Before machines took over much of the hard work, the process of making linen from flax was both protracted and arduous, but it bequeathed us an interesting set of words: pulling, rippling, retting, and scutching.
At harvest time in August, flax plants were pulled up by the roots rather than cut to ensure that the fibres were long and unbroken. The stems were then rippled by drawing them through a comb to take out any seeds. The next stage was retting, in which bundles of the stems were immersed in water in a pond, lake or stream for a couple of months to soften and partly rot them. If no body of water was available, they were instead laid out in a field to let the rain do the job; this was sometimes called dew-retting and the field the retting-ground. Then came scutching, in which the stems were beaten to remove the useful fibres from the plant material around them.
Though the process is ancient, the English word for this final step appears only at the end of the eighteenth century. It derives from old French escoucher, from Latin excutere, to shake out. The word also turns up in situations unconnected with linen-making, as here in Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter: “I heard father tell him he’d give him a scutching he’d remember to the day of his death.” That looks like a similar sense, of beating, and it’s quite well recorded in dialect in both Scotland and northern England — in fact it’s about two centuries older than the flax sense and there’s some small doubt whether it’s the same word.
The English Dialect Dictionary, based on nineteenth-century dialect recorded around Britain, included many other senses: “to strip, peel; cut or sheer with a hook; to trim a hedge; to notch; to face blocks of stone by chipping the surface with a small, sharp stick” and “to throw nuts, &c., to be scrambled for; to throw or push one body over the surface of another with a slightly grating noise; to walk by pushing the feet lightly forward”, and “to run; to move quickly; to do work, especially garden-work, in a light, quick, or imperfect manner”. Truly, a word for all seasons and occasions.
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