Category Archives: harvesting flax

Harvesting flax – Summer 2018

There are few tasks easier than harvesting flax. You grab a handful of it right down near the base and pull. Roots and all. Give it a good shake to remove all the soil and put it somewhere to dry out. That’s it.

The trick, and yes there’s always a trick, is to decide WHEN to harvest the flax.

Let’s take a look at flax. The flax in the photo below is in full bloom. It’s an amazing sight.

You can read a lot of things about when to harvest flax, and some of it is different. In essence, you want to harvest the flax then the plant has reached a certain level of maturity. The older or more mature the plant, the stronger/thicker/coarser the fibres. When a plant flowers that’s a sign that it has reached a particular stage. After the flowering, the seed bolls form. Another stage you witness. After that, the leaves start to dry out moving from the bottom of the plant up to the top.  Many sources suggest you harvest the flax when most of the plants have stopped blooming. The thinking is that if you wait too long, the fibres will be too coarse. But if you don’t wait long enough, the fibres won’t be strong enough to withstand the breaking, scrutching and hackling to get the fibres.

I decided to harvest bed #1 when most of the flowers had stopped blooming and the bottom half of the plant started to dry out. See below.

 I’ve had best results drying my flax by leaning it against something – like a post or fence. I think it helps with the initial drying as the air can circulate.

I waited a bit longer to harvest bed #3. All the flowers had stopped blooming, the seed bolls starting to form and most of the plant dried out.

Our days were still long and hot so after a few days drying against the fence, I spread them out on the ground. The other two beds had already been harvested, dried, rippled and bed #1 retted. So I felt I was a bit behind with this one. I had to stave off that feeling as I was trying to do different experiments.

This is bed #3. The last one harvested, drying on my front yard.

If you want to see a really quick video on harvesting/pulling flax, check out my Instagram feed. I can’t figure out how to embed videos – so that will have to do. I’m @dianatwiss on Instagram.

#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.