Originally published in The Shaker Messenger, Volume XIV, Number 1, 1992, pp. 7-9, 23. ,The Shaker Messenger, published by The World of Shaker is no longer in print. Photographs used with permission of the Shaker Museum at South Union, Kentucky and the Department of Library Special Collections, Western Kentucky University.


From 1810 to 1849, through several tedious processes, the Shakers cultivated flax and manufactured linen at South Union, Kentucky. Converts brought a diverse body of knowledge and skills to each community, including the manufacture of textiles. Known for their ingenuity and industriousness, they tried new techniques and equipment, with varying degrees of success, to make this arduous work easier.

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Flax (Linum usitatissiumum). The Shakers reserved the long fibers of the flax plant for clothing and household linens. The “tow” or shorter fibers were used for rope and coarser fabrics made into feed bags, work clothes, and rugs. (The Kentucky Library and Museum, Western Kentucky University.)

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Shakers hackled flax to loosen the fibers adhering to each other and separate the tow from the line. Objects shown are (left to right): rectangular flax hackle; raw linen; spun linen; and round flax hackle. (Collection of Shaker Museum at South Union)

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An 1898 group of non-Believers working flax in eastern Kentucky. Processes shown are (left to right): scotching; hackling; and breaking. Shakers grew and processed flax in about the same manner as the “world’s people.” (The Kentucky Library and Museum, Western Kentucky University)

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The markings “C H H 5” stamped on the table of this South Union flax wheel indicate it belonged to the Church Family. Originally painted a mustard color, the wheel is missing a portion of its distaff and its footman, the strap which attached the treadle to the crank. (Collection of Shaker Museum at South Union)