Category Archives: harvesting 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.

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.

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.