Internet Shakespeare Editions


Flax and hemp

A metal brake, a wooden brake, and a comb for preparing flax or hemp.

Flax -- from which linen was made -- and hemp -- which produced a coarser* cloth--were grown as a regular crop.

Although some of the work took place outside the house, women were responsible for the preparation of flax and hemp for spinning. First the ripe plants were harvested, then soaked to remove the outer casing, and dried. Finally the flax or hemp was "braked" or beaten to loosen and separate the fibre, combed, and spun into thread.

Gervase Markham, in The English Housewife, gives instruction on the initial soaking of the flax fibres:

The watering of hemp or flax

Now for the watering of the hemp or flax, the best water is the running stream, and the worst is the standing pit; yet because hemp is a poisonous thing*, and infecteth the water, and destroyeth all kind of fish, it is more fit to employ such pits and ditches as are least subject to annoyance, and so let it continue in the water four days and nights, then take and wash out every bundle, and rub it exceeding clean; which done, load it up, and carry it home, and in some open piece of ground rear it upright either against hedges, or such like, where it may have the full strength or reflection of the sun, and, being thoroughly dried, then house it.


  1. Homespun

    "What hempen homespuns have we swagg'ring here?" Puck asks as he first sees the artisans of Athens prepare their play (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 3.1.76).

  2. Advice on soaking hemp

    Now pluck up thy hemp and go beat out the seed,
    And afterward water it as ye see need:
    But not in the river where cattle should drink,
    For poisoning them and the people with stink.
    (Thomas Tusser)