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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, 20 September 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 series of British Instructional Films presentations from the British Pathé Youtube channel about the processing of flax in 1940-1949. The first video, which I found much later than the next two, is about the initial stages of fibre production from harvest to scutching. Unlike the next two videos, it is silent. After scutching, the fibres are loaded into sacks, clearly to be sent off for the rest of the process. I wonder where they are grown and processed? It would be fun if it was in NZ, though I suspect this was also in the UK. The second video shows the industrial spinning process 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.

This one is a very short video, also from the British Pathé channel, and is unused footage of the whole process (retting to spinning) from 1952. Judging by the titles, it appears to be from Italy. 

‘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.

Retting be-done!

Two things happened in the last week since I sowed my own flax seeds. My father sowed two separate patches of flax, and Susan declared my dew-retting complete! It’s a lovely sunny spring afternoon, and it is very warm in our living room. Time for a nice cold glass of cider, and to write ’bout the ret!

My father first sowed seeds in a spot on the western half of their property. It used to have a compost heap on that spot, and it was shaded by an olive tree and some trellis. I was concerned that the flax wouldn’t get enough afternoon sunlight to grow nice and tall, but Dad has since removed the tree and trellis. He then used another bit of seed he had leftover – though possibly more chaff than seed – and sowed it in a less-shaded spot close to where they grew flax last year. Science!

I started my dew-ret/re-ret by spreading the under-retted flax out on my back lawn next to the vege beds on Monday, October 11th (a few hours before I got my second dose of the Pfizer covid vaccine). It had a few days of sunshine, and a couple of days of rain. I turned it a few times, and checked a few stems each time. I pulled in a bundle that looked good and ready in on Saturday the 16th, but it wasn’t until today (the 22nd), that Sagacious Susan was able to declare that most stems looked good, and so I hauled everything back inside and hung them up.

There was a little bit of black mold forming on some stems, so definitely time to get them dry. I also need to make sure that we are wearing masks and gloves as we process these – spores off the stems aren’t good to breathe in, or get into the skin via micro-abrasions.

The colour of the flax now that it has retted and is drying is something else I will get some experience in. Susan assures me that it can vary. Mine is fairly dark, but that can be due to the particular community of ‘retting organisms’ I have in my lawn, rather than being over-retted – Susan doesn’t think that is my problem. Next thing to find out is what colour of fibre I will get – possibly a nice silver grey! Some of the fibres I could see certainly looked a bit like that. Compare that to the golden fibres from a snow ret (alas, no snow here for me to try that one), cream/white from a tub ret, and pure white from a stream ret (nothing near me I could use, alas, let alone without causing ecological nightmares), which happens mainly due to the physical action of the water rather than microbes.

All this is something to consider while my next crop grows – we’ll see what this summer is like. At least I know that I can tie the flax down properly in wild spring weather if I need to finish a half-retted tub-ful of flax on the lawn – oh, and I need a pair of gloves that still let me have some dexterity!

Super Seed-Sowing Saturday

It’s a beautiful, albeit windy, day, and across NZ there is a ‘Super Saturday Vaxathon’ drive to get everyone vaccinated against Covid-19. The aim was to deliver 100,000 doses across the country – a target we met by mid-afternoon!! Ka pai, Aotearoa!!

My dew-retting stems are processing. Yesterday, while I was turning the flax, I pulled out one stem that had visible fibres – I tugged on them and the inner core just fell away. I pulled some more stems out to dry on a sunny windowsill, and gave them a test break around lunchtime. Sagacious Susan says some are ready, and some are a few days away.

So, in the afternoon, I went and communed with my flax pile on the lawn – examining it carefully, pulling out stems with visible fibres, and giving them a test crack, mainly in the middle of the stems, because apparently that takes the longest. The skin on my index fingers didn’t appreciate it, but I got a few stems from some bundles, and a couple of bundles were actually looking pretty good, so I pulled them inside.

The thinner stems are taking longer – as expected. The idea is that greater surface area gives the fungus and bacteria that do the retting more space and food to do the work.

When I can pull a few more of these inside, then I will be able to label the bundles easily – I got a peanut butter jar FULL of plastic bread tags that a friend had been saving, plus a few more from other people.

Another thing I got done today – my seeds are sown! Last night, I sat in front of the TV and watched several episodes of ‘Baking Impossible’ while I crushed the seed bolls in a big bucket. The wind was quite brisk this morning – so I was essentially winnowing the seed while I sowed it!! I put up some bird netting, which I supported with flexible piping, and then pegged down. I put some bamboo stakes in on the corners of the bed, as I intend to use twine to support this years crop against lodging or extreme wind.

Seeds sown, fortifications up.

It’s a couple of weeks later than I did last year – which was the beginning of October. In a way, I am trying to figure out how long flax actually needs to grow – if this works, it would put me closer to the 100 days of growth the texts say is necessary.

And so we continue.

Re-retting in the dew

After trying to process all my flax, it was clear that I needed to get the under-retted bundles of flax properly retted. My notes from the Linda Heinrich book “Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth” say that you can ‘double-ret’ (not sure if that’s a quote or my own commentary) under-retted flax.

Water retting in the old bathtub requires warmer weather so that water temperatures stay at a good temperature for the bacteria doing the work. We’re only in the middle of spring here at the moment, so it will be a couple of months before I could even get that started.

Dew retting is a different thing. The flax isn’t submerged in a tub of water, but spread out over the lawn, where the morning dew can wet it and the bacteria can do their work. The moisture then dries off with the afternoon sunshine, and the retting process stops until the next dew falls. With regular turning, all the stems get retted. This all makes it a longer process, but doing it in spring is fine – the dew will take longer to evaporate in the morning, but the afternoon sunshine is still warm enough to dry the flax out.

In fact, once you put aside the length of time required, dew retting has a few advantages over water retting: the risk of over-retting (and the resulting reduction in fibre length) goes down because the process works more slowly – and it’s easier to take sample stems out to test. I don’t need to worry about rain – just make sure I turn the flax once it warms back up again (or the process will speed up). Wise Wendy gave another benefit of dew retting – it is not stinky!!

So with those in mind, this morning I spread the bundles over a patch of lawn that gets morning shade and afternoon sun (right next to the vege beds I put in not long after I moved in, and hadn’t realised how important the morning sun is… though I grow chard and kale pretty well, lol). I used twine to criss-cross over and under each bundle, which I hope will work as a way of making turning the stems tidier, and also preventing the incessant Wellington wind from making a mess. I then covered it all with the largest bird net I possess and ALL the garden pegs I had spare – to stop local birds from making a mess, and also as wind-protection.

I then sprinkled it all with my watering can, and headed inside. Next step for me is to winnow seed for my next crop – I need to sow that bed in the next week or so, before the school term begins again and the way I spend my daylight hours gets less flexible.

Ready for dew and wind!

Processing progress

Today, Holly came over with her flax break, scutching board, and a few spindles, so that we could make some more processing progress. We didn’t wear our medieval clothes this time, since we’ve already demonstrated the process in my last post.

This time around, we learned a couple of important things: a) you can tell pretty quickly with the break if a bundle of flax has been retted sufficiently, and b) that I probably tied the bundles too large, if the uneven nature of the retting is any indicator.

Most of the bundles were not breaking – they would bend, but the inner core and epidermis were not falling away. Some stems would not even open up under the break. If they did, often it was ribbons of epidermis with the inner core still attached.

The bundle on the left has a bit of fibre coming out. The one on the right is a bit less ready.

We learned that smaller bundles go better in the break, and that the scutching blade needs some re-working. We did get one bundle mostly processed – though it required a lot of combing before Holly could spin it. It works, but it is slow going, and therefore far from an ideal level of retting.

Not only did we get some uneven retting within bundles, but we also had stems that were uneven. One end will be letting the fibres loose before we break it, but the other end will stubbornly refuse to cooperate.

So, by early afternoon, we had a large collection of bundles that need to be re-retted (I am going to think about trying dew retting, since it allows for more precision)…

…and a bundle of broken and scutched flax that Holly is taking home to slowly comb through and spin. She wants to figure out what works best before she teaches me.

And finally – here is Holly, spinning some of the flax. She gets a nice fine thread, right?

Processing Practice

It has been a long time since I last wrote, a winter’s worth of work and other projects has made time fly. In my last post, back in March, I described the next steps as: “Once [Holly] has made up the processing tools, we will meet on a fine day and get the rest processed down to the fibres.”

Holly spent winter making the flax break and scutching board. We had hoped to start the processing at Darton Anniversary in late August (where we would have minions friends to help out), but four days before that event was due to start, a Covid case unconnected to the border was discovered, and New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown!

In the past week, I’ve had my first dose of a covid vaccine and all of New Zealand except Auckland is back down in Level 2, where we can gather again in small numbers, preferably masked. Today’s weather was perfect – warm, sunny, not very windy – and so I put my flax crops into the car and went to Holly’s place.

We were joined by two friends, their fancy camera, and their nearly-teenager-son. Nearly-teenager-son sat and played games, or something, but our two friends and their fancy camera took photos and helped us gather up the tow as we figured out the processing. We decided to wear some of our medieval garb, as it would make the photos look neat, and because we missed out on wearing-garb-and-processing-flax when Darton Anniversary was cancelled. We also wore masks, because while we knew everyone there, we are in a pandemic – so keeping our breath to ourselves is sensible. It’s also because processing flax can be dusty, and when breaking the flax, sometimes bits of the boon go projectile, so it was nice to have a layer of protection.

I have A LOT of photos, so I will choose the best ones to share here.

First – the breaking. Pick a bundle, moving bits at a time through the flax break, and check how it looks – lots of broken woody core and visible fibres? Excellent.

Second – the scutching. Lay it over the scutching board and scrape away the bits of core and epidermis, then have a closer look. Sometimes it wasn’t quite enough, and it went back for another go in the break, but mostly it went on to the next step.

Third – hackling. We don’t have a hackle made (Holly has plans to buy an angle grinder and make us something good in time for processing large amounts), so we use combs of various widths and styles. Hackling is a bit like combing really knotty hair – you start at the tips and slowly work your way up. Unfortunately, this is where we found out how much tow (shorter fibres) was among the longer ‘line’ fibres – they come out in the comb. Eventually, what you have left is a bundle of soft, clean fibres and a messy pile of tow.

It was around this point in the processing of the first bundle that we realised that we could really get fibre. After three years of work, this was definite cause for celebration!! Holly was particularly pleased – a lot of this project so far has been the result of my work growing, harvesting, and retting the flax. Now that Holly has made tools that work (and since she made a blood sacrifice by scraping a knuckle on the flax break), she feels a bit more ownership of this mad fool scheme of ours.

We didn’t get through the entire 3 years of crops. We got my first crop and some of my second crop done. We tried one small bundle grown by my mother. The results were mixed – my first crop did well, as did the bundle from my mother’s garden – I must take her some seeds when I see her next weekend! Stuff from my second year (3rd photo) didn’t do so well though – the consensus from Wise Wendy and Sagacious Susan is that it was possibly under-retted. We bundled the un-broken stuff and I will put that back in the retting bath when the weather warms up enough in summer.

So, Holly and I will meet again soon to process the rest of the flax. We don’t have any definitive conclusions about which height/thickness of flax produces the best fibre, so we must keep paying careful attention as we process the rest of the flax. I have about another month until I am due to sow my next crop, and I only want to sow the seeds from the plants that gave us the best fibre!

Holly gave the flax we processed a trial spin this evening. She reports that it is a challenge – one of the hardest things she has spun, as it is very different to the commercially prepared fibres she has spun before. Ours is longer but coarser, and she is trying some different techniques to see what makes the best yarn/thread. I’m glad to have Holly along for the journey – I have never spun anything!!

I must also say thanks again to Wise Wendy (Dame Anne of Saffron Walden, from Ealdomere) and Sagacious Susan (Mistress Kataryna Tkach, from Avacal) for sharing their combined years of experience – we sometimes feel as though are trying to reinvent the wheel, figuring out how to make a success of this mad scheme of ours without the benefit of in-person advice and tuition, but we know that wise counsel is only a short message away!

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 too 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!