Flax, Linum usitatissimum L. ,is one of the oldest
fibre crops and its fibres have been in use for some thousand years. Its fibre
is used to make linen and its seeds yield linseed oil. With the development of
synthetic fibres in the 20th century fibre flax fell out of favour. A general
return of natural products to popular favour in most Western countries fibres
has led to better exploitation of natural textile
Fibre flax is tough and durable and its cultivation presents no
major difficulties. In favourable conditions, the yield per hectare can be 6 to
Morphological differences between flax varieties are quite
marked, depending upon whether the varieties are grown for seed or for
Fibre flax is an annual plant that grows rapidly and reaches a
height of 1 metre, depending on the variety, plant density, soil fertility and
Flax is self-pollinating.
The life cycle of the flax plant consists of a 45 to 60 day
vegetative period, a 15 to 25 day flowering period and a maturation period of 30
to 40 days. Water stress, high temperature and disease can shorten any of these
Fibre flax grows best in a cool, moist climate. In hot and dry
climates, irrigation is necessary.
It grows in slightly acidic to neutral soils or even those that
are a little alkaline, but does not take to recent liming.
Fibre varieties are placed close together to encourage taller
stalks and minimal branching.
The main object in cultivating textile flax is the production
of fibre which is separated out (scutched) after the flax stalks have been
When the plant turns brown, fibre flax is harvested either by
hand or lifted by machine, the seeds are removed and the stalks bundled and left
to dry on the field.
Field retting is carried out to prepare the flax straw for
scutching(separating). The straw has by then turned grey.
Finally, the long fibres are separated by combing or hackling
and are spun on equipment similar to that used for cotton. Flax produces a
strong thread used for sewing and for manufacturing netting, twine and
towelling, as well as for weaving linen.
Trials on the adaptation of various European fibre flax cultivars to the
conditions prevailing in different parts of South Africa were recently carried
out at different planting dates. These trials gave promising results. At the
same time a number of questions were posed concerning the most appropriate flax
varieties in terms of fibre quality, areas of cultivation and systems of
harvesting and processing. For successful implementation of flax cultivation in
South Africa joint research with countries possessing the necessary expertise is