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Flax Fiber Has New International Standards

Flax fiber went out of vogue in the United States when the cotton gin was introduced, vaulting cotton ahead of one of the first crops domesticated by man. Linen—cloth made from flax fiber—was used to wrap mummies in early Egyptian tombs.

Flax is currently grown here for its seed, linseed, mostly in North Dakota. But a market for flax fiber has been difficult to establish, partly because there weren’t any standards in place to govern its quality.

That is being changed.

Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and several universities have established quality standards for fineness, color, and cleanliness. “Standards are useful to assure uniform quality and performance,” says microbiologist Danny E. Akin, of the ARS Quality Assessment Research Unit in Athens, Georgia. “Since natural fibers, such as flax/linen, are by their nature variable, standards are particularly useful for manufacturers of textiles and composites. Standards tell them how to set equipment for optimal production, which affects efficiency and product quality, and how to best use available resources.”

Akin chairs the ASTM International subcommittee “Flax and Linen,” which is responsible for establishing the standards for flax fibers. ASTM International, originally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, was formed more than a century ago, and is one of the largest voluntary-standards-development organizations in the world.

Four standards have been developed since 2002. The first, “Standard Terminology Relating to Flax and Linen,” reduces confusion and ambiguity when discussing the fiber. “Standard Test Method for Color Measurement of Flax Fiber” was the first standard to characterize fiber properties. Next came “Standard Test Method for Assessing Clean Flax Fiber Fineness” and “Standard Test Method for the Measurement of Shives in Retted Flax.”

These standards set the stage for flax to expand into the manufacturing or medical arenas. For instance, flax composites could be used as lighter, environmentally friendly replacements for glass in cars. Some major car manufacturers have expressed interest in such a product. And short flax fibers can be blended with cotton or other fibers to make medical products such as bandages.—By Sharon Durham, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Danny E. Akin is in the Quality Assessment Research Unit, Richard B. Russell Research Center, 950 College Station Road, Athens, GA 30604; phone (706) 546-3482, fax (706) 546-3607.

"Flax Fiber Has New International Standards" was published in the August 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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