The area around Kortrijk always has been very industrious. In the 19th century it was the main area where agriculture produced industrial crops as flax, oilseeds, tobacco, chicory, etc... while the rich clay layers of the Leie valley were at the origins of important tile factories. Since the Middle Ages Kortrijk was a centre of linen trade and industry, and from the end of the 19th century until after the Second War the main flax fibre production area in Europe. The textile and industrial history and heritage of the town and its surroundings are presented in the itinerary ‘The Flax Valley’.
Although the town was heavy damaged during both the First ans Second World War, there is much to see and to experience. It has two monuments who are on the UNESCO World Heritage List: the Sint-Elisabeth Beguinage from 1238, and the belfry, originally a tower of the former Cloth Hall.
Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Egypt, where temple walls had paintings of flowering flax and mummies were entombed in linen. Egyptian priests only wore linen, as flax was considered a symbol of purity. Phoenicians traded Egyptian linen throughout the Mediterranean, and the Romans used it for their sails. As the Roman Empire declined, so did flax production, but Charlemagne revived the crop in the 8th century with laws designed to publicize the hygiene of linen textiles and the health of linseed oil.
Eventually, Flanders became the major European centre of the linen industry since the Middle Ages till the beginning of the 19th c. - and later became the centre of flax fibre production, centralizing in the Leie (Lys) valley in South-West-Flanders.
In the first half of the 19th c. flax cultivation and the production of linen suffered from the concurrence of cheap imported cotton - which processing was easier and less labour-intensive.
Flemish spinners and weavers also lost the French market after Napoleon’s defeat in Waterloo (1815) and the Dutch market after the Belgian independence (1830).
The rise of the cotton prices during the 1860s (American Civil War) caused a recovery of and new investments in the sector. The flax spinning frame, invented in 1810 by the French engineer Philippe Henri de Girard (1775 – 1845) was from then onwards introduced in all flax regions in Europe, as were numerous new tools in flax scutching, while new, easier, healthier and less smelling techniques for retting the fax were sought.
The ‘industrial revolution’ in flax fibre production (retting, breaking, scutching,hackling) took place in the South-West of Flanders between 1890 and 1914, and spread from there to other parts of Europe - after the first war especially to Normandy, Holland, Silesia, etc... The invention of the controlled warm water retting in retting tanks (not using ponds or rivers anymore, producing a better quality of white fibres) and the automatisation of the breaking and scutching on a so-called ‘flax turbine’ were due to a local inventor Constant Vansteenkiste and the discovery at the Pasteur Institute in Lille of the anaerobe bacterias which were responsible for the retting process.
The ‘white flax’ from the Lys area, or the ‘Kortrijk Flax’ became renowned through the world. Flax from Flanders was in the 19th and early 20th century sold to spinning and weaving mills in Ireland and Italy, today most of it goes to China.
But flax is more than a plant producing fibres for spinning and weaving.
Flax is a plant of which each part is used, the Latin species name linum usitatissimum means most useful.
The flax seeds were used in the traditional medicine internally (directly soaked or as tea) and externally (as compresses or oil extracts) for treatment of disorders of the respiratory tract, eyes, infections, cold, flu, fever, rheumatism and gout.
From the seeds linseed oil is produced.
Most applications of linseed oil exploit its drying properties, e.g. as paint binder.It was first used assuch by the Flemish Primitive painters, e.g. Van Eyck for painting his Mystic Lamb (1432). It is also used to produce the traditional glazing putty (consisting of a paste of chalk powder and linseed oil), wood finish, gilding, to bind wood dust, cork particles, and related materials in the manufacture of the floor covering linoleum, etc...
Linseed oil is an edible oil in today used as nutritional supplement, but also in animal feeds and animal care products, bicycle maintenance as a thread fixative, rust inhibitor and lubricant, the maintenance of earthen floors, industrial lubricants, leather treatment, oilcloth, etc.
Fibres too short to spin were and still are used for papermaking - today dollar bills are made of it. The wooden remains of the stalk were burnt in steam boilers to drive steam engines and to produce the warm water for retting - while the ashes were used as fertiliser on the fields,...