Category Archives: flax

Dew retted flax from Glen Valley

This year, my second year of experimenting with growing and processing flax for linen, I had four good sized beds of flax growing. I planted the first two early in the season and they finished up nicely. There was enough time in the season for them to sufficiently dry, get rippled and wet retted. They are now tied up into a couple of dozen stricks for use in my “Flax to Linen” workshop that I hope to have at FibresWest 2014.
The other two beds presented different challenges.They were started later in the season and by the time they were ready to be harvested — had finished their blooming, the rains had come in. The rain makes it difficult for anything to dry, but it also causes the plant to fall over. When it falls over, it bends. I have learned that this “bend” is not a characteristic that you want your drying/retting flax to have.
I haven’t been able to sufficiently dry these last two beds of flax, so the rippling didn’t happen. In fact, I got busy and lost track of them, so on the ground they went. Not a bad thing as you will see. 
What’s below is the flax from the very last bed dew retting on the ground right on the lawn. It’s been raining a lot and next week we are rumoured to be hosting some below zero temperatures. Let’s see how flax likes that.

You can see why dew retting creates a grayish linen. The molds that melt the pectin covering away stain it.

Below is batch #3. It’s a hybrid of dew retting at the beginning and most recently, wet retting. Even though the dew retting was coming along fine and I was starting to see the flax fibres being released, it was slimy and I wanted that gone.

So I tossed it back into the wet retting pool. It’s been cold so the retting is going slowly. There is no foaming and swamp smell like I got with the earlier wet retting.

The constant rain keeps the water fresh. My challenge with this is how to dry it?  I’ll have to take it out soon and put it onto drying racks that will sit in my greenhouse over the winter. Won’t dry much, but at least won’t get wetter.

Life in the valley is good. I have space to do these kinds of experiments, not sure how I’d so that if I lived in town. 

Drying the Glen Valley flax

I’ve had a difficult time this year drying my flax. I got the first batch dried, rippled and retted. Then the rains started coming, so the next drying stage was delayed. Meanwhile, the rains caused the other flax beds to fall over so one of them was quickly harvested.

That flax was put up against the fence in the hope that it would eventually dry and I could ripple it. The rains kept coming and coming. Nothing was drying. So I decided to use the rains to my advantage and instead of leaning them up against the split rail fence, I put them on the grass. At least the downpours could continue to rinse the smelly swamp water from the first flax. And the hope was that the steady stream of water could start to dew rett the other flax, despite the fact it hadn’t been rippled and was still full of leaves and seed pods.

The sun finally came out yesterday and it’s still here today. So I decided to take advantage of the sun and heat and do some active things to encourage drying. I got the drying rack and stacked the retted flax onto it.

Then I had a look at the non-rippled flax that I threw on the ground. I flipped it to get the really wet side in the sun. Lo and behold! It’s starting to rett. You can see the fine wisps of linen fibres on the edges. It doesn’t go all the way up the stem, it’s mostly happening down near the root end, where there are no leaves.

About an hour later, encouraged by the heat and sunshine, I moved the drying rack over to the driveway. The gravel in the driveway heats up and we can really push this drying number today. I took the flax from the shade of the second and third level of the rack and put it on the ground.

Inspired by the retting results of the non-rippled flax, I moved it from the lawn over the driveway next to the retted flax. Using the jet stream on the hose, I power-washed as much of the rotten leaves from it as I could manage. And now the whole lot is drying. I’ll flip it every hour or so, until the sun comes down. And then everything is going under cover. Enough of this.

And last but not least is the harvest of the final bed. I have this off the ground, all stacked up on the garden bench. It can’t stay there. I have to fashion something that will help it dry – but we have some more rain coming in this week. I need an Indian Summer to get this stuff finished off.

Time to head back out and flip the flax.

A flax inspired Saturday

Saturday was a day devoted to the flax, in all its various stages.

The flax from bed #3 had fallen victim to the heavy rain we had last week. A lot of it fell right over. I tried to prop it back up, but the rains kept coming and the weight of the water won out in the end.

So I pulled them. It was a larger bed than I originally thought so it took a while. Also, the rains had really saturated the soil so knocking the dirt from the roots had me looking like a mud-wrestler in little time. Here’s the empty newly harvested bed with all the bundles of flax on the ground. I have to move these to a better location so they can dry. But it was easier to just pull, knock the soil off and toss.

Here’s the final bed. It was planted the last and you can see it’s still flowering. I am up to my eyeballs in flax, not sure what I’ll do with this bundle.

Here’s the product of beds #1 and #2, newly retted. This flax is very different from the variety I grew last year. This flax has thicker stalks and is twice the length. I ended up borrowing a much larger kiddie pool from my neighbour, seen below. I was able to get all the flax into this pool. And here it is as the rotting/retting process starts. Lovely bubbles from fermentation.

Unlike last year’s variety, this stuff really floats so I had to place my smaller kiddie pool on top and filled that with water to help weigh it down.

We had some warm and damp weather over the week so this stuff retted in record time, just over a week. And even though I regularly changed the water and added new stuff to it from the rain barrel, it smelled to high heaven. It was a fishy, swampy, stale beer kind of smell. And strangely enough, one that didn’t readily wash off. You had to scour yourself with soap and water to get the smell out.
My over enthusiasm to get it all into the same pool was nearly my undoing. It retted fast and thus had to be deal with fast. All of it. So on Saturday, after harvesting the flax on the other side of the house, I had to rinse and scrub this flax to get the smelly rotten bits out of them. The linen was fully exposed and if I had left them in the water for much longer, the linen itself would be compromised. 
To do that I had to bail all the water out of the pool. Once nearly empty I could tip it and further drain the flax. I placed it on a tarp and grabbed the hose. Using the jet blast I thought I could just rinse it out that way. But there’s so much of it and it’s so dense, the linen fibres really take up space, I needed more action to rinse it out. So I filled the pool with clean water and bundle by bundle I put it in the clear water and squished and squeezed until it didn’t feel slimy any more. After about five bundles I had to empty the pool and start with fresh water. Which suited me just fine because by this time my back was hurting and I was seriously questioning my passions.  Here it is all newly washed and drying against the back fence.

Here’s a closer view.

And here’s a close-up. You can see the linen fibres all over the place.

These bundles still smell a bit more swampy than I like. I wonder if that means they haven’t retted enough. Or if I simply haven’t rinsed them enough. I’ll see what they’re like when they are fully dry. If they still smell I am going to take them down to the Fraser River and wash them there. That will be much easier than filling a kiddie pool over and over and over again.

Of course the fishers may wonder why I am washing straw in the river.

And if they still smell after that, I’m just going to throw them on the ground and let the rain take care of them.

Retting some of the flax

Here’s a quickie post to show you my latest strategy for retting flax. Last year I retted the flax in rubbermaid containers, but the variety of flax that is grown for linen is a much taller plant. Nearly twice as tall as the flax seed variety. So I needed something larger.

I settled on a kiddie pool from Canadian Tire for $12.99.  This kiddie pool fit about a 1/4 of what I have from beds #1 and #2.

Unlike the flax from last year, this stuff really floats so I have to weigh it down with rocks.

Here’s the whole lot of it. I still have two more beds to harvest, dry and ripple so I have a lot to experiment with. I just may experiment with dew retting just to get a sense of how that works and what the result will be. Somehow I think that wet retting gives me much more control cause I can quickly see what’s going on. With dew retting, you simply put it on the ground and let the dew and natural molds and mildews rot the pectin layer that holds the fibres in place. 
Will keep you posted. My own energy level may be the deciding factor.

Rippling the Flax

We’ve had a stunning summer for the most part. Lots of sun and just the right amount of heat. In the last couple of weeks though, we’ve had a bit of rain here and there. Good for the corn and the hay, but not for flax that you’re drying.

The harvested flax from the bed #1 and #2 were mostly dried and I finished it off by keeping it under cover. I was getting pretty tired of moving the stuff around, onto the lawn when the sun was out, back on the porch for overnight or if a rain cloud came by. When it was finally dried I decided it was time to ripple it. Rippling flax is the process you us to remove the seed pods.

Last year when I did this I was so excited and learning as I went along. This time, I knew what I was in for. It’s a dusty, dry job and very messy with all the seed pods flying everywhere. So I did my best to minimize that. I swept the back porch carefully.Then I put a white sheet over the work area, the railing and let it hang onto the floor. The plan was to catch as many seed pods as possible.

Then I set up the rippling contraption that I bought in the spring from a local antique/junk shop. Right next to it I set up the Russian paddle comb that I used last year for rippling. I wasn’t sure how the green thing would perform and I knew the paddle comb worked.

Here I am about half way through the process. This is the dried flax with the seed pods and dried leaves still on them. The variety of flax that I grew this year is the true Linum usitatissiumum linen variety. It’s nearly twice as long as the flax seed variety that I grew last year. Not only is it twice as long, the stalks are larger and tougher.

Here’s a small bundle of it going through the rippling tool. This one worked well for the first passes and then I used the Russian paddle comb to finish up. Used together I was able to clean up all the seed pods and dried leaves.

After a bundle was cleaned up, I tossed it to the side and then grabbed another bundle. Here’s what a cleaned up couple of bundles looks like.

And here’s the whole lot of it from bed #1 and #2, rippled and waiting to be retted. Retting is the process of rotting the outer layer of pectin to release the linen fibres from the straw. I can dew ret which is to let the morning dew and rains melt it away. Or I can wet ret it by putting it a shallow pool of water and try to replicate an eddy next to a slow moving stream. I prefer the lighter colour you get from wet retting so I’m going to toss this into a kiddie pool. Right now it’s carefully wrapped up and under cover of the shed.

I have two more beds to harvest, will probably do that over the weekend as we are expecting sun and heat. That will give the flax a good start on drying. Then another rippling marathon and then. . . . . what on earth am I going to do with all this flax?

Adventures with flax to linen continued.

More flax harvested – field #1

On Thursday this week, in the late afternoon, I harvested the first field of flax. It’s growing in our south garden. It was the first plot planted this season and I expected it to be ready first. But this garden gets quite a bit of shade throughout the day, so it slowed things down a bit. Here it is in tidy bundles (something I didn’t do on the first harvest) leaning against the fence.

And here’s what’s left growing. It was planted much later than the other two beds. And it was only really planted to hold the spots and keep the weeds at bay. I never imagined it would grow this quickly. I am sure it will bloom in the next week or so, and then I’ll have even more to manage.

Now that’s a problem I don’t mind having.

Harvesting flax field #2

I currently have four wee plots (I call them fields) of flax growing. They were not all planted at the same time. Field one (south garden) was planted in the second week of May. Field two (north west garden) planted three weeks later. And fields three and four (north east garden) were planted four weeks after that.

After about seven weeks of growing, flax starts to bloom. Flax blooms in the morning and it’s a lovely sight. The flowers are tiny, plentiful, and a beautiful periwinkle blue. I have enjoyed watching the first two fields bloom. So little effort on my part, and so much beauty.

Last weekend I looked out of my studio window and noticed that the flax field in the north west garden had stopped blooming.The flax in the south garden was planted a full three weeks earlier and I was fully expecting it to be ready before the flax in this, the north garden. But that’s the power of sunshine for you.

Ever since the oak tree came down, the north west and east gardens get sunshine from sunrise until sunset. The south garden, bordered by a large cotton-wood tree, sits in full shade from 2 – 6pm every day. So this field was ready for harvest while the south garden, planted a full three weeks earlier was still blooming.

And so, on a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided to harvest the flax. Harvesting flax is quite straightforward. Grab a large handful of flax and pull, roots and all. Like below. Knock dirt off roots, place in wheelbarrow. Repeat and repeat and repeat.

Here’s the full harvest from flax field #2. This “Evelin” variety of flax is a true linen variety. Compared to the flax I grew last year, which was more of a flax seed variety, this one is much longer, easily twice the height, and the stalks are much more substantial.

And here it is, leaned up against the fence for drying.

This weekend coming up, I plan to harvest the flax from the south garden and then I’ll be up to my eyeballs in the stuff. (I still have the two other wee flax fields, but they haven’t even started blooming so I’m safe.)

Because I kind of know what I’m doing this year, and have better equipment (I’m on the lookout for a kiddie pool for the retting stage), I am really excited about the flax this year. This past year I even learned how to dress a distaff and spin flax, so there may actually be more yarn produced this year than last year.

But I won’t get ahead of myself. There are many stages to go through before this stuff is ready for weaving. I’ll keep you posted.

Update on the 2013 flax fields

Last year I did an experiment and grew a wee field of flax. It was a terrific learning experience, so much so that I repeated the experiment this year. This year, instead of obtaining my seed stock from the bulk bins at Save-On Foods, I purchased the actual flax for linen variety from Richters in Goodwood, Ontario. The seed variety is Linum usitatissiumum “Evelin”. I bought two kilos of it.

Yep, two kilos. That’s a lot of seed. Who knew?

So I planted a bed. And then realized that I scarcely made a dent in the seed stock, so a week or so later planted another bed on the north side of the house. Then, when the 100-year old oak had to be taken down, we had a chance to put in a new garden with nine beds. We planted up several of those beds, the others that we just wanted to reserve, were sown with flax. I now have four beds of flax that are thankfully, in various stages of growth.

Here’s the photo shoot:

Bed #1 planted in the same spot as it was planted last year. It’s already blooming. Flax blooms in the morning and then it’s done. These photos were taken mid-morning.

Here’s bed #2. I did nothing special to this bed in terms of preparation, just raked up the soil a bit to loosen the top layer and then broadcast the seeds quite thickly. It gets more sun than bed #1 so it’s catching up. It just started blooming today.

Here’s bed #3 and you can see bed #4 as a green ribbon at the top of the photo. Both of these beds were planted about two weeks ago. The soil, rock hard river silt, was turned and knocked about a bit. And then I threw in the flax seeds as a way to save the bed, and keep the weeds at bay. If I get a harvest from this, that will be grand, but I’m already up to my eye balls in flax and a potential nightmare retting process. Thinking about getting a kiddy-pool to help me out with that.

Here’s the new garden. It gets full-on sunshine so it will be the hot-spot. Here’s were we will grow tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and other heat loving veggies. Lot’s more work to do on it, but it’s a good start.

Flax to Linen & everything in between: workshop

Announcing one of the many workshops being offered at Fibreswest 2013. Register before March 8th if you want to attend any of the workshops. Here’s a special one that I am featuring:

FlaxWomanFlax to Linen & everything in between
Kim McKenna and Diana Twiss. Friday, March 22nd, 2013, 9am-1pm. $45. Class held at Shannon Hall, at the Cloverdale Fairgrounds.

Join Kim and Diana and explore the wonders of flax; how to turn flax straw into beautiful soft linen yarns. Most  people with access to a garden can grow their own flax. In this workshop you will learn the practical skills of growing, processing and extracting line and tow linen from flax. You will also help to keep the art of flax spinning alive by making your very own distaff in order to prepare the flax for spinning. Finally, you will get hands-on experience and tips for spinning flax into linen. Participants will leave the workshop with a fully dressed distaff and distaff support structure. Distaffs will be dressed with 20 grams of dew-retted flax.

Supplies: spinning wheel in excellent working order. See free Spinning Wheel Maintenance download at Claddaghfibrearts. Screwdriver with Robertson head. All other materials will be supplied. All levels welcome, absolute beginning spinners may not be able to spin, but will certainly be able to dress a distaff and benefit from the rest of the workshop. Material fee of $30.00 payable to instructors.

For more information about this workshops, how to register and other information related to this fibre festival please visit FibresWest 2013.

I hope to see you there. 

Flax to Linen Slide Show for the LWSG

On Tuesday, November  20th, I am doing the educational program for the Langley Weavers and Spinners Guild.  I am doing a slide show of the process of growing, drying, rippling, scutching, combing and spinning flax to linen.  It was easiest to have all the photos together here on my blog and then click on them one after another.