finally removed from the silky fibres inside. The last step was hackling; combing the fibres into separate lengths that could in the case of linen, finally be spun into thread, then woven into cloth.

Click or touch any of the images below to see a large detailed version.