Category Archives: bast fibres

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.

My field of flax

In this blog I have focused on locally sourced wool, alpaca, llama and mohair.  But there are also some other fibres that we can obtain locally, and that I can even manage to grow/harvest myself.  At least I think so.  These are the bast fibres — the fibres that come from plants.

So, last weekend I planted a 13′ x 3′ bed of flax.  Flax is the bast fibre used to make the yarn and therefore fabric we call linen.  Here it is.

Two nights later the scraggly feral cat that’s been visiting lately, used a piece of my newly planted flax bed as a litter box right before he jumped onto my porch and sprayed the wall with his inspiring scent.  I am not amused.  I covered my flax bed with scrap pieces of wire fencing and a white sheet.

Today the rain continued so it’s safe to uncover.  My lovely flax is up!  Already!

My plan is to grow, harvest and then go through all the processes needed to make spin-able fibre.  If I have enough for a washcloth I’ll be lucky. It’s quite a process from plant to spin-able fibre, having a lot of steps and requiring medieval looking equipment.  But I have faith I can figure it all out.  I mentioned this wee project of mine at our executive guild meeting, and the gals were quite enthusiastic about it.  So I’m not alone in this learning process and finding the tools needed to do the job.

On my run this morning I noticed a good amount of stinging nettle along the side of the road.  That was the bast fibre used in the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Wild Swans.  Tomorrow if it ever stops with the torrential rain I am going to find my work gloves and get on my bike and cut down as much nettle as I can manage.  I’ll use the nettle to learn about the retting process and other elements of turning bast fibres into something that you can spin, cause those are fibres that are ready right now. 

We’ll see.