© 2018 L.Arnott

Linen: Flax to fibre

How hard could it be!?  A few years ago I had this plan to grow flax that I would spin into linen...  Small plots of linen have dotted my lawn in the 'burbs (yes, we're those neighbours) for a few years.  

So it turns out producing linen is a lot of work!  Not least of it, I didn't know how to spin! 

 

So, varied success with different types of retting has led to this brief description of the process

Harvesting

After the stalks have turned yellow and the seed pods have formed it is time to harvest (around 100 days after planting)  Pull straight up, knocking the dirt from the roots. The fibres extend into the root so you want to get as much length as you can.  If you leave dirt on the roots, the plants won’t dry well.

Drying

I used to bundle my flax and hang it to dry. Now I just lay it all over my husband’s garage.  It works just as well. 

After they’re dry, the stalks can be stored indefinitely.

Rippling  

Remove the seed pods using a comb.

I use a comb or brush to remove the seed pods from the flax stems (wool combs can work well for this, too.  This also takes off the leaves which you wont need.  Save the seeds for next year.  I haven't needed to buy seeds since the first year.

Cultivation

Be sure to order the correct seeds!  Some plants have been bred to produce more seeds- you want the linen producing plants (Linum usitatissimum).

Plant in the spring, when there is still frost in the evenings.  The seeds need a few cold nights to germinate. I always plant mine late but if the evenings are still cool- with a risk of frost- you will be fine.  The plot should have full sun.

Sow the seeds close together; it helps the stalks to grow straight and keep out weeds.  The soil should be well-drained but honestly, we have crap drainage and this has never been a problem.  We have a lot of clay so the roots don’t grow as deeply as they could.

The plants will start about a week to ten days after planting.  Flowering starts at around two months.  Let the flowers die off and the seed pods dry before harvesting.  This will be important for next year- You will never have to order seeds again!

Retting  

The point of retting is to rot the pectin, so that you can free the fibres.  Where we live, retting is best done in the summer, so I leave my retting for the following year when the temperatures are high enough to sustain the bacteria I need for retting.

Pond retting:

Soaking the dried flax in a container of water until it rots.  In hot weather this can take a couple of weeks. (Hot for us is 77F-86F). You have to make sure all of the flax is submerged or the bits above water will mould.

Cons:

  • It’s difficult to find a “pond” large enough (my plants are 48” tall so a kiddie pool can work).

  • The water becomes toxic to aquatic life (be careful disposing of it).

  • It smells like a sewer.

  • There will be larvae.

  • As with all bodies of water, do not leave children unattended around them!

Pros:

  • The fibre produced is lighter in colour (“flaxen”).

  • It’s the fastest

  • You can pretty much leave it to rot, just checking it to see if it’s done occasionally.

 

Dew retting: Leaving the dried flax on your lawn, or in your field to rot naturally with the dew and rain.

Pros

  • Doesn’t produce the toxic bacteria that pond retting does.

Cons:

  • Takes longer

  • The fibre is darker

You should turn the stalks regularly so they ret evenly

River retting: This I can’t help you with.  I put mine in the river and forgot about it.  When I finally retrieved it, it exploded into a bundle of short fibres and splinters.

Is it done retting?

If you break the stem and there is a little bundle of fibre, and the woody bits fall away, it’s done.  This really is trial and error.  Unfortunately, you now need to dry it again, so you want to be sure it’s finished retting!

  • Over-retting: Breaks down the fibres

  • Under-retting: Fibres are short but can sometimes still be spun

Dry (Again) 

Back to the workshop

Breaking the flax

Flax breaks: Use more than one bar!  The one my partner made me has only a single "blade" between two slats, and sometimes it just bends the flax! And pointy works better!

Scutching

A wooden knife and a board, to remove the chaff.  You hang the fibres over a board and scrap it with a wooden knife.  I still don't have a really good hang of this!  

 

Hackling

A series of increasingly finer nail-tooth comb to remove shorter fibres and chaff

For this I used my wool combs.  You really need more than two rows of nails to get the remaining chaff off. 

 

DO NOT DO THIS BY HAND! 

The chaff acts as a needle and you will end up sewing your linen into your hands!

I don’t have fine enough combs so I use a cat brush to comb the remaining fibre.  It works quite well!

Spinning

Once it's been hackled, it is ready to spun.  It can be spun wet, which produces stronger thread, or dry.  

 

Flax can be spun on a wheel (from a distaff) or can be hand spun on a drop spindle. 

 

Tradition says you should spin flax with an S-twist (counter clockwise), but in medieval times, the yarn was spun in both directions.