The weird mystery of the Frankenstein flax scutcher

What is scutching?

Newspaper advertisement from 1941

Scutching is the process of taking off all the outer parts of the flax plant to leave the long fibres. We do this once the harvested flax has been retted, dried and broken using our old, refurbished flax scutcher.  You can read more about the full process here.

Scutching would have been a long, dusty, labour intensive process to do by hand.  Over the years there have been a variety of flax scutcher machines developed for the job; from simple wooden paddles for hand scutching to water driven scutching turbines. These were extremely dangerous and many injuries resulted from people having to come into contact with fast moving turbine blades. After this, in the 1930’s a new type of scutching turbine was developed. It was extremely efficient and less dangerous than its water driven predecessors.

Is it Mackies, Union, Depoortere or Van Hauwaert – the mystery of who made the flax scutcher?

A few years ago we were lucky enough to find and buy a 1940’s flax scutcher. It was in pieces.  This beautiful machine had been in operation in a mill in the area up until the 1970’s and had passed the many years since then stored in a barn. It’s been the biggest jigsaw puzzle we’ve ever done. We were relieved to discover that whoever had taken it apart at some point, had helpfully numbered some of the pieces.

Part of a restored flax scutcher machine with a number painted on it

We think our machine was designed by Van Hauwaert, a family owned Belgian company that have been making machinery since the 1890’s.

They helped us so much with our restoration by sourcing belts for the machine.

But we also see some Mackie’s plates.  The amazing linen researcher, Sebastian Graham of Mills of Northern Ireland sent us the newspaper cutting above from 1941 which suggests it could have been designed by Van Hauwaert but built by Mackies.

This all seemed to fit until one Robert Kidd came to visit. He worked for years in flax growing and processing and knew all the machinery. He pointed to some very old flaking paint and assured us that our breakers were made by Union and the turbines by De Poortere.

It all adds to the puzzle and unique character of this mighty machine, but we don’t really mind as long as it works! And it does, beautifully.

Restored scutching turbine for processing flax in Northern Ireland

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