For rather complicated reasons involving border control in the European Schengen zone I ended up last Saturday in the (to me) obscure Belgian town of Kortrijk.
It was a very pleasant surprise, with interesting restaurants, a medieval béguinage that is a Unesco World Heritage Site – and Texture, the Museum of Flax.
Belgium was once the largest producer of flax after France, and the museum is housed in what was originally a flax depot dating from 1912, with the eponymous plant growing outside. [Edited to add: It seems that this plant is not flax after all – my mistake!]
In the interactive section on the ground floor you get the chance to handle various parts of the plant after it’s been processed as well as learning about its cultivation and uses. Flax is very fast growing – 100 days from planting to harvest – and unlike cotton doesn’t require much water.
Fibre flax, used to make linen, is different from oil flax, used to produce linseed oil, which as well as being important in art is also used to make linoleum. (Adding linseed oil to cows’ diets also apparently reduces methane emissions by 20%!)
During harvesting the plant is pulled out of the soil whole rather than being cut, to keep the fibres as long as possible. After the fibres have been separated from the woody tissue they are put through a heckle, or large comb, to straighten them and ensure they all lie in the same direction before spinning and plying.
Because the fibre is hollow, linen is breathable and absorbs water. It actually gets stronger when it is humid, and is used in equipment such as fire hoses. It’s also anti-static. Dollar bills are made not of paper but of 75% cotton and 25% flax.
In the 16th century Kortrijk was the linen damask capital of Europe, while ordinary basic linen was also mass produced here.
But the industry was badly hit when the Industrial Revolution came along. It had to change from small family-run businesses that carried out the whole process to increased specialisation in particular processes such as retting or scutching offered to textile mills, in England among other places. There was quite a large British population based in the town in the second half of the 19th century, introducing pastimes such as tennis and football (wot no cricket?).
But the late 1950s brought more problems, with cheap Russian flax and synthetic fabrics entering the market. Although “Courtrai flax” is still renowned, along with the finished products of lace and damask, innovation was once more the key to survival. The exhibition includes various examples of new uses of the fibre, including sound-absorbing cabinets, car dashboards and shelves, and composites used in the manufacture of bicycles, musical instruments and soles.
On the top floor the Treasure Chamber contains some exceptional examples of linen and lacework, including these amazing collars and bonnets.
The museum shop naturally contains a good selection of linen and other items, but nothing quite as spectacular as these.