Well, maybe it wasn’t such a big mystery, but we take what we can get at the local history museum.

The first mystery, of course, is what in the tunket is a flax hackle? That one’s easy, since a secondary name is “flax comb,” and even I could figure out it was used to comb out debris from flax fibers before they were woven into linen. That doesn’t keep it from being an evil-looking implement, with long nails driven through a board. It looks like something an Indian fakir might walk on if he was into serious pain.

Being a little fuzzy on the whole flax-into-linen process, I appealed to knowledgeable friends, and one of them, John Paul Mueller in Wisconsin, sent along a link to a beautiful little video (Flax Processing 101)  showing just how to do it:


If you watched this, or even if you didn’t, it explains the four main steps in preparing flax for spinning: retting (or rotting) the outer fibers, further loosening up the sheaths with a flax break, beating the whey out of the remaining fibers with a scutching board and knife, and then combing them out, usually with a coarse and then a fine flax hackle. Then it’s on to the spinning wheel.

You may begin to see why there’s not a big commercial flax industry in the U.S., although John Paul says there’s still quite a bit of small-scale growing in Wisconsin.

So there’s not really a mystery about preparing flax. I had three of the devices, but the real mystery at the museum was missing flax hackle No. 4, listed on the computer as 0.2006.234, but nowhere in sight on the shelf where its three brothers resided.

Here I appealed to my friend (and retired family doctor) Mac, who has been messing with this stuff a lot longer than I have. He said on a few occasions he had gone up to the tool room and rummaged until he found something he was looking for. So I rummaged, and almost immediately No. 4 came to light, in a box in another part of the room.

With that I was able to pose my little collection for the picture above with No. 4 at top left. It also appears to be the oldest, dating to at least 1798, after which it made the trek over the mountains from Virginia to Kentucky and eventually Indiana. It’s also been in a fire at some point, because much of it is charred.

With flax hackles disposed of, I turned to tobacco cutters and ran into a new but similar problem. I had two of these critters and the computer listed three. Could I get lucky twice in a week? Once more I made the journey to the tool room and rummaged, but alas, this time no errant tobacco cutter turned up.

I may have to ask Marilyn, who knows everything, about this one.