Flax, Farming, and Food: How Scotch-Irish Immigrants Contributed to New England Society in the 18th Century

The [textile] industry received a fresh impulse through the immigration of about one hundred Irish families from Londonderry. They settled in New Hampshire on the Merrimac about 1719, and spun and wove with far more skill than prevailed among those English settlers who had already become Americans […] There was much public excitement over spinning, and prizes were offered for quantity and quality. Women, rich as well as poor, appeared on Boston Common with their wheels, thus making spinning a popular holiday recreation.   – Alice Morse Earle

 The Scotch-Irish came to New England, as they had to Ulster, with their own particular methods of industry and farming. They are credited with introducing potatoes, rhubarb, and new ways of farming and spinning. In particular they grew and spun flax, a fibrous plant with beautiful pale blue flowers and woody stems which, when prepared correctly, produce the ‘hairs’ that can be woven into linen cloth.

The National Park Service explains the process of flax farming, preparation, and spinning in the 17th and 18th centuries:

After plowing in November, February and March, the ground was harrowed and raked fine. The small, oily flaxseeds were sown broadcast in April and a final harrowing took place. The closer the seeds were spaced, the less branching took place in the resultant plants and the higher the quality of the crop. If flax is sown properly, weeding is unnecessary because there is no space for unwanted plants.

Flax takes about a hundred days to mature. When the leaves yellow and the seed turn brown, the flax is pulled from the ground by the roots, spread to dry for a few days, and, if time was not a factor, stored until the next year to age.

Processing flax is an extremely labor-intensive process, providing skilled and unskilled employment for both adults and children. First, the upper part of the flax bundles are drawn through coarse combs to remove seed in a process called rippling.

After the seeds are removed, it is necessary to separate the long, silky inner fibers which constitute the end product from the straw and inner pitch. Retting, in which the unwanted fibers are loosened and decomposed, can be achieved in several ways. The flax can be left out in the field, where the exposure to the elements, particularly the moisture in the air, can do the work. A pond or through can be used to achieve the same effect in much less time, but with a prodigious odor. The ideal way to ret flax is to expose it to constantly running water, such as a stream. The amount to time this step requires depends on the quality of the flax, the temperature and numerous other variables.

When the straw comes away easily from the few bent fibers, it is time to grass the flax. The bundles are untied and laid in a field for a few days until they are dried on one side, then turned so the other side can be dried. When the crop is thoroughly moisture free, it is stacked inside to age for a few more weeks.

Next, a series of steps free the linen fiber from the boon (unwanted plant material). The brake, a large wooden machine, is used to break down the trash material and loosen it further from the end product. Then the flax is scutched (beaten against a board with a blunt wooden knife). The final process is hackling, in which the fiber is drawn through a series of metal combs to remove the last of the boon and shorter fibers. The end result is a strick, a half-pound bundle of long, light grey fibers which resemble human hair. Over 85% of the plant has been removed before the strick is produced. Some of the shorter fibers removed during hackling can be used as tow for sacking or inferior cloth.

Since flax is such a long fiber, special care must be given before spinning to keep it from tangling. A distaff is a tool which keeps the fibers separated and properly aligned during spinning. Thread is produced using the small wheel often called a flax wheel. An experienced spinner has little difficulty creating a fine, strong thread with flax. In order to produce a smooth yarn, however, she must also be able to moisten the flax continuously as she is spinning.

After the thread is spun, it must be stretched and boiled to set the twist put into it by spinning. Bleaching can be done either before or after weaving, by exposing the fiber to sunlight for prolonged periods or using such chemical treatments as chloride of lime, soap and soda or lye water.

Accustomed to spinning wool and flax, the Scotch-Irish rejuvenated the textile industry in New England, and created what might be called ‘spinning fever’ in the local population. As mentioned by Alice Morse Earle and others, spinning demonstrations were held in public on Boston Common, with an attendance fee to raise money for the new spinning school being built in the city.

The potato had already had an exciting history travelling between South America, Europe, and the British Isles, and had taken to the acidic soil of Ulster like a fish to water.

According to Potatoes USA:

In 1536 Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the flavors of the potato, and carried them to Europe.  Before the end of the sixteenth century, families of Basque sailors began to cultivate potatoes along the Biscay coast of northern Spain.  Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe […]

Eventually, agriculturalists in Europe found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats. Most importantly, it became known that potatoes contained most of the vitamins needed for sustenance, and they could be provided to nearly 10 people for each acre of land cultivated.

Ironically, despite its discovery and origin on the continent of America, the versatile tuber did not become a fixture in North America until the Scotch-Irish brought it with them in 1718 and made the first permanent potato patches in New Hampshire.

Rev. A. L. Perry recounts the amusing if possibly apocryphal story of the very first potatoes grown in Massachusetts:

The tradition is still lively in Scotch-Irish families (I listened to it eagerly in my boyhood) that some of their English neighbors, after enjoying the hospitality of one of the Irish families, were presented each on their departure with a few tubers for planting, and the recipients, unwilling to give offense by refusing, accepted the gift; but suspecting the poisonous quality, carried them only to the next swamp and chucked them into the water.

The same spring a few potatoes were given for seed to a Mr Walker of Andover, Mass., by an Irish family who had wintered with him, previous to their departure for Londonderry to the northward. The potatoes were accordingly planted; came up and flourished well; blossomed and produced balls, which the family supposed were the fruit to be eaten. They cooked the balls in various ways, but could not make them palatable and pronounced them unfit for food. The next spring, while plowing the garden, the plow passed through where the potatoes had grown, and turned out some of great size, by which means they discovered their mistake.

This is the reason why this now indispensable esculent is still called in New England certainly, and perhaps elsewhere, the ‘Irish potato’.”

Given that the above-ground fruit of the potato plant (part of the nightshade family) contains toxic levels of solanine, it is somewhat surprising that the Walkers only considered them ‘unpalatable’!

Potatoes have since found their way into the ovens, frying pans, and hearts of the American people. According to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, Americans consume about 110 pounds of potatoes annually.

In an interview about her historical cookbook Scotch-Irish Foodways in America: Recipes from History, South Portland historian Mary Drymon discusses with interviewer Meredith Goad the debt North American food owes to Scotch-Irish immigrants:

If you like sour cream, pancakes, clam chowder and that Yankee staple known as the New England boiled dinner, you can thank the Scotch-Irish settlers who sailed into Casco Bay nearly 300 years ago. […]

The book includes lots of traditional Scotch-Irish recipes that Drymon has personally tested at least three times – on a wood stove, a modern stove and over an open hearth – to be sure they are both authentic and edible.

There are eats in the book that you are sure to recognize, and others that you surely won’t.

If you were living in the Maine wilderness in the 18th century, what would you rather have eaten: Mackerel marinated in cider vinegar, black tea and spices? How about herrings in oatmeal? Or maybe you’d subsist on stump, which is a hearty, thick puree of potatoes, rutabagas and carrots.

[…] There’s also Scotch-Irish versions of New England clam chowder and shepherd’s pie, and a bacon and squash soup that sounds like a delicious way to ward off a winter chill. Drymon includes recipes for rosehip and blackberry wines, and a rhubarb custard. The Scotch-Irish, it turns out, are the ones who brought rhubarb to America.

Celebrating the history of New England requires that we learn and remember the gifts brought by the variety of immigrants, settlers, and travelers who stepped onto these shores and helped make North American culture what it is: diverse, bizarre, and endlessly fascinating.


Alice Morse Earle, “Flax Culture and Spinning”, 18th Century History, 2018.

“Flax Production in the Seventeenth Century”, National Park Service, 2018.

“Fun Facts about the Potato”, Potatoes USA, 2018.

Rev. A. L. Perry, “Scotch-Irish in New England’, Library Ireland, 2017, taken from The Scotch-Irish in America: Proceedings and Addresses of the Second Congress at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 29 to June 1, 1890.

Meredith Goad, “300 Years of Mmmm”, Portland Press Herald, 2010.

(Links to all articles in-text.)

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