Blue Yonder

In Selvedge 82, The Lace Issue, flax takes to the skies...

Covering an aeroplane framework with fabric is like taking on a dressmaking project – on a giant scale. It requires accurate pattern making and cutting, careful stitching to achieve a good fit, and patience to manipulate the hundreds of yards of fabric and miles of tape involved. The terms too are familiar; seams, gussets, pockets, patches.

In the development of aviation, the bodies and wings of early, wooden-framed aeroplanes were covered with aircraft grade bleached Irish linen to keep out the dirt and rain. Weight was a major consideration and every ounce that could be saved counted (4oz per square yard is often quoted as desirable). Fine linen, with its superior strength and lightness, was the preferred choice in Europe: in America, due to supply or import difficulties, mercerised cotton, more elastic with less tensile strength, was used. In Britain, growing flax for fibre has a long history and had become an important industry by the early 19th century – but during the industrial revolution empire-grown cotton was slowly taking the place of linen. During the second half of the 1800s raw flax fibre from Russia, cheaper and lower quality than that grown at home or in Holland and Belgium, was increasingly imported, spun into yarn, and woven into fabric in England and Ireland, spelling the end of the home-grown crop.

However, just before the growing of flax for fibre in Britain completely died out, there was a brief, intense resurgence. In 1909 the British government, thinking that the industry might be financially worth reviving, set up trials to determine feasibility for fibre and seed production. In 1913, working with the University of Leeds, and what later became the British Flax and Hemp Grower’s Society, a crop station was set up at Selby. Centres were also established in Lincolnshire, Devon and Scotland. The quality of the fibre, health of the crop, seed selection and methods of retting and harvesting were all worked on...

You can read this article in full in Selvedge 82, The Lace Issue.

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