MYSTERY OF THE FLAX COMBE
By Eileen Dodge
Photos of Richard's Flaxcomb
In March of 2007, a request arrived from Christina Bates, Ontario Historian for the Canadian Museum of Civilization located in Quebec. She has come across an object called a Flax Comb, also called a Flax Hackle. Carved in the wooden base is: Richard Dodge His Combe March 18, 1731. The Hackle might have been brought to Canada by a descendant of Richard Dodge, rather than by himself. It is unknown if Richard Dodge used his Flax Comb as a tool of his profession, or if it was merely part of his family's tools used for everyday living. |
The museum has no knowledge of the origin of the Flax Comb and was wondering if we had any information that could shed some light on its history. I contacted Vic Sifton, a DFA member who lives in Ontario to see if his Canadian Dodge genealogy might give some clues as to the owner of the Comb. He had no such person in his database, and contacted the people of Upper Canada Village, where they display, in realistic fashion, the way of life in the 1800s in Canada. They have a display of flax being processed into cloth and it was thought they might have some idea of where to go for more information. Unfortunately, they were unable to help us.
A Flax Comb or Hackle has several rows of 5" high steel pins driven through a wooden base. Flax was one of the first European plants cultivated in America and arrived in about 1630. From the earliest settlements, each ethnic group brought its own types of tools to process flax. The Germans, French, English, Swedes, Scots, all had tools in the style of their homelands. Their linen made clothing, bedding, towels, upholstery material, grain bags, wagon covers, sails and many other items.
Flax grows quickly, in less than three months. It is pulled out of the ground with the roots intact to preserve the full length of the fiber. Next, the seed was removed and saved for replanting. Surplus seed was pressed for its oil, which was used in paint and was burned in lamps for light. It was also the basis for printer's ink and had medicinal uses as well. Flax was the primary crop in colonial America.
Processing the flax straw was a laborious process. It was sown in the spring, tied into bundles and left to dry during the summer and autumn. In winter, the dried plants were soaked in ponds for one to two weeks. This process, called retting, helped break down the woody stems of the plants. Then the stems were dried and placed on a bench. A flat piece of wood, attached to the bench on one end, was brought down on the stems to flatten and break them. A scutcheon was used to scrape the flax to get the woody parts off. Next, the flax was pulled through a coarse hackle, a medium hackle and then a fine hackle to comb the fibers so they were as fine as hair. The flax was then put on the distaff of the spinning wheel to spin into linen thread. When the flax was spun into thread, the linen thread was taken to a weaver to be made into cloth. One year's crop of flax often made enough cloth for two shirts and one sheet. Oft times during the weaving process the linen thread was the warp and the wool yarn was the weft, which produced a cloth called "linsey-woolsey." Clothes made from this flax-wool weave were worn only on Sundays and special occasions.
Ed note: If anyone knows who this Richard Dodge is or has further information as to its origin or history please contact our office.