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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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 rainfallhere 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!
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.
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 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 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 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 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!
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!!
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!
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.
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!
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 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!
Whether it’s the longest day or the shortest day where you are, I hope you and yours are well. It’s the longest day here, and I haven’t updated in a few weeks – things have been growing, and we’re starting to get flowers and seed bolls forming in a few of the flax patches my friends are tending.
My patch is currently somewhere between 40cm and 80cm in height. The shorter ones are the ones that get the least sunlight (and once this crop is done, I will be replacing the fence behind it with a shorter one that will let more light in to that valuable bit of garden), and the tallest are the ones that grew from seeds that scattered during the sowing process into what I was intending to be a pathway down the middle. *sigh* There are a few flowers coming out now, too.
Holly’s patch is a bit of a conundrum. Despite diligently amending her soil by trench composting her kitchen scraps, plus some commercial compost and other organic matter she could get her hands on, and with it being a sunnier site than mine, her crop is at a max height of about 54cm (still a good bit taller than the previous crop) – and there is a worrying section dying off. We have consulted the experts on a FB group devoted to growing flax to make into linen, and the ideas are either a nitrogen deficiency, too much water, grass competing with the roots, or some fungal disease/insect problem. We have some work to do in order to solve this problem!
Holly visited my parents while in town for work in the first part of December, and took some photos of the patch my mother is tending for me. The amount of sunlight they get in their town, and with their lovely large garden without large trees or fences blocking sunlight, means that their crop is growing really well, and had already started flowering a couple of days before. On this day, they estimated the flax was about 70cm tall (that’s a 30cm ruler in front), and since then, my mother has sent me photos of seed bolls developing (still green, though). I am hoping that the crop might mature in time for me to collect it when I pass through in late January!
Meg’s patch has reached 60-70cm in height, is flowering and looking pretty good. She reports that it was getting flattened by the northerly winds in early December, but it seems to have righted itself.
Finally, Joan’s patch. When this photo was taken, Joan reported that the tallest plants were a bit over 30cm tall. At the same time, my tallest were 65cm. Joan’s patch is not dissimilar to mine in terms of sunlight, so this would seem to reflect soil quality – hers is harder, with less organic matter in it. I think I will need to make sure there it some good cover crop/mulch happening there over the fallow period!
So, good soil and high sunlight are both very important when growing flax for linen, and I’m learning more about what can go wrong!
As for the rest of the season, I am planning to get my retting bath started with the crop from the last couple of years in January, and Holly has a book on order that will help her make the processing tools. This will be a busy summer – I have a lot of other things to do in the garden this year, and autumn seems like it will be busy also, once we get processing under way!
The flax plants in my garden were starting to grow through the bird netting, and I was running out of options to raise the net height – so today I pulled it off. I measured the height of the plants as ranging somewhere between 10-15cm, with one or two rogue ones around 20cm tall.
My ladies-who-grow-flax reported their flax heights today. Meg and Holly, who sowed their beds a handful of days after I did mine, were at 4-13 cm and 5-10cm, respectively. Joan, whose bed I sowed 10-ish days after I did my own, reports that they are at 7cm tall. My parents report that their flax bed, sown about a week after mine, is between 15-20cm tall – they do live in a warm, sunny location!
So all the flax plants are up, somewhere around the 10cm mark. Let’s watch those gardens grow!!
The weather has been rainy and grey the last few days, and so while I wanted to be out in the garden, I was instead inside mucking about with less interesting things. Today, the sun was shining, so after our weekly grocery mission in the morning, and despite a tired head from our Shire’s Halloween feast the night before, I spent the afternoon in the garden.
This year (2020), I sowed the flax seeds in my patch on 29 September. Today, I took the netting off and pulled a few weeds, then replaced the netting to a higher level. I measured the height of the flax, and it’s about an average of 10cm, just over a month after sowing.
Thinking ahead, last year I removed the netting at about 6 weeks after sowing, when the flax was around 20cm tall. This gives me a couple more weeks before I look at taking the netting off for the summer. I wasn’t quite comfortable doing so now, but the nice thing about having this blog is that I can know that I had similar thoughts at this time last year!
I will be interested to see how the flax beds in other gardens will grow in their different conditions. I will ask them for measurements (Meg and Holly in a couple of days, my mother a little after that, and Joan in about 10 days), and add those details in here.
Yesterday I got Meg sent a picture she took – the seeds we sowed in her flax garden have started germination, just 5 days after sowing the seeds. We’re on track there too!
Today, I visited Joan and turned a weedy patch into a flax bed. I listened to an audiobook while making a nice pile of borage and assorted weeds and then sowing the seeds and covering it with netting. For future reference, a couple of patches of this bed were fairly hard-packed dirt, and the netting I brought with me wasn’t quite long enough to cover the whole patch. I will be interested to see how things grow, with birds having access to part of the bed and if the seed can get through the hard patches. Sunlight shouldn’t be too much of a problem, as that fence has gaps to let late afternoon sunlight through.
My abs feel like they’ve been used today. Excellent. I’ll come back in a few weeks to see how things are growing, weed as needed and take off the netting.
The weather of the last week has been really quite sunny and so I’ve been making sure to water the patch every day. I will admit to losing track of time a little, since it’s the holidays, and so I was very surprised to come out today and find lots of germination!
Last year, I saw some germination on day 5, with most new leaves up by day 10, so we’re on track!