Kathy King tells us in her 2006 article in the Quarterly Archives of the Tredyffrin Easttown (Pennsylvania) Historical Society that "when flax, a bast—or plant—fiber that grows about a yard high, is processed & woven it becomes linen. Linen was not produced in 18C England, since the country was very protective of its woolen industry. In an attempt to help Ireland become more prosperous, the British government decided to promote linen production there & provided tax incentives, tariffs, & encouraged artisans from continental Europe with linen skills to immigrate to Ireland. There was plenty of cheap labor in Ireland for the onerous chore of flax preparation & spinning. Ireland became the capital of British fine linen manufacturing.
"To grow flax you plow the land twice, plant seeds close together so it grows tall with little branching, hand weed it, and, when ripe, pull it—cutting it will discolor it & keep the fiber from being as long. It is back-breaking work. Then you dry it, remove the seeds, & rett it—submerge it in a pond for a couple of weeks so it rots & the fibers separate. Then you dry it again, use a flax break to pound it to loosen the bark & connective tissue, & then scutch it—use a wooden sword-like tool to strike against the fiber to remove the bark & connective tissue. Next you hackle [there are many ways this was spelled at that time; I have used the modern spelling] it by repeatedly drawing it through a tool with many long, sharp metal teeth that rids the flax of short fibers—the tow—and bark. Then it is spun. It's harder to spin flax than wool, as it's long & wiry."