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 fibres.


Growth and development 

  • Fibre flax is tough and durable and its cultivation presents no major difficulties. In favourable conditions, the yield per hectare can be 6 to 7 tonnes.

  • Morphological differences between flax varieties are quite marked, depending upon whether the varieties are grown for seed or for fibre.

  • 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 available moisture.

  • 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 growth periods.

  • 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.

Harvesting and retting

The main object in cultivating textile flax is the production of fibre which is separated out (scutched) after the flax stalks have been prepared (retted).

  • 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 needed