Monday, February 19, 2024

Exhibition: Combing History: Flax and Linen in New Hampshire

Posted by Kimberly Alexander

The exhibition has been in the works for several months but it is now official! SAVE the DATE for Combing History: Flax and Linen in New Hampshire

This is a highlight for me as the Director of the Museum Studies program at UNH: MA grad students and Team Flax are curating, installing and fundraising for the exhibition and extensive public programing at the Woodman Museum in Dover, New Hampshire.

Hope to see you on 6 April 10:00-5:00 or at one of our public programs! Watch this space for details as they develop.


Beth Gallucci, UNH Museum Studies MA candidate


Curatorial Assistants:

Sophie MacDonald, UNH Museum Studies, MA candidate

John Cookson, Woodman Museum & UNH BA candidate 


Community Fundraiser:

Katherine Morgan, Independent Community Liaison


Project Directors:

Dr. Kimberly Alexander, Director of Museum Studies, UNH

Jonathan Nichols, Director, Woodman Museum & UNH MA candidate

Graphic Design:

Grace Gallucci

Monday, January 15, 2024

Research: Old Berwick Historical Society, Counting House Museum

 By Kimberly Alexander, Director of Museum Studies

At the end of the fall 2023 semester, I organized a special tour for UNH Museum Studies class and the Flax Team to the Counting House Museum at the Old Berwick Historical Society. The tour was led by the OBHS curator, Ruth Greene-McNally, and guest curators, renowned material culture and historic textile specialists, Peter and Nancy Cook. The OBHS staff and exhibition team were extremely generous with their time and knowledge. We hope to return during the spring 2024 semester. 


About the exhibition: 

Material Culture: Domestic Cloth-Making in 18th Century New England


The Counting House Museum's 2022 exhibit explores the material culture of early domestic textile arts and the tools used to produce linen and woolen cloth in rural New England homesteads. Material goods provide a window into standards of living, self-sufficiency, economic diversification, and the transition from frontier life to settled communities. The specialized tools used to process flax and wool, and the spinning wheels and looms on display, reveal the necessary individual skills and the collaborative family roles in creating yarn and cloth. 


Loans from the collection of Guest Curators Peter and Nancy Cook and selections from the permanent collection of the Old Berwick Historical Society reflect the art of creating homespun textiles in common use throughout the 18th century. This exhibit will be on display for the 2023 season, with a possible extension into 2024.


Bartlett Bed Hangings, Five Valances, and Headcloth

 Unidentified maker, Londonderry, NH

18th century

Linen cloth and fringe

Courtesy of Peter and Nancy Cook 

Miniature Pencil Post Bed

Unidentified maker (bed)

c. 1770-1800

Maple, pine, and iron

Courtesy of Peter and Nancy Cook

Miniature Bed Curtains

Nancy Cook 

Linen, woolen, and cotton cloth fragments

Courtesy of Peter and Nancy Cook

The bedding and curtains for this miniature pencil post bed were made by Nancy Cook, c1985

 from fragments of materials pertaining to the period.

The OBHS Board of Directors gratefully acknowledges the support of several individuals for their contributions to the development of Material Culture: Domestic Cloth-Making in 18th-Century New England:

Hollis Brodrick, Lender 

Randi Ona, Lender

Paul and Pat Boisvert, Lenders 

Melody English, OBHS Archivist

Harrison English-Yonan, OBHS Archivist

Norma Keim, OBHS Archivist and Office Manager

Wendy Pirsig, OBHS Archivist and Board President, Emeritus 

Jane Orr, OBHS Board Treasurer, Proofreading 

Jane McDonnell, Gallery Renovation 

George McNally, Gallery Renovation 

Rich Cunningham, Gallery Renovation 

Dave Lurvey, Gallery Renovation

Philip C. Carling, MD, Custom Rare Book Boxes and Cradles 

Andy Ritzo, Trompe l'oeil faux finish 

Christina Nancarrow-Wilson, OBHS Archivist, Curatorial Assistance 

Jessica Elsmore, Photography

Rachel Zoll Schumacher, Graphic Design

Larry Hayden, Preparator

John Demos, OBHS Archivist, Gallery Renovation and Installation 

Ruth Greene-McNally, OBHS Curator



Sunday, November 26, 2023

Research: Flax and the Daybook of Josiah Brown

 The Day Book of Josiah Brown, 1790 - 1833

by Kay Morgan, University of New Hampshire


Josiah Brown’s Day Book (1790 - 1833) demonstrates the multi-faceted life of a rural New Hampshire man as he marries and builds a life for himself. [1]  In the beginning of the day book he resides in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, with his parents, but tends lands and livestock in Stratham.  He also makes and repairs shoes, slippers and “Mogisons,” and in 1791 “measures Land for two men.”  He continues these activities for most of his life, though in later years does not record making shoes any longer.


In 1792, he builds a house in Stratham at what is now 17 Jackrabbit Lane, and marries Sarah Clark in Greenland, New Hampshire. They move to their new home in June. Their lives revolve around the weather and the necessity to clothe and feed the family, as well as to have some marketable crops. Over the years, he grows and shells corn, cuts hay and salt marsh hay, makes gallons of apple cider, hauls logs, raises and slaughters cattle, oxen and hogs, and buys and sells horses.


While he still lives with his parents, he reports “I broke flax,” on January 20, 1791 and “dresses” flax on March 23rd. The next reference to flax occurs in 1794 when he notes “I sow’d flax where the worms ate it.” In 1799, he goes to Hampton Falls “after flax seed.” Even though he continues to note planting flax, usually when he plants oats and barley in late April and before he plants corn, there are no further notations regarding harvesting or working with the flax to produce thread for linen or seeds to sell.


Given that he is quite specific regarding taking his corn, hay, cider, potatoes and animals to market, and often specifies the price he gets, it seems that flax did not factor into his cash flow or potential bartering for other goods. This may not be surprising, in that usually men were involved in planting and harvesting flax, but women typically “skutched, hackled, carded, combed, spun and wove the fiber.” [2] The linen thus produced may have been entirely used by the family or shared with their extended family.  

A contemporaneous diary (1785 - 1812) of Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife, illuminates the distaff side of a family economy, the comings and goings of young women and the work they do to help with the massive undertaking of processing flax into thread and woven cloth. In the Ballard household, the fabric produced might be sold, bartered for other goods, or used by the family. The Pulitzer prize winning author of A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, develops the idea that in that era, young women living outside their own family was a form of education as well as a way to earn money. [3]


Each year Josiah records the names of the young women who come to work in the Brown household. This practice begins in May 1793 when he writes, “Lidia Tarlton began to work here.” At that point, his wife, Sarah, is one month from delivering their first child, a son named Nathan. In August, Lidia goes home and Betsy Clark comes to work. These girls provide household help for Sarah, which could include working with flax. Betsy stays on into November of 1795, when she “was took sick of the Billious fever.” She goes  home and Eunice Bachelor takes her place later in the month. From Josiah’s day book, it appears that Josiah and Sarah had a daughter born in 1796, who did not survive more than a day, so until 1810 and 1812, when Sarah and Mary Ann were born and then old enough to participate in household linen production, hired girls would have been a necessity.  It is interesting that Josiah didn’t mention these births in his daybook, though he reports the birth of every one of his eight sons.


A 1995 donation to the Stratham Historical Society included several homespun items made by various members of the extended Brown family.  Women often identified their work by embroidering their initials on a corner of the completed piece. Two pillowcases made by Sarah Clark Brown bear the initials SB in cross-stitch, and a sheet initialed AB in pink embroidery floss, was made by Abigail Brown, who married Greenleaf Clark Brown, Sarah and Josiah’s fourth son, March 6, 1828. She is also the maker of two hand towels which are stamped in ink with her initials and two pillowcases stamped with her name. [4] At present, we speculate they wove the cloth for these items, as specific items were passed down by family members and given the longstanding family connection with flax and linen as seen in Brown's daybook and extended family network; however, it is possible that the textiles were purchased or bartered from someone else who was the weaver.


Josiah Brown continues to plant flax according to his daybook, with the last notation three years before his death at age 68. His last years appear similar to his early years:  He surveys land, plants his fields, cuts hay and cornstalks, tends his livestock and notes the coming and going of his sons, their marriages and the weather. On October 14th and 15th, 1833, he writes: “I was unwell.”  On December 12, 1833, someone else notes “Josiah Brown Died and this Journal discontinued.


* * * * * * * * *


[1] Josiah Brown Day Book is housed at the Stratham Historical Society, Stratham, New Hampshire, Accession #1989.3.11. More information may be found at .


Many thanks to Andra Copeland and the Stratham Historical Society for the use of their collections and their help with research.


[2] Sofi Thanhauser, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing (New York: Vintage Books, 2023), 12.


[3] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale:  The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 - 1812 (New York:  Vintage Books, 1991), 81.


[4] Stratham Historical Society, Stratham, NH, Sewall/Brown Box:  Item marked SB. Accession #1995.30.2; Items marked AB, Accession #1995.30.1; Items stamped Abigail Brown, Accession#1995.30.5. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Demonstrations: UNH Flax-to-Linen Project Team at the Moffatt-Ladd House

On October 21st the UNH Flax-to-Linen Project Team participated in the Fall Family Open House at the Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  

This was the Team’s first time using the flax brake built by Museum Studies MA candidate and Project Research Assistant, Sophie MacDonald. It was also our first public demonstration not only of braking, but also of scutching and combing. We enjoyed speaking to visitors of all ages and answering questions about the project. A special thanks to Executive Director, Erica McAvoy and Education & Interpretation Manager, Maddie Beihl for the invitation.

Sophie demonstrates using a flax brake

Sydney talks about combing flax

Sophie with the flax brake she constructed, based on plans furnished by Woolgathers

A nice bag full of combed flax -- next up is spinning

Stayed tuned for our upcoming schedule of talks, demonstrations, and an exhibition in 2024!

Saturday, October 21, 2023

In the News

Flax to Linen Project Weaves History With Experience

Woman in blue shirt stands in field of flax, holding harvested plants



By Beth Potier, UNH Communications and Public Affairs

The path to a deeper understanding of rural New England’s pre-industrial textile 

economy begins in a muddy field on the edge of UNH’s Woodman Horticultural 

Research Farm. There, a historian and an agriculture professor, along with 

students in UNH’s museum studies program, have joined forces for an intimate, 

experiential understanding of an iconic fiber: Linen.

“Linen was such an important staple in New Hampshire,” says Kimberly Alexander

senior lecturer of history and  the force behind The Flax to Linen Project. 

“The opportunity to deep dive into this single important fiber while actually 

growing it at UNH offers a tremendous opportunity for … research into 17th through 

early 19th century flax-growing and linen production in the Seacoast.”

Read on:

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Research: Flax and the Diary of Matthew Patten, Bedford, New Hampshire

By Beth Gallucci, History and Museum Studies MA Program

            Born in 1719 in Ulster, Ireland, Matthew Patten emigrated to America with his family in 1728. The Patten’s were among the many Scotch-Irish Presbyterian families who came to America to escape religious persecution in Northern Ireland.[1] Matthew and his brother Samuel moved to Souhegan-East in 1738 which is now known as Bedford, New Hampshire. Patten was a jack-of-all-trades like many New Hampshire settlers of the 18th century. He worked as a carpenter, joiner, farmer, surveyor, justice of the peace, and a probate judge in the town of Bedford. His diary was recorded from 1754 to 1788, written on individual, unbound pages, in the form of a daily account, documenting life in the second half of the 18thcentury. Though Patten’s narrative may not appear to be a colorful one, he certainly provides the reader a glimpse into the life of a farmer on the colonial frontier and enables historians like us to engage with his world of planting flax.

Patten intermittently records the planting and harvesting of flax by himself, his family members and a mixture of men and women who were hired as help. Though his accounts are more detailed regarding the planting of rye, corn and barley, Patten duly notes (most years) the seasonal process of sowing flax in May and harvesting and “swingling” flax in the fall. The crop seems to be a staple in his household, and he records the annual hiring of women (and it is always women) to come and live in his home for six to eight weeks “to spin.” He does not discern whether it is flax or wool that they are spinning but flax was usually spun in late fall or early winter, and this is when Patten usually notes that women came to spin. A diary entry dated September 27, 1760, notes that Matthew paid Hannah Chamberlin 12 pounds for 6 weeks of spinning work, and on February 5th of 1766 he mentions that he “finished” 100 pounds of flax that year, giving the reader an idea of how much he harvested per year. He mentions taking linen and tow cloth to various people to make “britches” and dresses. This work is completed by men or women depending on who he was able to hire at that moment in time. Of particular interest, he mentions a man by the name of McCleary who weaves striped linen for him. Patten often uses flax seed to barter for payment of goods and services and he also receives flax seed as payment for services rendered.

There is a communal feel to how Patten and his surrounding neighbors work in harmony with one another to survive living in rural New Hamsphire. They barter and trade for many of their items and credit is also used quite often. They seem to know who they can trust to make good on payments, and Patten and his neighbors seem diligent about paying their debts. His entries revolve around documenting his agricultural practices along with his financial and contractual obligations, however Patten does note weather conditions, illnesses, and various social issues such as births, deaths and marriages.

He provides only small glimpses of the political issues brewing throughout the colonies, such as the Pine Tree Riots of 1772 and the shots fired at Concord in1775, but never goes into great detail about his political views. He does mention that his son John joins the Continental Army, but never mentions the fact that he was shot in the arm at Bunker Hill in June of 1775. A diary entry from May 21, 1776, reveals John’s battle injury but also demonstrates Patten’s heartfelt emotions of loss and anger when he describes John’s death while he was stationed in Canada with the Continental Army.[2]

John contracted smallpox, and while severely sick his regiment had to relocate further south, and John had to relocate with them. Matthew attributes his son’s death to being moved “in a weakened state” and to being shot in the arm while fighting at Bunker Hill the year before. This account is the only entry where Matthew vehemently shows anger towards the British by calling King George III a “Tyrannical Brute” (p. 361).[3]

 Matthew Patten Homestead - Demolished in the early 20th century.[4]

[1]     Kenneth Scott, “Matthew Patten of Bedford, New Hampshire,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1941-1965) 28 (September 1950): 3, 129-145.


[2]     Matthew Patten, The Diary of Matthew Patten of Bedford, N.H: From Seventeen Hundred Fifty-Four to Seventeen Hundred Eighty-Eight, Rumford Printing Company, 1903. Scholar Select, Franklin Classics.



[3]     Matthew and his wife Elizabeth had 11 children and his papers were preserved by his daughters, Sarah and Polly. Written on plain white paper that was folded together and bound with linen thread these papers made their way into the hands of the townspeople of Bedford, New Hampshire. The townspeople felt they were of great importance and had them published in 1903. Patten’s original papers have been preserved and can be found in the New Hampshire State Library in Concord. Matthew’s son James moved to Ohio in 1789 and was captured by the Delaware Indians in 1791. He was held captive for four years until he was released in 1795 in a prisoner exchange. The University of Michigan has a collection of 16 letters written by James, Matthew and Elizabeth along with other members of the Patten family.


[4]     Photo of the Matthew Patten Homestead – early 20th century:

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Interview: Shirley Walker on Growing and Harvesting Flax in New England

 Processing flax is difficult and so is life.  Don’t give up trying if there is something you want to do.”       ---Shirley Walker, 2023

 Editor’s NoteTranscribed by Sydney Rue, History and Museum Studies MA Graduate Student and Flax Project Research Assistant. Held on site at the Newmarket Historical Society, June 28, 2023This is a condensed and lightly edited version of a longer talk with Shirley Walker. Care was taken to transcribe and convey the essence of the speaker. 

Shirley Walker: Hello, my name is Shirley. I am 87 years old, and I have Parkinson's disease. Previously, I planted and processed flax at Canterbury Shaker Village, the New Hampshire Farm Museum, and at home. I brought some things to refresh my memory. Now, to begin with, you cannot grow flax with the purpose of producing fiber from any old seed. You need special varieties such as Linum usitatissimum

SW: Next, I planted the seeds in the middle of May, once they would be safe from frost. When sowing the seeds, you do not need to tamp them down. You just rake a little dirt over them. Ideally, the soil should be enriched. The flax I grew in my garden benefited from the vegetables I grew in the same soil. At the New Hampshire Farm Museum, the small patch we grew the flax in was wonderfully enriched. You should always sow the seeds by scattering. Please tell me that you didn’t plant in rows? 

Kimberly Alexander: Yes, we planted by scattering. 

SW: Good! You don’t want side branching, by planting the flax close together it grows straight. In the end, the flax should be three to four feet tall. Four feet is lovely. It should be about the size of a yard stick. 

SW: Once the plants are a couple weeks old, you can step on them without worrying about damaging them. Any really big weeds should be removed. 

SW: Harvesting happens 90 to 100 days after planting. The exact date depends on the amount of sun, rain, and the soil quality that the flax is planted in. Once the flowers bloom, you should wait around thirty days to harvest. They don’t last long. The stock should be turning brown, and only a couple of flowers should be left in the field. 

SW: When you harvest, you pull the flax out of the ground by its stock. You never want to cut it because the fibers continue into the roots. In order to get the best quality fiber, you have to pull it. You just grab small handfuls of the flax and pull it up. 

SW: Once harvested, you need to dry the flax. Stooking allows the flax to dry because the air can flow through the bundles. You take the flax and lean it against one another [mimes a triangular shape]. 

Sydney Rue: Like when you arrange kindling for a campfire? 

SW: Exactly. That’s the first round of drying. Next, you remove the seeds with a ripple. You just draw the flax through the teeth of the ripple and the seeds fall off. Those seeds are not good for sowing because you harvested them before they could fully ripen. If you want to plant the seeds you grew, you need to leave some flax planted until the stock is dry. 

SW: The seeds aren't fully clean at this point. I would catch the seeds with a tarp and then dance on them. Flax seeds are strong. When I put them through my blender to make flaxseed meal, some seeds survive. Don’t worry about damaging them. I never did this, but you can wait for a windy day and throw the seeds into the air. The seeds are heavy and will fall to the ground, but the excess fiber will be blown away. 

SW: Next is retting. There are two types: dew and water retting. When I grew flax at home, I used the water retting method. I filled a tub with water and submerged the flax in it with a weight to hold it down. Enzymes will break down the hard outer layer of the flax and leave the fibers unharmed. At Canterbury Shaker Village, we did dew retting. There was enough space to lay out the flax in the fields there. Once a week, I would turn the flax over for six to seven weeks. Water retting takes only a couple of days. To prevent the water from becoming putrid, I would change out a third of the water every day. 

SW: You’ll know if the fibers have finished retting by taking a stock and snapping it. If the fibers break, it is too late you’ve lost the fiber. Water retting is risky because if it is hot the enzymes work faster. The flax can go from being fine to too far gone within a couple hours. I would check it every couple hours to make sure it was okay. Experimentation is important. If it doesn’t come out the first time, there is always next time. 

SW: Finally, you dry the flax again by stooking it. Before you can finish processing it, it has to be dry. Once it's dry, you don’t have to work with it right away. You can leave it in storage. 

SW: Before you begin breaking the flax, you should check several samples to make sure it's ready. When you put the flax into the flax break, you hold it by the roots and the end of the stock goes in the break. You move the flax slowly through the break. After you finish the first pass, you might have to repeat the process. This releases the boon and the good long fiber. 

SW: Next you use a scutching knife, a wooden blade, to scrape off the wooden outside pieces of the flax. This releases the fibers. Scutching is a long and tiring process. 

SW: Then with heckling combs, the fibers get pulled straight and clean. You use finer and finer combs to remove debris and tow from the fibers. For the finer flax, you can use wool combs. 

SW: From there, the fibers are attached to a distaff. A friend and I went to Vermont and a gentleman made us large new distaffs for spinning the flax. You spread the long fibers out in an incredibly thin layer on a table. More and more thin layers are added until you roll the distaff onto them and secure the fibers to the tool. This orients the fibers for spinning. 

SW: I never got the hang of this method. Instead, I preferred to gather smaller amounts of fiber and comb them straight. You place a towel–a thin towel made of cotton or fittingly linen– horizontally across your lap along with the fiber and roll it up until you have a bundle. 

SW: When you spin flax, you should always have a bowl of water next to you so you can wet your hands. 

SR: Do you need a special wheel to spin flax? 

SW: No, you don’t need a double-flyer flax wheel. You can use a normal or a great wheel–the wheels that you operate standing up. 

SW: Once you have some yarn spun, wind it off into a loop and scour it. Scouring removes the oils and pectin from the linen. You add the spun fiber to boiling water with Borax or soda ash and dish soap. Scoured linen is brighter and softer to the touch. 

SW: Weaving linen is a process. It wants to break. You should never weave linen in front of a fire or other heat source as that will dry out the fiber and weaken it. The fibers have to be moist. You should spray the fibers with water as you weave them but be careful not to oversaturate the fibers or they might mildew. 

SW: At Canterbury Shaker Village and New Hampshire Farm Museum I would come in and do weaving and spinning demonstrations. For more information on weaving, look into New Hampshire Spinners & Dyers Guild and Northeast Hand Spinners Association. Both organizations put on events each year. Don’t be afraid to look into different guilds and don’t be afraid to go. 

SW: Processing flax is difficult and so is life. Don’t give up trying if there is something you want to do. 


Thank you to Shirley Walker and the Newmarket Historical Society for assisting us with our research.


Exhibition: Combing History: Flax and Linen in New Hampshire

Posted by Kimberly Alexander The exhibition has been in the works for several months but it is now official! SAVE the DATE for Combing Histo...