Monthly Archives: September 2012

Flax to Linen update

So I got all excited a couple of weeks ago when I could actually see the linen. Since then the flax has been drying out, which is needs to do before the next stage. The next stage involves bashing the flax around so you break up the straw and further release the linen from its fibrous cage.

When I tried a wee sample, I started to wonder if I took the flax out of the retting water too soon. The straw did break, but it didn’t really “release” the linen. So, I have a small bundle of flax back in the water to further ret and see if that makes any difference.

Will keep you posted.

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.