This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 22nd April 1996 (p.13), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)


Flax - Linum usitatissimum - has been cultivated since prehistoric times, possibly originally for food. As time went by, we learned that flax could produce linen fibre and linseed oil and it became an important crop plant.

The crop is sown in spring and harvested after about three months. Before the advent of machinery, the plant was pulled from the ground by hand, dried, de-seeded by hand threshing, and then retted (partly rotted) by immersion in water, usually a pond or slow-moving stream. This loosened the fibre in the woody core of the stem and enabled the outer bark to be peeled away, leaving the core to be dried ready for separation of the fibres. Short or tangled fibres were spun into course yarns for cord and twine, leaving the finer yarn to be woven into linen.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, flax was grown and processed by many householders to produce their own supplies of yarn, often in sufficient quantities to make all the linen needed for their own apparel and domestic use.

The following recollections relate to Ashford in the Water in the 18th century: 'The mistress of each home, and her daughters, as well as the female servants, might all be seen on winter evenings busily engaged in spinning flax into yarn. Spinning wheels were then as common to a domestic establishment as chairs and tables are now. A marriageable female at that period was expected to possess, if no other portion of this world's riches, an entire stock of linen for clothing and house use of her own spinning, hence the origin of the word spinster.

While the spinning wheel was in use among families, various trades were carried on in the village and neighbourhood, rendered necessary from the use of the wheel, as a tow heckler, to prepare the flax for spinning; a dyer for the yarn which required colouring; a bleacher, with a whitening croft, for the yarn intended for white articles, and a linen weaver, to complete the business of cloth making for use. The tow heckler, the dyer, the bleacher, and the weaver, all of them once enjoyed local habitations and local celebrity in the village.'

But by the middle of the 18th century the spinning wheels were still and the village winter evenings' employment ceased. Cotton had superseded flax, out-dating various Acts of Parliament introduced in the reign of George III. Duties had been imposed on foreign linen, bringing in revenue which was distributed as bounties to promote the growth of British flax and hemp. In 1782 a further act allocated £15,000 from this revenue to provide a bounty of 3d per stone for dressed hemp and 4d a stone for dressed flax. The initial act expired after five years but was renewed for a further seven.

Claimants to the bounty were subject to strict conditions. Preparation of the raw material was to be carried out properly and parish officials had to sign a certificate giving full details of the amount claimed and the field in which the crop was grown. The certificate had to be endorsed by a justice of the peace and the claimant was obliged to enter into a bond of treble the value of the bounty.


At the end of the 18th century, flax spinning was clearly moving towards industrialisation. In the 1790s, two brothers, Edward and John Dakeyne, of a family who manufactured flax in Darley Dale, invented a flax spinning machine, the 'Equalinum'. The patent was taken out in their father's name as both sons were under age.

The brothers patented their 'disc engine' in 1830, at around which time they were operating a flax factory powered by a fall of water from four reservoirs on Sydnope Brook. They went on to erect a hydraulic machine of their own invention to work a second fall of water but it was chiefly built to power a new factory constructed in the 1830s.

An additional use for the new machine was recorded in 1833: 'A house organ is now erecting under the direction of Mr John Dakeyne, of Darley, the bellow whereof is intended to be put into action by the said patent machine'. The enigmatic motto on the Dakeyne coat of arms reflects the family business interests but its meaning is something of a puzzle - 'strike, Dakeyne, the devil's in the hempe'.

In this same period, flax spinning mills operated at Upper Hulme in Leekfrith and Gradbach in the parish of Quarnford. Flax had been widely grown on farms on the Staffordshire side of the peak District for many years, originally being spun in local homes. Every process of production and manufacture was once contained within the parish of Wetton, whilst a linen weaver was listed as living at Alstonefield as late as 1851.

The name of Flax Butts at Eyam suggests production there and according to Farey in General View of the Agriculture of Derbyshire (1813) the plant was at that time being grown in useful quantities at Brassington, Crich and Alton near Ashover.

Whilst demand for linen fell against the competition from cotton and later, synthetic fabrics, it has remained popular for certain clothing and household goods. Leading producers in the present century have included the former USSR, Roumania, Poland, Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium and Holland.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd April 1996.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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