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Linen flax in New Zealand (last edit: 28/04/2021)

The results of research I am conducting into the history of linen flax in New Zealand, and information on growing and processing methods that are known to work in my conditions. This will be added to and edited to make more coherent as I find more information.

Interestingly, New Zealand has an endemic species of linen flax – Linum monogynum, known as ‘rauhuia’ in te reo Māori. One rare variation grows on limestone cliffs and rock outcrops on the Chatham Islands, and has never managed to be successfully grown in New Zealand due to linum rust (Melampsora lini) which also affect growth in the islands as well. This Stuff article describes the linen flax varieties in New Zealand: Linum perenne (‘perennial flax’) and Linum trigynum don’t grow taller than 50cm, so not ideal for fibre. Linum bienne is a weed that apparently grows to about 80cm tall – I’ll have to keep an eye out for that! The article also mentions Linum monogynum. The fifth species is the one I am particularly interested in: Linum usitatissimum. Very interesting!

New Zealand had a flax industry in several parts of the country, including my home town. Mostly, it was processing our native ‘harakeke’ (Phormium tenax), but during WWII, they also processed linen flax. A friend recently shared this lovely photo of flax stooks drying, though it is incorrectly identified as being in Methven (South Canterbury, NZ). The photo is also here, labelled as being in Geraldine (South Canterbury, NZ), which is confirmed by the same friend who sent it to me (who is familiar with the area). This photo shows a woman stacking flax in Geraldine in 1943. The Geraldine Museum has a section about the linen industry there, briefly mentioned in this article about the museum. This article talks about the history of linen flax in Methven.

My own hometown was part of the linen flax industry (a great photo or two in this article). In the summer of 1939-1940, 100 acres of linen flax was grown in Marlborough and processed at a mill owned by a family my father would work for, nearly 40 years later. There were also mills in other parts of the province. This industry declined after the war. There are two books on this topic that I need to chase at the National Library: ‘Marlborough: a provincial history’ (ed. A.D. McIntosh) and ‘Tua Marina settlement 1859-1959: a centennial review’ (F.W. Smith).

I also read a report written in 1939 by J.W. Hadfield as part of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Plant Research Bureau. He travelled to Europe and wrote a report about how linen flax is grown and processed, and how that might be applied to such an industry in NZ. It has many interesting nuggets that are relevant to growing flax in NZ! He states that moisture is important for uniform growth – dry weather reduces growth and even speeds up maturity – and plants don’t grow a whole lot once they’ve flowered. Therefore, you need soil with high moisture reserves, but not over-rich, which can make the plants more prone to lodging (information echoed in the study done at the Ribe Viking Institute, mentioned in the ‘Resources’ entry). Another point is that high Nitrogen content makes the flax straw coarser with lower fibre content and quality. Therefore, he states that the ‘clay loam downs’ in North Canterbury are suitable for flax, likewise parts of Otago and Southland. He also recommends cool summers, as lower temperatures mean that flax rust (mentioned below) is less likely to occur – sowing in Autumn is one way of working around that, though that brings its own issues. Mr. Hadfield reports the standard ‘time to harvest’ as 100 days, but acknowledges that this can vary – experimental crops have varied from 90-130 days. He also says that when the stem is 2/3 yellow, it is ready for harvest, both for seed and fibre (though the fibre would be finer if harvested sooner). This isn’t always reliable though, as if there is a lot of moisture the stem may stay green. A cut and squeezed seed boll will ooze sap if it’s not mature yet, though. I should try this next year!

In 1946 Mr Hadfield wrote another report, this time for the Linen Flax Corporation of New Zealand. He describes the beginning of the industry in New Zealand: with European politics in the 1930s, a decrease in Russian exports, and a desire to increase the range of industries here, it was seen as a good idea to investigate the possibility of a flax linen industry in New Zealand. Then World War II happened and this became more important, and many member countries of the Commonwealth cultivated linen flax. In New Zealand, trials began in Lincoln in 1936. Things went well, and in 1939 ‘semi-commercial production’ began, with a factory set up in Rangiora. 200 acres of flax were grown in the area between Rangiora and Waikuku, and a further 100 acres were grown in Blenheim! Rangiora had a very dry year, and the Blenheim crop, while excellent, was insufficient to build a factory – so the crop was sold to a Mr L.C. Chaytor, a long-time advocate for a linen flax industry in Blenheim, who then built his own retting tanks and processing machinery. The British Ministry of Supply then requested 15,000 acres of flax for the 1940-41 season, and as much as could be produced from then on. Initially, the flax was scutched without being retted first, but this was discontinued in favour of dew-retting. By the summer of 1940/41, the predominant processing method became tank retting, which was faster (2.5-3 days) and less prone to problems with wind. Each tank was able to process 4 tons of flax, and were spread throughout the South Island from Canterbury southwards, with a few more in Blenheim and Seddon. By 1941/42, there were 17 factories with a total of 76 retting tanks! The New Zealand industry was primarily the growth of the linen flax and processing up to the stage of scutching. The scutched flax was then sent overseas for spinning and weaving.

Whether due to the seed variety or the failings of the processing machinery, the flax produced in NZ was characterised by spinners in the UK as coarse and harsh, which microscopic analysis found to be due to “a lack of sub-division of fibre strands due to epidermal and cortical cells remaining attached to fibre bundles”, though it also lost little fibre during hackling, and was uniform and reliable. It was often used to make flax canvas or hosepipes. There was some loss of heart in the industry after these criticisms, but there was also a determination to improve the quality of fibre produced after the war was over. However, by the end of the war there were only 7 factories maintaining production, many of which had closed down by 1947. This seems to be due to a combination of insufficient crop to process, problems with producing a sufficiently high quality of fibre (whether because the seed varieties used produced coarse fibres or were prone to disease/very sensitive to growing conditions), and a shrinking market for byproducts as other textile sources became available once more. The report also recognises that the conditions that were best for growing linen flax for the fibre were not the same as when the product was the seed/oil – for good quality fibre, cooler conditions, even rainfall, and ‘retentive sub-soil’ are required.

It seems that the linen flax industry in New Zealand simply dwindled, though it may have lasted longer than many realised. Our National Library has a copy of a pamphlet by the Linen Flax Corporation of New Zealand written in March 1970. By that point, the flax mill in Geraldine was the only one left out of the seventeen mills that were built in New Zealand during WWII. Most linen flax was grown on farms in South Canterbury. This pamphlet says that the fibre and flax plants are the same, the sole difference being that flax plants grown for fibre are more densely plants to prevent branching and encourage a long straight stem of 30-35 inches in height (76-89cm). Similar to my own crops, flax is sown in September and October, and harvested in January and February. The processing of the flax is mechanised, of course, and the fibres produced may be blended with wool, while the lower quality fibres are turned into twine. The pamphlet ends with optimism for the future of the linen industry in the world.

I could also try a cover crop/polyculture by sowing a ground cover crop such as red clover, following a practise Mr. Hadfield encountered in Belgium. As for what variety of seed – he discusses fibre varieties, distinguished by flower colour (Blue is Best!), and also mentions varieties developed by a couple of research departments in Norfolk (‘Liral’) and Northern Ireland (‘Stormont’), and one predominant in Egypt (‘Ghiza Purple’). So far, no idea if these are known varieties any more. He recommends using phosphates, in particular ‘sulphate of potash’ as increasing fibre content, and warns about the main diseases likely to threaten linen flax crops: the aforementioned ‘Flax rust’, the seed-borne stem break/browning (Polispora lini), Pasmo (Sphaerella linicola), and ‘Wilt’ (Fusarium lini), which persists in soil.

The Geraldine Historical Museum published a short book in 2019 on the history of the Geraldine Linen Flax Mill, and I purchased a copy. It describes much of what I had already learned from above sources about the beginnings of the flax industry in New Zealand, but also describes the end of the mill as reports from the committee of flax growers. As per the 1946 report by JW Hadfield, only six mills were still in operation by 1946, and by 1955, the Geraldine mill was the only one left. By 1977, the Mill was running at a loss, and the Government decided to close the Linen Flax Corporation and sell the assets to private enterprise – it was bought by Linen Textiles Ltd in December 1977. Two years later, Waihi Wools Ltd (an exporter of scoured wool) bought out that company, but competition with subsidised linen from overseas and rising costs meant that in November 1981, the land and buildings of the mill were sold, and the equipment auctioned off.

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Resources (last edit, 9 July 2021)

A list of resources that I have used and that may be useful to anyone else looking to do a similar project. I’ll update this list as I find new resources!

Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth” by Linda Heinrich (2010) ISBN: 9780764334665

“Flax Culture; from flower to fabric” by Mavis Atton of Ontario (1988) ISBN: 9780921773061

“How to Weave Linen” by Edward F. Worst (1926)

“The Book of the Farm, Volume 2” by Henry Stephens (1844)

Linen. Handspinning and Weaving” by Patricia Baines (1989) ISBN: 9780934026529

“Flax and Hemp: Their Culture and Manipulation” by Edmund Saul Dixon (1854)

This link takes you to a website called ‘Interweave’, where you can download a free ebook that contains a series of articles on linen flax – growing, processing, spinning it.

In a previous blog entry, I linked to a series of silent, black-and-white videos on Youtube that depict a peasant family in Northern Italy processing flax in 1963.

Another video, this time depicting the weaving process. Black-and-white and silent, and filmed in 1964 in the same area of Northern Italy as in the previous set of videos.

A group at the Ribe Viking Centre in Denmark undertook a project to make a replica of the Viborg shirt (which was found during excavations of an 11th century settlement). This is their report, available in full on Academia. In summary – from their experiments, they think that it would have taken about 350 hours of work (from the growing through to the weaving and sewing) to produce one shirt, and that 85% of that time is weaving and spinning. They also calculate that it would take about 21kg of freshly harvested plants to produce the 750-odd grams of linen fibre – approximately 1kg per square metre – needed to make that shirt. Adds a whole new level of understanding of why linen was so valuable to our ancestors, and the resources that went into the linen sails on some ships – and why linen was reused to make paper. It certainly makes me think!

Tangential, but this link is to a Youtube video of a group of Romanian peasants demonstrating their methods of processing hemp into fibre and clothes. Having read about the discovery that the Vikings used both hemp and linen flax to make fabric textiles – perhaps I need to add hemp to my list of things I would like to try my hand at growing/processing?

Thanks to Montjoye Makkinschtuff, a pair of British Instructional Films presentations from the British Pathé Youtube channel. The first shows the industrial spinning process in the 1940s from combing and spinning, to reeling onto hanks, ready to send to the weavers. The second shows the industrial weaving process, including preshrinking and dying.

‘Production Guidelines for flax’, from the South African government. Discusses growing varieties for both fibre and seeds.

While googling the retting process, I came across this article on Jstor from 1922 on the microbiology of flax retting, which I enjoyed mostly for the phrase “a vigorous evolution of gas”.

The ladies of the Victoria Flax to Linen group made this little movie about the process of turning flax into linen.

A video of flax growing and processing in Poland, filmed in 1976. 17:40. Voiceover in Polish, no subtitles. Rippling appears to be about beating the seeds off with a club onto a sheet while in the field. Retting is done in a pond. The broken flax is dried in a nifty recess between the traditional clay oven and the wall.

Another old book on linen, The linen trade, ancient and modern, by Alex J. Warden. Published in 1864, it discusses New Zealand flax as well. Something to add to my reading list!

A video blog about the story of linen in Ulster created by the Curator of Textiles at the National Museums of Northern Ireland, Valerie Wilson in May 2020, as museums needed to do something while the pandemic lock-downs were in place.

TRIUMPH!!!

Last night, I ended with the intention to write about our planned processing experiment the next day, and the hope that it would be in triumph. Well, I think triumph is a pretty good description of my feelings, yes indeedy!

Holly went to the hardware store in the morning and spent a chunk of money on timber to make the processing tools. This is a project for her for the next few weeks, so what we did today was go through the process with some bits of scrap wood I had lying around to mimic the process (which would be faster and easier with proper tools).

We experimented with breaking. We had to finish breaking it by hand, because this is something the tool will make easier by creating a better tension and therefore snap the inner core better. There was still a bunch of core stuck to it, but the idea of doing this was to see what impact scutching and combing/hackling would have. I then laid the broken flax over my knee, like the bothersome bit of thing it has been, and gave it a scutching with a bit of broken trellis wood! This made a definite difference, removing a chunk of plant material from the fibres.

The next step was combing. Holly brought along the bee combs (made for scraping off the surface of the honey comb for the centrifugal honey extractors) we used for rippling. With the combs held together so that the tines alternated, this made a definite improvement, and left a bunch of tow (short fibres) and boon (inner core) in the comb.

This left us with a small amount of line fibres. Feeling encouraged, we tried some stems from each of the bundles whose retting-completion status was under question. My green stems produced fairly nice fibre, though it was still a green colour – a bit like a blonde who has been swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. As a final test, we tried some from one bundle that had retted easily: Mum’s bundle produced a long fibre of a nice blonde colour, and very little tow. Holly commented that my mother has no choice, we are growing more flax in her garden next summer. 😜

And here are the samples we processed this afternoon. The length of fibre was obviously correlated to the length of the stem, and I believe the best fibre came from my crops and my mother’s crop.

From left to right: 1) a single stem from my thick brown bundles, to compare a well-retted stem with the others; 2) Meg’s flax; 3) Joan’s flax; 4) Holly’s flax; 5) my short green flax; 6) my long green flax; 7) my mother’s flax.

And finally, because I am SO READY to be done with retting, we had a ceremonial Emptying of the Retting Tub, tipping the water back over the flax bed.

So, next steps. Holly took home the small hanks of processed flax, along with her small bundle of flax and my leftover seed from the previous year, in order to try making a liquid that should make spinning the flax easier. She will have a play with the fibres and see how she feels, using her spinning experience. Once she has made up the processing tools, we will meet on a fine day and get the rest processed down to the fibres.

I leave you with one last image: the bundles of processed flax fibres floating in the wind as they hung from the old washing line where we put them to keep them in order. Flax fibre really is so very similar to hair.

Onwards!

Edit: Wise Wendy was already asleep for the night, as per her time zone, by the time Holly and I were done with our processing experiment, and so she didn’t get to comment before I had pushed ‘publish’. She commented the next day, that some of our flax was probably still under-retted, and this was confirmed by her own guru, Sagacious Susan – who says it might be by “as much as a week”. I could ret it further, with a few more days for the bacterial to develop, then time to ret. She also confirmed that the ribbons I depicted are the epidermis, and so that needs to flake off too. I won’t ret it further this time around – the time I spend each day checking progress really needs to go to other things, but it will be something I am aware of next year. I think I need to make sure to get the crop rippled as early as possible, so that it has more time to ret in February!!

My green bundles were harvested to early. I know this – they got less sun than the rest of the crop – but I needed to empty that bed so that I could do other work in that space. Next year, I hope that the changes I have made (pruning back of trees) and have yet to make (replacing the fence) will mean that there is more even maturation of the crop. But as a way of knowing when it is ready to harvest, there was another useful tip to apply: the ‘snap point’. To check, I should feel the stem from the bottom up. At first it is hard and feels likely to snap, but further up it is softer and would bend instead. When the snap point rises to 3/4 of the way up the stem, it is ready to harvest.

Hooray for always having something to learn, as boredom is anathema to me!

Retting Redux cont.

I closed the last entry, on the 5th of March, having pulled all the bundles of flax out of the water the previous day, and then left to dry some more indoors.

Well, it was not as successful as I had hoped. On the 7th, the bundles were all dry on the outside, so I took some samples and tested breaking them. Below is a picture of the samples. From the top: the stem from Holly’s bundle broke apart, but the epidermis still appears to be well in touch with the fibres. Both of my green samples (both tall and short) had fibres separating a little within the epidermis, but the inner core wasn’t falling freely. The thinner stems in Joan’s sample refused to break. Meg’s was similar to Holly’s, in leaving fibres in ribbons of epidermis. The sample from my mother’s crop and my brown ones were the only ones that seemed close to ready – with fibres coming free from the core and skin, so I hung them up to dry. The others were not ready, so back they went into the tub for a few more days!

Testing the rettedness, 7th March

The next day, I checked the temperature in the retting tub (23°C at 3pm), and replaced about 4 buckets of water. The day after that, I checked a few straws from each bundle, but decided I couldn’t tell if they were ready or not. Some stems snapped, some looked close. I pulled them all out to wait until the next day.

Ready or not, it’s the 9th of March

Unfortunately, the next few days weren’t good breaking days – rain and humidity make it difficult. I moved the bundles under cover and waited for better weather. Yesterday, things were looking a bit more promising, but still not dry enough. I couldn’t make my mind up, which I suspect may have been the beginnings of a stress-induced migraine that started an hour or so later (delayed grief from a year ago appears to be trying to kick my head in at the moment). I left it for another day.

Today, the 13th of March, it was a sunny day at long last. So, despite a slightly-achy head, I made sure the flax had a few hours in the sunshine, while I grounded myself in the garden. By late afternoon, the bundles were looking and feeling quite dry, so I pulled a few stems from each and tested them. Things are still inconclusive – better than they were on the 7th, and because they were dry, better than the day before. There was more fibre evident, but the core wasn’t falling away so easily. However, some of the stems would just tear in two. I was consulting with Wise Wendy and Holly as I worked, and in the end, I decided to stack the bundles in the old washing line to dry more for further testing.

Are they ready yet? 13 March.

The idea is that perhaps I need to try it with more than just breaking – perhaps some scutching and hackling to see the full effect. Holly is planning to come over tomorrow with her bee combs, and we’ll combine our forces and see if we can make a decision. I really really hope they are done, and not over-retted. Testing each bundle every day takes a chunk of time that I need to spend getting other things done.

The picture below indicates the possibility: on the left, a broken stem of flax; on the right, after ‘scutching’ over my leg with a small piece of wood. We just need to test it on a larger sample.

So – I’ll probably be writing again tomorrow evening, and hopefully it will be in triumph!

Retting redux

So on the 21st of February, I wrote that I had started the second ret. The bathtub was in a sunny spot to keep the water warm, filled with rain water and all the unretted flax (cinder blocks to stop them floating) and covered in netting secured with wood offcuts. I am happy to report that the netting arrangement worked very well even in strong winds. I was not plagued with mosquito and fly eggs this time around! I had other frustrations, so read on…

The set-up, just after it was completed on Feb 21st 2021.

Some more about the retting process – in my last entry about retting, I briefly described what retting is. This time, I will go into a bit more depth, thanks to Holly’s copy of Linda Heinrich’s “Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth” (2010, pages 21-27) and commentary from my own experience. As established, retting separates the fibre from the rest of the stem, and can be done both after harvesting, after drying – and even after years of storage. Apparently, the word ‘ret’ comes from the Dutch word roten which means ‘to rot’…. and yes, that’s how it smells! However, we don’t want to rot it too much, or the fibres that come off the plant are short, ‘cottonised’ – so we have to get the ret right, and I am experimenting with different ways of judging when the moment is right.

Heinrich states that thick stems ret more quickly than thin ones, because they contain proportionally less fibre and thinner layers of pectin. This definitely fits with my own experience this time – my bundles were sorted by thickness and the smaller, thinner stems definitely took longer. It was frustrating and is definite motivation to work on improving both the plants and my sowing process so that I can get stems that are more uniform in size, in the hopes of getting a simpler retting process.

As for the process, Heinrich quotes Albert Dujardin’s 1948 book ‘The Retting of Flax’ (which I haven’t managed to locate a copy of for myself, yet). Dujardin describes three phases of retting, done in a tank with controlled water temperature – a far cry from my secondhand bathtub outside in my garden!

The first stage is ‘leaching’, when water enters the stem and several substances leach out (the plant will ultimately lose about 20% weight by the end of the process). This only takes a few hours at 27°C, and is done when you see frothing and the liquid turns dark brown. Thanks to a week of warm weather, my bath tub water temperature hit 27°C a couple of days in a row, and there was definitely some froth. This is where my process begins to differ. Dujardin recommends replacing the water completely after the first phase, but my rainwater tanks were getting empty from filling the tub the first time, and I needed the remaining water for my vege gardens – it was a few days before there was rain to refill the tanks. Instead, each day, I removed a couple of buckets of water (tipping them on to the fallow flax patch, NOT down the drain) and replaced it from the hose (while trying to reduce how much council water I used.

In the second stage, things get ‘biological’ – aerobic bacteria dissolve other substances (making even more froth) and eventually die off (with the froth turning to scum). Because I hadn’t replaced the water completely, I couldn’t be sure exactly which stage I was in, but I figure that this picture shows a batch more in the second phase than the first. The smell was different to the first ret I did (less cow poo, more kombucha), and I don’t remember this much froth the first time, either.

Froth and dark brown water, ‘murky’ enough for the second phase, 24th Feb 2021.

At optimum temperature (30-36°C), progression through the third stage is measured using pH levels – butyric acid levels rise (which causes the smell) as the bacteria work. I have not acquired litmus paper, and I figured that observation of the stems themselves is probably more medieval. I did observe scum forming on the water, which I scooped off each day, replacing with some fresh water. At one point, the scum was so thick that I couldn’t pop a bubble that formed!

The unpoppable scum-bubble, 4th March 2021.

Heinrich suggests two ways of knowing when the ret is complete. The first is winding a stem around your finger, and if the fibre separates easily, it’s ready. The second is easier – as the core swells with water and the fibres are taught like a strung bow. Of course, to be truly sure, you have to take a small sample of stems out, dry them and break them.

Because the water had been so much warmer for longer early in the process, I was very keen to know if the ret process would be completed sooner. As per Mavis Atton (see my previous retting post), if the water temperature is consistent, retting has been known to take 5-7 days. On the 5th day, I pulled a few stems of different thickness to dry, and when breaking them the next day, was very encouraged to see the fibres coming away from the stems. However, when I did a test break the next day, the fibres were still held in ribbons by the outer epidermis.

I recorded the temperature of the water each afternoon, and it was generally around 24°C after the first two warm days. Noting the accumulated temperatures, with Wise Wendy following along, I started pulling more stems, and pulled the rest out to avoid over-retting. I dried the sample stems, and tested them the next day. My ‘brown’ bundles (that I grew) were pretty close to ready (samples 4&5 from the top), but the other, thinner stems needed more time. I replaced more of the water, and put the bundles back in.

The next day, I decided to try testing stems while wet (so I didn’t have to keep interrupting the process while I tested samples). Observing my bundles, I thought they were ready (look at that bow-like tautness, and that core coming loose so easily!), so I pulled them out and Meg’s crop too. The others did not break, so I left them in the tub with some new water.

I tested my brown crop and Meg’s crop when dry the next day, and while mine were fine, Meg’s needed more. I tested the rest in the tub, which seemed close, so I pulled them out too – but the next couple of days were a frustrating mishmash of drying/testing/’nope-not-yet’-ing.

By the 4th of March, wet-breaking was inconclusive, so I pulled all the bundles out. When testing them the next day, I was annoyed that while some broke nicely, some did not – even multiple stems from each bundle would break differently. I’m not sure if they just need to dry out some more, or if the retting is uneven. The weather was due to turn to rain overnight, so I hung all the bundles up in the garage (making sure to move the inner stems to the outside of the bundle), and I will test some more in a day or two.

I hope they are ready. I have some water still in the tub, just in case they’re clearly not done, but the real test will be what happens once Holly has made the processing tools, and we see how well the breaking/scutching/hackling goes. The weather here is turning towards autumn now, so soon we won’t have the warm water temperatures that would allow further retting to happen. I have read of people boiling the pectin from spun flax, so maybe that could be an option?

But for now, we wait for drying to happen to see if that helps. We wait. I hate waiting. *sigh*

I will distract myself, and end this post, with an exciting event – this morning I woke up to my husband alerting me to an email from a lady in another SCA group a few hours drive away, who had heard about our project at a recent event and is keen to cooperate with us in a ‘plant improvement’ effort to breed our own better fibre variety! Hooray, more flax people! Hooray, more genetic diversity! Very very exciting!

Ripple-tastic

Looking back through past entries to make sure I start in the right place, I found a post which mentioned when I came up with this mad idea: February 24 2018. Three years! I was particularly keen to remember this, as it had come up in discussion during a small gathering of my local SCA friends yesterday, which coincided with the visit of two members from another part of the country and a discussion in inspiration and the role of office-holders in helping keep the fun parts of the SCA going.

In my last post, written two weeks ago, I wrote that I had made a difficult start on rippling this year’s crop, and was planning to keep at it. Well, I didn’t (though I did get the front fence painted) – instead, I took the red bee combs (which we decided last year was the best tool), the crops I had stored, and 20x2L ice-cream tubs along with me on Saturday. Holly brought the two crops she had stored and some large tubs to contain the seeds as much as possible (they can fly!). While everyone else was in the barn giving talks/discussions, fighting rapier and heavy combat styles, and eating good food, we set up in the neighbouring shearing shed, where we had cover from sunshine and wind!

Our rippling set-up: Tubs we used to catch the seeds from each bundle, the bundles both done and waiting to be done, and the ice-cream tubs I used to keep the seeds separate.

Holly and I did most of it, with others stopping by to give it a go or take photos. Some stayed for a little, others for a long time (big thanks to Cassie, who proved adept at splitting the stooks into smaller, more-easily-rippled bundles), and after a couple of hours of both hard work and banter (and a couple of band-aids over stabbed fingers – the bee combs are sharp), we had got it all done!!

Holly, me, and a big ol’ pile of rippled flax.

The relief I still feel at having that big job done is great – with the help of my friends, I’m still on track to get the flax I have processed and being able to choose the seeds to sow next spring. I loaded up the car with all the flax and 14 full 2L tubs of seed, and had the rest of the evening to enjoy a shared dinner and the company of my friends.

This afternoon, I started the next step – retting! Last time I had tried to use an old net-curtain to keep the mozzies from laying eggs in the water, but the magnets that held the two sides together were too heavy and made it fall into the water. Before I went outside, I flipped the net sides and sewed the outsides together – this means the magnets are now on the outside, acting as a counterweight to keep the net above the water.

I moved the bathtub to a spot that gets all day sun, which hopefully means the water will stay warm and the retting won’t take as long. I was able to fit all five crops in the bathtub, covered it all with approximately 160L (or 20 not-quite-full buckets) of rain water, weighed it down with stones and cinder blocks, and then covered all that with the netting, which I secured with some wood offcuts I had under the house. We had a moderate wind this afternoon, and so I am confident that it is reasonably secure. We’ll have to see how it goes under a strong wind.

Retting tub set up, surrounded by bit and pieces that will become those new garden beds I mentioned last time.

So there we go – seeds sown, flax grown, harvested, dried, rippled, and now retting is under way. Holly is getting ready to make the processing (breaking, scutching, hackling) tools, and if the weather stays good for a couple more weeks (allowing the stooks to ret and dry again outdoors), I’ll be able to have all the flax in the house processed this winter without stinking out the garage again!

Harvest time, year 3

It’s Saturday afternoon. This time a fortnight ago, we were on the interisland ferry on the way down to Canterbury Faire. We spent that night at my parents’ place, and in the morning, I showed my mother how to harvest her flax crop.

Canterbury Faire was excellent – especially since there was no norovirus outbreak to stop me doing fun things (as there had been the last time I went, 2 years ago)! I watched my husband fight in war and tournaments, showed off my embroidered banners, and was invited to sit at the high table during the Roman-themed feast (which meant I was in an excellent position to view the hilarity of a Roman-themed murder mystery game)! At the end of the week, we got on the road early in order to swing past my parents’ place again to pick up the flax crop Mum had ready and waiting to load into the car on the way to our afternoon ferry.

I came home on the Sunday evening with many many new projects I want to get done – some coifs to wet and keep myself cool on the stinking hot days that can happen in a North Canterbury summer (we had two days in the mid-30s C), and new woolen garb I need for colder weather (we had a couple of days in the mid-teens C). I am hoping to recycle my old, worn-out linen braes for the coifs. I mean, I’m pretty sure my butt is bigger than my head, and if nothing else, this project has taught me the importance of not wasting the effort and resources needed to produce fabric!

But first, I had to get my mature flax crops out of the ground! On Monday, I pulled up my crop. Most of the crop was very mature, but the section at the back was still quite green – less sunlight, I suspect. I pulled it up, doing my best to separate the stems out by colour (mature vs still green), and into tall/thick vs short/thin, but the seed bolls tangle up together, so it wasn’t always possible.

Work interrupted my flow a bit, but on Thursday, I went out to the part of town where Meg and Holly live, and pulled up Meg’s flax. Meg’s crop was either less thickly sown or had large amounts of lodging (due to high wind), so the standing plants had thicker stems. The individual plants weren’t as tall as the crop from mine or Mum’s garden, but they were fairly uniform, so I didn’t need to separate them out. I bundled them into the car, and took them to Holly’s place to hang up to dry under a convenient covered walkway she has. Holly harvested her own crop, and has it hung up there too.

Today is Saturday, and this morning I went out to Joan’s place, and pulled her crop. Before we plant any more crops in there, I want to make sure the soil has a bunch of mulch and green-manure crops (actual manure too, if she can get any) added to it. That plot gets similar weather and sunshine to my own, but the plants were generally only about 50cm or so and thin. I will be interested to see how much fibre we can get from that crop.

This afternoon, I used my old washing line to hang three crops up to dry – my own, my mother’s, and Joan’s. Meg’s crop, of course, is hanging up with Holly’s crop at Holly’s place. Holly harvested her own crop, and sent a photo. Her soil also needs more amendments to get it all growing nice and tall.

So that’s the harvest done! While I was at Holly’s place, I picked up the bee combs that we used to ripple my crop last year. After reading my notes from Mavis Atton, which said that rippling immediately after harvest was easier, I made a start on rippling my crop yesterday, but it was hard going. Perhaps the window is either that same day, or closer to a week of drying. That, and a fixed rippling tool to pull against might help. I will work at getting the crop rippled over the next week or so (keeping the seeds separate so I only plant the ones from the plants with the best fibre), and then I aim to fill up the old bathtub for another cycle of retting before the summer ends.

While those dry out, I can finish painting the front fence and put in that new vege garden bed. Always so much to do – I don’t feel like my life is any less busy than it was this time last year, in the lead up to my wedding!!

Retting report

So, what is retting? It is the process of using bacteria and water to separate the bundles of fibres from the xylem and bark. Then they can be cleaned and combed, ready to be spun into thread.

Image from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Composition-and-cross-section-of-flax-stems-Adapted-with-permission-from-17-Copyright_fig1_260572832

To recap: on January 6th, 2021, I put my previous flax crops into an old bath I got secondhand, weighted it down with stones, and covered the flax with rain water from my water collection tanks. I took the flax out on the 17th of January. The notes I took from Mavis Atton’s book (“Flax Culture; from flower to fabric.”; (1988) ISBN: 9780921773061) say that when water temperature is around 27°C, retting takes 5-7 days.

From the NZ Metservice website, this is the weather we had during the retting period.

In the end, it took my crop 11 days. As you can see, we had rain on three of the days, including the last one. The rest of the time was quite sunny and warm for this part of the world. The water temperature in the retting bath was about 18°C in the morning, heating up to about 23°C once the sunlight had hit the bath in the mid-afternoon.

For the most part, my job was to monitor temperature and replace a couple of buckets full of water every other day. I was planning on putting insect netting over the bath, but that didn’t work out – so I learned what mosquito and fly eggs look like after scooping them out several times, which isn’t something I was expecting! Ah well, I will be better prepared next time.

Something I did expect, though wasn’t entirely prepared for, was the smell. I was warned that the retting process can be quite stinky, and yes, it did get progressively worse. A couple of days in, there was a smell but only if I stuck my head close to the water. By the end of the process, just standing near the bath tub was unpleasant. Our housemate commented that the process of retting must be similar to what goes on in a cow’s stomach, because it smells like cow poo!

The water went a very dark tea colour. Wise Wendy told me that she has read that it is good to pour the retting water back over the soil after the harvest, to return some of the nutrients back after the hungry crop has taken them out. It’s a couple of weeks until I can harvest my current crop, so in the meantime, it just has to sit in the tub and wait for me. I want to get some kind of cover over it while we’re away, I need to tie the tarp down better once the next couple of days of high winds are done.

From ten days in, once Wise Wendy thought that my water temperatures had been high enough for long enough that I should start checking, I started pulling stems from bundles, drying them out overnight (hanging them out the window to let the smell dissipate), and breaking them the next day to gauge how far the process had gone.

Test break, 17th January 2021 (pulled from bath on 16th). See the fibres pulling off the stalk?

Yesterday, the test-break showed that the process was close enough to complete that we decided to pause the process by pulling ALL the stooks of flax out of the bath, while I dried 5 more stems overnight to test today. The weather was a bit wild last night, so I kept the stooks in the garage, which made the air smell bad in the morning. Ah well.

Today, we decided it was done. The fibre was definitely coming away from the stem of the plant easily. Mavis Atton says the core should fall freely – which I think would happen if I was breaking it nice and vigorously with the proper tool (which Holly will be making soon).

So, I took the stooks out of the garage, dunked each of them in the rainwater tank, and set them in the sunny courtyard (wedged in the old washing line to keep them from blowing around in the wind) to dry. I’ll bring them inside to hang in the evening. We can start processing them over winter.

GROWTH UPDATE

The plants are yellowing, somewhere around 1/3 of the way up (apparently the yellowing is an indication of the maturation of the fibres). Some of the seed bolls are definitely yellowing off, though the plants growing in the shadier section of the plot are still very green.

Not quite harvest time yet, but it’s on track to be ready in early February.

The hottest part of the day is done, I should go outside and do some weeding. May your own crazy projects be on track to completion!

B*****d Birds & Landraces

So much happens overnight when you have experts in different time zones. I pressed the ‘Publish’ button somewhere around 9-10pm last night, at which point Wise Wendy was very sensibly following her Canadian timezone and sleeping. When I woke up this morning, I had a bunch of information waiting for me, and the first couple of hours of the morning included a flurry of messages, a phone call to my mother, and some emails.

With guidance from Wise Wendy and our new expert, Sagacious Susan (who has this website, and is guiding Holly on processing tool development), and some new photos from my mother – taken with her smartphone, not the mini iPad she had been using: the trouble is BIRDS!

Examining the photos my mother took this morning, the dead seed bolls are not a result of lodging or wind damage, but simply birds eating the ripe seeds. This was confirmed while I was speaking my mother – as she went out and counted the number of flowers, she scared a bird away from the crop. Yes, it seems we need fortifications against aerial attack now, too!

Mum’s crop, yellowing off, and a nice height. Taken on her smartphone on 11 January 2021.
Bird damage to the seed bolls. Taken by my mother on her smartphone, 11 January 2021.

So, do I get Mum to pull it up now? The question is complicated slightly by my second topic of this post – the variety of seed we are growing here.

Wise Wendy has been concerned about the variety of flax we are growing, as the stem heights of the plants I am growing are not as tall as modern varieties. “The linseed plant has a bushy nature and is about 80 cm high….. Fibre flax varieties are all almost unbranched and can reach a height of 1,2 m.” The tallest plants I grow (in three different gardens) are somewhere around 80-90cm tall, but aren’t ‘bushy’. In poorer soil, they reach about 50-60cm. Compare that to this from Edmund Saul Dixon’s 1854 book: ‘Its height, in ordinary ground, is from a foot-and-a-half to two feet ; on better soils, under good cultivation, it reaches a yard ; and extraordinary samples sometimes come to hand, which display a flax-stem four feet in height.’

So it really does seem that my seeds, which were the only ones I could get without a lot of import paperwork (thanks to New Zealands bio-security measures), are an older, preservation variety. The description on the website I bought the original packets from: “From the KUSA collection of ancient grains. This is the original blue flowered flax seed, that grew wild amongst several of our other well known grains, barley wheat and oats. High in Omega 3 and 6 and it’s quite a different shape and size to that commercially available today. It’s larger and flatter, easily grown, easily threshed and prepared for the kitchen, easy to grind in a corn grinder. It is also the original Irish linen plant.”

So what does that mean? Well, it’s probably neither a flax nor a seed variety, but something closer to a ‘historic landrace’ – not something systematically selected by the seed company/plant breeders, but more heterogeneous. So the fibre content will probably be variable – it could be great, if the conditions are right!

Are my conditions right? The production guidelines document I mentioned earlier states:

7.1 Temperature

Fibre flax and linseed cultivars like cool, moderate coastal climates. Linseed cultivars do well under moderately cold conditions, however, fibre flax cultivars grow best in cool, moist climates. Their cultivation is normally confined to low elevations, however, they can be grown successfully up to 770 m above sea level. Seedlings can withstand a temperature of -4 °c, but very high temperatures (exceeding 32 °c) shorten flowering, thereby affecting seed yield.

7.2 Rainfall

Flax and linseed can be grown under irrigated and rainfed conditions. Under rainfed conditions, flax and linseed need 450 to 750 mm of rain spread evenly through the growing season.

Mean monthly rainfall here in Wellington appears to be on the lower end of that range. We don’t get particularly high temperatures, and up on the hill where I live, we are sometimes in the cloud, so we don’t dry out much. Probably pretty good conditions, then, as long as I maintain my soil.

Plans for the future: Last year I separated my crop out by height and thickness, so this year I can examine those bundles for the quality of fibre they produce, and then make sure I get the seed from the best-fibre plants this year. Yay, permission to indulge my obsessive-record-keeping tendencies! It seems as though we’re looking at the Super Authentic Medieval Experience of selecting seed and trying to get a more reliable fibre product. Maybe I won’t have flax growing in so many different places next season, depending on how much seed I get. I have more to read, and observations to make, and then some thinking to do – once I’ve done a bunch of processing! Hooray for new knowledge!

Getting Close!

This weekend, I visited my friends and their crops, to see in person how the crops are growing. My family live in the South Island, so I can’t easily pop over to see them. Mum took photos instead.

MY PATCH

On the 8th of January, after overnight rain, my patch was lying over like hair-gel-heavy spikey 90’s hairdo. By the morning of the 9th, it had mostly stood itself back up again, though not completely (there was a bit at the back that I couldn’t reach to help stand it back up). A lot of flowers still, but even more seed bolls forming nicely. The stems are about 80cm tall, for the most part, and yellowing at the base, so I think it’s running according to schedule and I’ll probably be harvesting in the first week of February.

HOLLY’S PATCH

Holly’s patch varies in height from 40-60cm. Lots of flowers and seed bolls, and that odd dead patch hasn’t spread. There’s some yellowing off happening, and we are looking good to harvest in the first week of February. This is a massive improvement on her crop from 2019 – which was a small, very short handful. Holly has a convenient covered walkway/washing line space where we can hang crops in to dry off, and she is in touch with another experienced flax-grower/processor who is advising her on how to make the processing tools!

MUM’S PATCH

Mum sent me photos of her patch. It is tall (similar to mine, she said when she visited a few days ago), and the stems are yellowing off, but many of the seed bolls are very very brown. I am not sure if recent wind and rain, which caused some lodging, may have broken some stems and we might be seeing some dead stems. Perhaps Mum will need to harvest her crop before I pass through on my way to Canterbury Faire in a couple of weeks?

MEG’S PATCH

Meg’s crop is between 60-80cm tall. Some stems are lying down – Meg believes neighbourhood cats have been wandering through. She (like myself and Holly) is considering a fence around the patch next season. I can see that we sowed the seeds a bit less thickly than in my patch – it will be interesting to see if this impacts the fibre quality/amount. At this stage, I am planning to pop over at some point in the first week of February to harvest the crop.

JOAN’S PATCH

Joan’s crop is similar in height to Holly’s – 40-60cm. Lots of flowers and bolls forming. Less yellowing than in other places, so maybe we can wait a bit longer before harvest. After harvest, I will bring over some wood chips and mustard seeds to grow as a cover crop, in order to get some more organic matter into the soil, and so we can see how that changes the quality of the crop next year.

AND FINALLY… RETTING PROGRESS!

Bubbles in the rain, retting water tea! 08 January 2021

My previous crops have been in the retting bath for 4 days now. I rescued a couple of bees that were having a swim in the water – I want them visiting the rest of my garden, not drowning in this tub! I bought a pool thermometer to track water temperature (last two days it was around 18°C). My notes say that in water temperature of 27°C, retting takes about a week. Mine is going to take longer, evidently, but hopefully before I leave for Canterbury Faire in a couple of weeks. Perhaps next year I might also try dew retting (using some bird netting and stakes to keep them from blowing around in the wind).

I’m pondering some experimentation next year, such as starting some seeds a month later to see how long the growth cycle needs to take (Wendy in Canada doesn’t need quite so long). I also think I should put up some sort of fence around it to keep neighbourhood cats out and support the plants from the weight of wind and rain. I’m working on cutting down the trees along the driveway, so there will be more morning sunlight next season, and if I can get the fence behind it replaced (which I plan to start work on after harvest is complete), then there will be more afternoon light too. Hopefully that will improve the crop height too. I don’t know if we’re hitting the full height potential of this variety yet. I will try to keep seeds from the taller plants separate and see what happens with some more direct manipulation from me.

My crops are growing (if only some of my vegetables would grow as well!), and I’m learning a new part of the process. So much to be interested in!!

The Next Step.

This has been a busy season, with lots of projects in the garden underway. All four boundaries have seen change, with rotting fence posts replaced, changes to the front fence to let in more sunlight, and cutting down some of the trees damaging a retaining wall between properties. I have a couple of large piles of tree prunings to run through the wood-chipper, and so my vege garden will expand. I’m having fun putting my rudimentary woodworking knowledge to use, and getting some good exercise. Inside, I have been learning new kitchen skills to fill my freezer – making fresh pasta and Chinese dumplings! If only my garden was big enough to grow enough wheat for me to have truly local flour!

I focused on my flax today, as this stage of summer is usually much more settled, weather-wise. With hopefully consistent warm temperatures, I make progress to the next step of this project: retting!

Last year’s crop, with colour-coded rubber bands, placed side-by-side in the relative position they grew in.

First, I made sure I could identify each bundle – I want to track what the fibres are like from each thickness of stem, and which part of the bed they came from, so I can know a bit more about how sunlight and such things affects the eventual product. To this end, I needed something that would hold colour after being immersed in water for a couple of weeks – I found some rubber bands of different colours and tied them to bundles from the same section of the bed.

In the tub.

I then put them into the retting tub (an old bathtub which I bought from the tip shop a year or so ago). I had tried to do this on the 2nd of January, when it was raining, as the rain would have helped fill the tub, but alas!, the universal plug I had bought would not seal the plughole. This morning, I went to a different hardware store (while also buying fence supplies) and found one that would fit!

The full retting bath.

I placed some plastic mesh that was once ‘supporting’ a jasmine that climbed the front fence to help prevent any stray stems sticking up out of the water, plus a few stones from the garden to stop the flax floating – can’t have an uneven retting!! Next came the water – 15 buckets-full from my rainwater tanks covered the flax by an inch or two all over. Now, it sits there for a couple of weeks and hopefully stays warm enough for the bacteria to work their magic.

Holly is working on making tools for processing the flax, and I am watching this year’s crop grow. Flowers are starting to turn to seed bolls, and hopefully the plants at the rear will catch up in height, now that many of the trees that were blocking their light have been removed.

My crop, 5 January 2021.

My parents visited yesterday, and Mum reports that my flax are the same height as hers. I usually harvest in the first week of February – I should make time to visit the other crops in the next few days, to see how things are growing. As for the ones currently retting, I have a project in mind – my husband and I attended a feast held by our local group in December (here in NZ, our management of Covid is good enough that we can gather for such events), and I realised that we don’t have napkins! Making a couple would be an excellent small project to practice my flax-processing skills. And thus my life continues, spurred on by numerous projects to keep me interested and learning!