The wealth of much of the northern part of Finistere was based on linen. Flax thrived in the temperate moist climate. Flax had many uses from making paper, twine, ropes, sail cloth as well as towels, damask and fine linen. Morlaix was a major port for the export of linen, especially sail cloth.
The ripe flax was harvested by hand so as not to damage the fibres. Once the seed heads were removed, it was ‘retted’ by soaking in ponds for 1-2 weeks. This began to break down the pectins holding the fibres together. The flax was then beaten to remove the woody bits and drawn through a comb. This produced long strands of flax fibres. In their natural state these are a pale golden colour. To produce white linen, the flax had to be bleached before spinning.
Bleaching was done in the Kanndi (which is Breton for bleach house). Most settlements would have had a Kanndi. Now very few are left.
One of the few to have been restored is Kanndi de Fers. I had found a brief reference to this in tourist information received from St Thegonnec which said “follow Chapelle St Brigitte”. Google maps didn’t help although I did manage to find Le Fers, a tiny hamlet. It wasn’t until I found a map of a walk around St Thegonnec starting from le Kanndi dyu Fers in the information pack in the gite, that I knew how to find it. Even with the map I still managed to get us lost…
Take the white road off D118 south of St Thegonnec. Turn left at the Chapel to Pen ar Vern. Take the first right at the wayside cross and the the kanndi is below the road at the corner of the next cross roads. Park somewhere safe by the cross roads.
It is a small stone building with a slate roof set in the trees by a stream. Inside is a single chimney, fire place, big iron pot and slate rinsing sink. In the 16-17thC linen fibres were brought to the kanndi between February to July. They were suspended in the vat with beech ash and washed in warm water. The potash in the ash helped to whiten the fibres. Rinsing was done in the large slate sink fed by a water supply from the stream. The skeins were left in the sun to dry and bleach. This process had to be repeated 6-9 times until the flax was white enough to weave. This could take several months.
We also found another Kanndi in the tiny settlement of Pen ar Vern, a small hamlet of 16th and 17thC houses lived in by linen workers. The Kanndi is at the bottom of the village along a grass lane. This was larger and had two fire places. A scrubbing brush and bar of soap suggests it is still used for laundry.
There is another small Kanndi in St Thegonnec which can be seen below the main road from the centre of the road to the east.
Once we knew what to look for we recognised small kanndis in several places which had been converted into houses.