Category Archives: growing flax

#fail – Flax doesn’t like to be frozen

I think the title says it all — flax fibres don’t like to be frozen. Or if it wasn’t the freezing that weakened them, it was the amount of time they spent in the water. And the freezing didn’t help either.

Here’s what properly wet-retted flax fibres look like. They have a lovely colour and they are long, strong and lustrous. The piece on the bottom is nearly a metre long. I have 27 stricks of this wet-retted flax. This was from stuff that I planted early in the year. It had time to grow, bloom, get harvested, dry out, get rippled, wet-retted and then had time to fully dry before all the rains came.

This is the dew-retted and then wet-retted flax experiment. The flax fibres, while released, are weak and short. They’ve broken up.

I have a small kiddy pool full of this — and to make matters worse, it smells like a dead swamp rat. Really. I threw it in the water because it was smelly and wanted to urge on the retting process. But then the cold snap came and it was frozen solid for about ten days. It smells so bad I don’t want to touch it.

It’s tricky to photograph something in the water, but here it is. I have one more mini-field’s worth of flax out on the north lawn retting. Like this batch, it didn’t get harvested until after the rains came, so it never dried and got rippled. But it has been on the lawn. And while it had indeed rained and snowed, it was never under water for any length of time. I just checked it out and it the flax fibres are releasing.

The rain is supposed to stop sometime today and then I’ll scoop it up and put it on a drying wrack on the porch to start the drying process. Fingers crossed I’ll have something to play with when it’s all done.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. Buy good seeds and buy the linen variety, Linum usitatissiumum “Evelin”.
2. Plant your flax as early as you can. You can plant it when you plant your lettuce, peas, spinach and potatoes. You want it to grow and be done during the hot summer so it has time to dry, get rippled, retted and dry again.
3. If your flax falls over due to rain or wind, set it upright as soon as you can. If it stays tilted, it will have bend in it which makes it difficult to work with.

I am sure I will learn more as I go onto the next stage of breaking, scutching and hackling to get the fibres ready for spinning.

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.

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.