Category Archives: linen

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.

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.

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.  

Flax to Linen Photo Shoot — nearly the finale

Here it is.  Finally.  A 5m mini-skein of linen from my very own flax field. This is not what the whole field will produce!  There’s much more to come, but I was anxious to see what it was like, so I finished up a couple of stricks and spun the fibre.  In so doing I learned a few things.

1.  Flax needs to ret until you can see the linen being released from the straw.  In the murky retting water it looks like angel hair.  Keep moving the water around to help with the release of the linen.

2.  Flax has to be very dry for the next stages.  So full-on sunshine for several days and a cover at night to protect from the dew is essential.  The sunshine also helps to bleach the linen a bit.

3.  Pounding the flax with a rubber mallet against a flat rock further helps to release the linen from the straw. It’s a good workout for your upper arms. This stage is called Breaking.

4. The more you bash it against the rock, the more you will see the linen.  When most of the straw is flat, that’s when you can start the next stage:  Scutching.  That’s where you break the straw into smallish bits so it will fall away from the linen.  There are tools that help to do this, but I just broke it with my hands.


5.  Wool combs are not the best tools to help remove the straw from the linen which is the next stage:  Hackling.  I got the best result from my cotton hand cards — not used in a hand-carding technique.  I laid the carder flat and ran the straw-laced linen strick through it a few times, hanging on good and tight.  Here’s what I got from bashing and combing a couple of stricks of flax.

6. The most important thing I learned is that despite my new found skills at growing, harvesting and producing linen for spinning, I DON’T REALLY KNOW HOW TO SPIN THE DARNED STUFF.


It never occurred to me to research how to spin linen.  I had a vague recollection from past reading that linen is wet-spun to keep the fibres aligned — I did that.  It was only after I made a mini-skein from an over-twisted double-ply spinning technique and produced the most uninspiring hard yarn I have ever worked with did I think to check some expert sources (the internet) to see what I had done wrong.

Thank heavens the disaster was in my spinning technique because I was ready to put the rest of the unprocessed flax onto the compost heap!

All is not lost, I just have a whole new skill to master.  Spinning flax.  And you thought this adventure was nearly over.  It’s only just begun.

Flax to Linen Journey: Nearly ready to spin

On the weekend I pulled the test flax out of the retting water. This was the small batch that I put in there because I had a hunch that it hadn’t retted enough. It’s hard to know exactly when it’s ready for the next stage, so test bundles are a good way to go.

I am not usually this cautious about things, but one of the sources I read about retting gave a stern warning about the process. It stated that wet retting happens really fast (compared to the three to five months for dew retting, I guess anything less is fast) and if you leave it too long it will weaken your linen fibres. After all this work, I am not willing to let that happen. So I did a wee test with a small bundles of fibre.

Last Saturday was a hot and dry day and the twice retted flax dried quickly. By the end of the day I couldn’t resist playing with it. I scrunched it up a bit and the brittle straw fibres broke and fell out, for the most part letting go of the linen in the process.  I was so encouraged by this that after a short while I ended up pushing a wee bundle of the sample stuff through the next few stages.  Here’s the result.


It’s not exactly spin-ready, but it’s darned close.

These two photos show the long fibres, you can see bits of the straw still embedded in there. This linen is fibres from the entire length of the plant. As far as I can understand the flax/linen industry, this is Prime.

This next photo is the long fibres on the top and below are the shorter fibres I pulled from the comb.  They are finer and shorter, about 4 inches on average, with less straw in them.  I can’t imagine that they are less than Prime, but it seems to be graded according to length.  We’ll see about that.

Below is the waste linen that was left over after combing the linen.  I tried to clean out the debris by hand carding it, and got a great deal of it out, but it still full of straw and other random bits. After all this work I just couldn’t throw this away.  I am sure it will have a use.  Paper, noily bits in a wool batt.  Who knows?

I am just so excited because it worked. I still have a lot of work to do — I can barely stand to think about it.  But this journey of discovery has been so satisfying thus far. I don’t know how much fibre my wee field of flax will eventually yield, but it will be the most adored washcloth I have ever used.

Ann, I will bring these samples with me to Kamloops and show you first hand what I’ve done.

Flax to Linen

The flax had been sitting in bins full of water since last weekend. We’ve had unseasonably warm weather, so the water got quite warm through the day. It cooled down at night, but even so, the flax spent a great deal of time in warm standing water. I tried to replicate the action of a side eddy, by stirring it up a couple of times a day.  I also removed some water and added new (rain) water every other day.

Here’s what it looked like.  There was definitely bacterial action of some kind as there was generally a foam on it, and near the end of the retting process, was a scum.  It smelled awful — compared to some of the stuff, ie. crap they put on the hay field behind us, this wasn’t that bad.  But it certainly wasn’t something you wanted to spend much time with.

September 16, 2012 001

In the picture below, you can see it in the smaller bin.  It’s murky and smelly.  Using my bare hand, I moved the fibres around the water.  My arm then smelled like hell.  I suppose I could have used a stick, but I wanted to touch the fibres to see what they felt like as they were going through this process.  They were flexible and firm, and a wee bit slimy.

September 16, 2012 002

Below is the smaller bin with the retting water drained.  It just looks like stalks of straw.  Where’s the linen?

[Please remember:  I don’t know what I am doing.  I have never done this before.  I am just going on a leap of faith, lots of enthusiasm and information from the internet. I am not entirely sure about each stage of the process and when I should move from one stage to the next.  That’s why I am babying the flax and being ultra observant.]


Once I replaced the murky retting water with fresh water I noticed something I hadn’t before. See those fine fibres moving away from the stalk?  That’s linen!

September 16, 2012 004

In a flurry of excitement I finally understood how linen comes to be. Linen is the fine bast fibres that run between two major parts of the flax plant.  The soft outer core (that I just got rid of through the retting process) and the harder inner core, the stalk of straw that holds it upright.

I checked the flax in the other two larger bins, and yes, the same thing was taking place. The outer core had rotted or retted away and the linen was released. It is still somewhat attached to the inner core. That’s what the next couple of stages are all about.

So I removed the flax from the water, wrung it out, and yes, when I wrung it out it smelled like a linen shirt.  Well, not exactly, but now I understand where the distinct smell that linen has comes from. Fortunately I had replaced the retting water with new stuff before I made the decision that it had retted enough.

I set it against the fence to dry.  Here’s what it looks like today.  It’s a lovely colour — flaxen gold.

2012-10-08 11.35.29

It’s not quite dry enough for the next stage, but I can now see the linen.  When I rough up the tips and shake the straw out of it, what is left are soft, fine fibres of linen.

October 1, 2012 009

I still have a long way to go before I have fibre to spin.  But for the first time I can see it.  I get it!!

Rippling the Flax

Yesterday was to be the last sunny day for a while, so I decided it was time to ripple the flax.  The flax had been laying in direct sunlight for the entire week, getting turned every day, so it was golden brown and nice and dry. While it was time to do the rippling, I didn’t exactly have the tool I needed, or so I thought.

My early research into the process of making linen has lead me to the belief that even though I don’t have the exact tools needed to do this, I can most certainly improvise.  And that is exactly what I did for the rippling process.

I have a single Russian Paddle comb that I picked up at guild swap and shop a few years ago.  I never knew what I would do with it, but I am drawn to old tools, especially ones related to the fibre arts. I was cleaning it up when it occurred to me that it may be just the kind of tool I needed to do rippling.

Rippling is the process of removing the seed pods and other debris from the flax stalks.  The sharp and sturdy tines help you comb through the handfuls of flax.  So I set myself up on the backporch and clamped the paddle comb to the table.  The tines in the paddle comb are wider apart than the ones in the rippling tools I read about, so I had my fingers crossed when I made the first few passes. 

Here’s the photo essay of the process. Below is the Russian Paddle comb clamped to the table.

Here it is face on.  It’s a rather intimidating piece of equipment.  Those tines are sharp and solid.  I had pay close attention to what I was doing; no sipping wine and chatting on the phone.

Here’s a bundle of flax ready to be rippled.  I grabbed about a third of this bundle and combed it through the paddle comb. The paddle comb worked just fine.  It did a perfect job!

And here’s a bundle that has just been rippled.  See how all the pods are gone?  You may not be able to see it in the image above, but there is also a great amount of wee leaves from the flax.  They also get removed in the rippling process.

And here’s what’s left in the comb. Seed pods, shorter stalks, dried leaves and other vegetation.

The backporch, aka the Rippling Studio.  It makes a right mess, but it’s a dry mess to easy to tidy up. 

Bundles of post-rippled flax.  When you see them like this, you can start to imagine how this may turn into a pliable fibre.

This photo and the one following it are what is left after rippling.  Lots of debris.  I gathered it all up, removed the stalks, and tried my best to separate out the seed pods.  They need to dry a bit more before they give up their seeds. 

The flax is now in three plastic bins getting “wet retted”.  That is the process of melting away the pectin and other stuff that binds the fibre to the core.  Melting away is a bit of a euphemism for rotting for the process relies on mould, bacteria, moisture.  Yum. 

I am to let them stand in water and every day or two, swirl it around, change the water a bit and in the process try to replicate a side eddy in a slow moving creek.  Apparently it smells to high heaven.  I’ll let you know.

Harvest time for Flax

It’s coming on the end of the season and here’s what surprised me in the garden the last few days.  Lovely in the midst of weeds and dry stuff.

It is time to harvest the flax. I have been growing this stuff since June. With the exception of the flood, it has been a great growing season.  The flax came up good and straight, and blossomed all at the same time. It was a thing of beauty in its heyday. But now, it is time to harvest it. The flowers are mostly gone, over half the plant has turned yellow, and we are coning into a dry spell with full on sunshine.  Good weather for drying it out.

Here`s what it looked like right before harvest.

It is easy enough stuff to pull.  The roots, while they run deep, are not very thick.  So to harvest I`d grab a handful and pull.  I`d do that until I had a good sized clump and then it went into the wheel barrow.

The harvest in progress.  No knowing how much fibre I will get from this activity, I tried to harvest every single plant.  And believe me, it wasn`t easy to do.  I did try to keep the area weed-free, but we are plagued by bindweed out here.  It is also known as morning glory, but there is nothing of morning nor glory about it.  It is hateful stuff that grows several feet a day and tangles anything that is vertical.

So here`s when I made a bonehead decision.  I jumped right to `retting` process.  I decided I didn`t care to harvest the seeds so thought I could just start soaking them in water to melt the pectin and release the fibres.  After some more reading and thought I decided that seed collection or not, the seeds and pods were a considerable amount of biomass.  I did not need them in the way, rotting and adding to the smelly mess that retting involves.

So I took them out of the soaking water, and put them along the grass, in a sunny location. I turned them every couple of hours to dry them off. At least they are clean and the roots have no dirt in them. There has to be a bright side to every stupid decision.

Please be warned that I really do not know what I am doing. I know how to grow things, so I grew flax. I have a desire to be able to grow fibre for my use and so this is an adventure of self-discovery, aided by the Internet and various folks who know pieces of the process.

Here it is drying. Later today — in fact right after this blog post, I`ll go to the back garden and stand these up for more efficient drying of the seed pods.

Stay tuned for more posts on the flax harvest.

Field of flax in full bloom

A field of flax in full bloom is a lovely thing. Years ago we had a summer place outside of Lipton, Saskatchewan.  One day when we were driving around exploring the countryside, we came around a corner and saw a lake shimmering in the distance. As we got closer to the lake we realized it wasn’t water at all, but a field of flax in full bloom.  The blue flowers and the gentle way the plants were swaying in the wind looked like water and waves.  We didn’t have time to be disappointed that it wasn’t a lake — as we were so thrilled by the beauty of flax field.

While my wee field of flax is nothing in comparison to those 50+ acre parcels in Saskatchewan, it is still a thing of beauty.  Since the flooding wiped out a lot of our crops, this is the prettiest thing in our garden these days.

So what’s the plan for this field of flax?  About 30 days after the flowering is over, the flax is ready to be harvested.  Then the work begins.  I pull the plants up, roots and all.  If I want to save the seed — for next year’s planting (?) I have to dry the plants out.  If I decide not to save the seed, then I can move to the retting process right away. Retting is the process of rotting the outer layers of the stalks that are holding the linen fibres to the  woody core.  This is the first step in extracting the linen fibre. You can do this by leaving the flax outside on the ground and let the morning dew do it.  You can also do it by leaving the flax in standing water for a while. According to “Linen in the Middle Ages — A Guide to Growing and Processing” by the Baroness Eleanora van den Bogaerde, water retting is faster and leaves the flax a whiter colour than dew retting does.  The challenge is having something large enough.  With my wee field, I don’t think this is a problem.  Maybe in the future it will be, but for now, I think I can manage with a huge rubbermaid bin.  After it’s retted, there are three more steps before I have fibre for spinning.

One step at time.  Right now I am growing the stuff and admiring its beauty.