Category Archives: retting 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.

Arctic outflow winds impact flax production

The recent arctic outflow has brought a burst of winter to the lower mainland of BC. My flax is undergoing a whole new level of experimentation — wet retted flax frozen solid.

It is a mini skating rink! A solid block of ice that my dew-to-wet retted flax is trapped within.

Not sure how this is going to impact the linen fibres. But there’s not much I can do about it now!

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. 

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.

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.