A TRADITIONAL British industry which died out in the middle of the century is about to be reborn on a technological footing. The production of raw linen and other natural fibres, including hemp and jute, from crops grown in the UK, starts this month at the first of 10 planned regional processing centres, in the Silsoe Research Institute in Bedford. The centres will be operated by a new company, British Fibre Ltd, set up by the agricultural merchants Robin Appel of Southampton.
Faced with the over-production of food, the aim is to give farmers an incentive to cultivate non-food crops. But any alternatives must use the existing skills and facilities. "Flax has been grown in Britain since Roman times. It suits our climate and currently offers the greatest opportunities," said Nigel Bazeley, director of Robin Appel.
The Silsoe centre has the first production model of a decorticator, a machine that extracts fibres from the plant stalk. Developed in a collaborative project funded 50:50 by government and 10 industrial partners, the decorticator is manufactured by William Tathum Ltd of Rochdale. It is much cheaper, and depends on less labour-intensive methods, than existing equipment such as that used in the linen industry of northern France, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Traditionally flax is harvested using specific machinery for pulling, deseeding, turning and baling. The crop is then processed to separate the fibres from the woody inner core of the stem. Labour and machinery costs are high.
Apart from being cheaper, the decorticator can process a range of fibre crops harvested with the combines used for cereals. It will be possible to produce raw linen for £1,000 per ton, compared to £2,000 per ton for existing production methods. This is also less than raw wool at around £1,400 per ton, and cotton at £1,200 per ton.
The linen fibres will be shorter, and therefore of lower quality than those produced by the old process, but they will be suitable for linen mixes. "For the first time textile manufacturers will have access to a large quantity of relatively low-cost linen fibre", said Mr Bazeley.
The decorticator was originally proposed by W M R Stewart and Son of Dundee, which makes high-precision components for textile machinery, as a way of dealing with the straw generated by linseed when the ban on burning was introduced three years ago.
Linseed, sister of flax, is grown for its seeds, which, as a source of industrial oil, can be cultivated on land set aside under the European Union's policy of cutting food production.
"During the development of the machine, we realised that it could be used to process the much more valuable flax," Mr Bazeley said.
The aim of British Fibre will be to establish a range of markets for fibres extracted with the new machine. The Ministry of Agriculture, which supported the decorticator project, recently announced a grant of £100,000 to develop suitable markets. These will range from linen for the fashion and tableware industry to hemp paper for banknotes, jute for floor coverings and linseed fibre linings for hanging baskets.
To back this diversification, Robin Appel set up the Natural Fibres Organisation last year. This already has more than 300 members, mostly farmers.
Although flax may not be grown on set-aside land, it is eligible for subsidy provided it is grown for fibre (it also produces oil, but seed yields are 30-35 per cent lower than for linseed). Another revival is hemp, a crop pioneered by Hemcore Ltd, which was set up three years ago. Hemp (cannabis, to the initiated), which may only be grown under Home Office licence, could provide fibre for paper-making and textiles.
The decorticator will be sold abroad, and Mr Bazeley said there had already been interest from Canada, Australia and Russia. The consortium is keen to develop the UK processing network and markets before commercialising the machine.
At present the European linen industry is small and specialist, producing a high-value product. "Now we have a machine which can produce low-cost, short-fibre flax. The potential is extraordinary," Mr Bazeley said.
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