The other sort of Flax growing in Wartime Sussex
This is about the sort of flax grown for producing linen.
Two miles away, as the crow flies, in Southwater, the village where I grew up the biggest farm was Great House Farm. For many generations it was farmed by the Charman family, Aubrey Chaman wrote a popular and well-known history of the area, Southwater through 200 years. This little article in the book illustrates the difference between linseed and flax.
During WW2 there was a big drive to grow flax in the UK as part of the war effort. There was great difficulty in getting supplies into the country and linen was urgently needed for parachutes so it needed to be home-grown in large quantities. Along with many other farmers, Aubrey Charman was asked to grow flax. When the flax was sent to the flax factory at Five Ash Down near Uckfield in what is now East Sussex it was turned into parachutes.
Sussex was never as famous as Northern Ireland for linen but has been grown here for possibly thousands of years. Shepherds of the Sussex Downs are always shown in hard-wearing linen smocks. Flax growing in the UK had declined with the coming of cotton. After the war flax was no longer grown in Sussex and the factory closed. The only flax growers that remained in the UK after the war were in Northern Ireland where its fine linen was famous worldwide. Since 2009 flax growing and the linen industry of Northern Irelan has ended.
.In the UK a few hobby growers still grow the odd field of flax for linen.
Why is linseed also called flax?
Linum usitatissimum is the Latin name for the plant that gives us linseed and linen. When we grow Linum usitatissimum for linen the crop is called “flax”.
In the UK we have recognised these two distinct types of Linum usitatissimum for more than a thousand years. Flax is the plant grown for its long straight stems which are used to make a thread woven into linen or used for high-quality rope and many other things; linseed is an oilseed crop. They are grown slightly differently, harvested at different stages of growth and processed differently.
The confusion comes from the United States where they sometimes call linseed flax. This is mainly done for marketing purposes to differentiate linseed oil that is cold-pressed from industrially produced, heated or solvent extracted oil.
Cold-pressed linseed or flaxseed oil for health
In the UK we don’t have any problem understanding that if linseed oil comes from a hardware shop it isn’t food. We call linseed oil for health “cold-pressed linseed oil”, it is carefully pressed without heat and what we make at Flax Farm comes from the very best seeds. However even we are becoming Americanised and calling it “flax” quite interchangeably. Flax is a nice word to say; it comes an old Germanic word for the fibre but as the crop grown for food in the UK is called linseed that term won’t be going away.
For health and food purposes, so long as it’s sold as food linseed and flax are the same thing.