VIII. CULTURE OF FLAX AND HEMP
Traditional flax crop
Flax is one of the oldest textile plants in Europe and has been used since Neolithic times. In Euskal Herria [the greater Basque Country], there is no known folklore about its introduction or the time to sow the crop as is the case with wheat or with corn.
In the past, linen was highly valued and when the larger landowners rented out their land, they kept a plot to grow their flax. The tenants also paid the rent for the land in measures of flaxseed.
In Baztan (N), according to Azkue, the wife of the household would give her servant, in addition to her annual salary, two bushels of flax seed to be used to prepare the servant’s trousseau. According to the same author, the women would use very young girls to prepare their trousseau in several valleys in Navarra and even in Zuberoa. Their fathers gave them a piece of land to sow the flax. The young girl would then learn to spin her linen.
Flax in the farmed landscape
The flax fields and the market gardens were the areas of the farm that required the greatest care, were the pride of the farmer's property and a cornerstone of the family's wealth.
Flax was obtained from the household crops: the surplus was sold in some cases, but most of what was grown was exclusively for domestic use. After the crop was sown and harvested, the plant was transformed into textile fibres at the same farmstead.
Flax needed to be sown in good but hard clay soil, buztin-lurra. It grew too quickly in soft soil and the plants tended to fall over. First ploughed land, luberriak, was preferred.
The new land used to sow linen was also known as labakia and izetea. It was cleared using a hoe (izeta-atxurra), the weeds removed and they were then piled up and burnt. The soil was then tilled using a two-pronged large hoe. This new working of the land usually required two passes of the hoe: the soil had to be broken up and crumbled and then the farmer had to wait for the good weather to sow. The land was then fertilizer by spreading a layer of crumbled manure on top.
As Larramendi explained in his Corografía de Guipúzcoa written in the 18th century, the whole flax growing process was women's work: “Women are in charge of the whole flax growing process. The women have the use of the land, they weed it, and even if there is not enough manure for other tasks, they always have some for their flax. They sow and weed the crop; they harvest it when it is ripe”.
Treating the strands
Autumn was the appropriate time of year to start working the flax at home after sowing the turnip crop and gathering fern from the upland.
The subsequent domestic work to produce the flax fibre was done by women and the neighbours would gather together to carry them out, as can be seen from the accounts from the different territories.
Given the lack of sunlight, the plants would be dried in the bread oven. They would use the heat in the oven after the bread had been baked. If the bread was made in the morning, which was the usual practice, the strips of flax were placed in the warm oven in the afternoon. This method was also for recently harvested corn cobs.
The work of spinning, harigintza or gorugintza, was performed in groups; usually on winter evenings and was part of the social life of the villages. The local women would meet in one of the homes on the agreed day. Chatting away and working by candlelight, they would spin the thread until late at night, goruetan (Zeanuri-B, Ataun, Zerain-G), ardazketa in Urdiain (N).
The tools that they used for that work were the distaff, gorue (Zeanuri, Dima-B), liñaie (Ataun-G), lilaja, (Urdiain-N) and the spindle, ardatza, and were provided by each weaver.
In Zeanuri (B), these skeins of thread were washed several times to soften the thread, bigundu, and turn white in colour, zuritu.
Laundry, bogadea, was the household operation to wash the linen, erropa zurie: sheets, izerak; camisoles, kamisek; pillow cases, almuda-azalak; etc. The laundry was usually done every two weeks.
A large container in the shape of a half barrel, tinekue, made out of planks held together with two or three metal hoops, was used for this operation. It was open at the top and there was a hole for the water to run out on the side at the bottom. The hole was blocked with a cloth, sorkie.
In Ataun (G), the skeins of thread, matazak, were washed in batches to bleach them. Two vats —arratzalde and tiña— were used for the laundry. The vat, arratzalde, was built out of tree bark, usually using young linden bark stripped at the end of June.
In Urdiain (N), the wash was called lixiba. The skeins were boiled by filtering the hot water through the ash, which acted as a detergent. The flax was washed three times and then rinsed with water. If it remained ecru in colour, it would be corrected in later washes. Once the skeins had been boiled and washed with clean water, the thread was dried in the meadows or on the threshing floors to make it whiter.
Hemp plants can grow up to two metres high. Its fibre was previously used to make certain fabrics and its seeds to feed birds and to make oil. It was sown in April and watered several times. In September, it was ready to be harvested. It was left in bundles to dry in the field and then the seeds collected. It was then retted and scrutched to release the fibres.
Esparto grass was not sown. Wild clumps of this plant were gathered in August. They were dried for 20 days. A wooden mallet was used to hit and crush the wads. Once they were crushed, they were dampened and a thick hard fibre was obtained. The esparto ropes were woven by hand and used to be used for espadrille soles. Yet those soles were poorer in quality than the ones made out of hemp. As it was so rough, esparto grass was also used to clean floors and containers.
- Telesforo de ARAZANDI. Folklore y costumbres de España. Tomo I. Barcelona: 1911-1925, p. 355.
- Resurrección M.ª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza. Tomo I. Bilbao: 1989, pp. 272 & 274.
- Salvador MENSUA. La Navarra Media Oriental. Zaragoza: 1960, pp. 101-102.
- Juan Antonio MOGUEL. Peru Abarca. Bilbao: 1978, p. 94.
- Manuel de LARRAMENDI. Corografía ó descripción general de la muy noble y leal provincia de Guipúzcoa. Barcelona: 1882, p. 59.
- This position of the distaff is described in the old Basque saying: Gorua garraian, gogua kirolan: the distaff in the belt (but) thinking about fun.