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1. brake and scutching board with flax - BLOG

Flax Brake and Scutching Board

Being able to grow your own flax fiber to spin and weave into linen clothes is a wonderful experience. The growing is the easy part. Once flax straw is retted it can be stored indefinitely until you are ready for the fiber. When that time comes, you need to have some equipment that may not be readily available until you make it yourself. You will need a flax brake and a scutching board.

The fiber you are after is located between the skin and the inner core of the flax stems. A brake is the tool that you will use to break up those outer and inner layers, freeing the flax fiber. I have seen the tool name spelled as both “brake” and “break”. In The Big Book of Flax, Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf mention that the noun and verb are spelled differently for some reason unbeknownst to them. Flax brake is also the term used in Linda Heinrich’s book Linen, so that is the spelling that I will go with.

2. flax brakes-Cindy and Becky - BLOG

Flax Brakes

If you just want to see if you can do it, probably any method of pounding the flax will break up those layers and result in releasing the fiber. However, if you are going to produce enough fiber to work with, you will want to be as efficient as possible. When I was learning about flax I was fortunate that my friend Becky loaned me her brake. Now I have my own and you can see them both in this photo. Becky’s is obviously smaller. She has used it in demonstrations with children and says she puts it on bricks to raise it to use herself. You see mine here when it was brand new—before I applied an oil finish. My talented husband made it from plans we purchased from Woolgatherers. Those plans were made from the design of an antique brake. The only change we made was to make ours several inches taller. It is put together with pegs and can come apart into four pieces—the top, two legs, and the bar between them.

My brake is made of oak left from a previous building project. It was rough-cut and my husband used his planer to smooth the pieces. To make the holes precise so the dowels fit well, he used a Forstner bit in his drill press. The wooden knives were formed on the table saw. This brake is a terrific tool to use. Becky’s brake is lighter and easier to tote around in a car when she takes it places for demonstrations. The legs on hers are screwed on and, as far as I know, she doesn’t take them off.

3. flax brake top--portable - BLOG

Tabletop Flax Brake

For portability, you can’t beat the brakes we used at the Flax to Linen class with Cassie Dickson at the John C. Campbell Folk School. They are easier to build, lightweight, and take up little space. Cassie brought this tabletop brake to the workshop at my place.

4. flax brake bottom--portable - BLOG

Notice the rounded edges on the bottom of the tabletop brake.

It works well and is great to take for demos, but I would like it to have a way to clamp it to the table for serious work. It is certainly easier to make than the larger ones. In order for it to work, you need to be sure and round the bottom ends on the inside pieces, as you can see in the photo.

5. flax brake portable--open - BLOG

Simple Tabletop Brake

Another simple brake that was available at the Folk School class is this one. You could use clamps on the pieces that stick out on the sides. Not all brakes have two wooden knives that go into slots to break the flax.

6. flax brake-jan - BLOG

Antique Flax Brake

Some brakes are singles, like the antique brake in the photo. The wooden knives that come together to do the breaking are beveled on the larger free-standing brakes, but not on the tabletop models. The brake you make will depend on the tools you have available and your expertise in using them. Decide what features you want and go from there.

scutching board and knife

Scutching Board and Knife

The next step is scutching. The broken inner and outer pieces clinging to your flax fiber after breaking is called boon. The process of separating it from the flax fiber is called scutching. Boon can be whisked away by rubbing it off against a hard surface, often using a scutching board and wooden knife. My scutching board was made from a wide pine board that still had bark on the edges. Our source of such wood is our daughter and son-in-law’s sawmill. The scutching knife was cut from a 2×4. Both pieces were based on plans from Woolgatherers. We changed the top of the scutching board to make it easier to build and I am quite happy with it. I like the fact that my scutching knife can be stored by hanging it from the scutching board.

tabletop scutching boards

Tabletop Scutching Boards

At the Folk School we used the tabletop scutching boards that you see here. They are easy to take for demos. You don’t have to go to elaborate means to make a scutching board. When I first processed flax at home I used a scrap piece of plywood for the board and a piece of wood trim for a scutching knife. Actually, you could probably just whack it against a tree to release the boon.

Not all the boon will come off with scutching. Further cleaning will be done with hackles, but that is a story for another day. My next post in two weeks will be about hackles. homeplace earth logo

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Flax brake in use during workshop.

Last month Clotho’s Handspinners, the handspinning group I am part of, sponsored a Flax to Linen Workshop. My husband, Walt, and I hosted it at our place and it was wonderful! Cassie Dickson, our instructor from North Carolina, has been working with flax for many years and teaches the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School each year. I met her when I took that class in 2015. Although the pictures you usually see in this blog are ones that I took, thank Stephanie Conner, our daughter-in-law, for these wonderful photos. She volunteered to be our photographer for the workshop.

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Show and Tell evening program.

Cassie and her husband Charlie arrived on June 9 and that evening everyone came for a 2 hour orientation and show-and-tell. Cassie gave a Powerpoint presentation and explained the many things she had brought for us to see. She had so much good information to share. The next day everyone would learn the mechanics of turning flax into linen, but this was different.

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Flax to Linen instructor Cassie Dickson.

The weather was beautiful on Saturday, June 10, for the workshop. Understandably, this part took place outside. Trees provided shade, as did our house, and we put up a canopy for more. The hours for the workshop were 9am to 4pm. Everyone showed up with their spinning wheels, ready to learn. Cassie explained each step of the process of turning flax into linen. Then everyone was free to use the equipment we had set up and have at it for themselves, with help from Cassie, of course. (Once you separate the fiber from the flax straw it is still called flax until it is spun, then it is linen.)

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Flax samples grown and retted by  Cassie.

Cassie had samples for everyone of flax that she had grown herself and retted differently. This way the participants could have experience working with flax that was over retted, under retted, and retted just right. She also had some line flax that had been purchased for everyone to spin. Line flax is what you would end up with after processing. She showed how to prepare a distaff with line flax and had even brought distaffs for each person to use. They were self-supporting posts with tissue paper wrapped around the top. The flax was tied over the paper and you pulled it from there.

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Hackles of various sizes were available to use.

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Breaking and scutching with tabletop tools

Cassie brought some equipment with her and we added to it. Besides the distaffs, she had a set of hackles, two tabletop flax brakes, and a tabletop scutching board. I provided my brake (top photo), scutching board, and hackles. We also had the use of two more flax brakes provided by Clothos members Jan and Becky, who are already knowledgeable about flax and wanted to support the workshop. In addition, Jan loaned her hackles. We had plenty of equipment to keep the group busy.

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After processing their flax, spinners found shady places to use their wheels.

When they weren’t breaking, scutching, and hackling, the participants were spinning using their own spinning wheels. When I took the class at the Folk School, although already knowing how to use a spinning wheel was recommended, not everyone did. Since this was a group of spinners, that was not a problem here. There are some differences spinning flax over other fibers and that is what they were learning. One of the differences was that it is best to use water when spinning flax, so everyone had a small bowl of water nearby to dip their fingers into.

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Flax growing in the foreground in the garden.

Everyone brought their own lunch and I provided water and iced tea. After lunch, before we started back to work, I led a tour of my garden.  I had flax growing that was one week away from harvest. There was also cotton to see, plus my food crops, cover crops, and compost piles. When we first started to plan this workshop last winter I knew that my place would be the best location to have it. We could fit everyone in our house and backyard and there would be flax growing in the garden.

 

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Instructor Cassie Dickson (right) offering spinning tips to Susan Palmer.

If you are thinking of bringing an instructor in from afar for a workshop of any kind, you need to plan carefully. We needed to cover Cassie’s travel, food, lodging, and her workshop fee. Also, there was a $45 materials fee for each participant. If travel is by car, reimbursement usually corresponds to the standard IRS mileage deduction for business, which is 53.5 cents per mile for 2017—make sure to count roundtrip miles. So, the further away your instructor is, the more the workshop will cost. If we would have needed to rent a space for the workshop or provide hotel accommodations, that would have increased the cost. Wherever you have it, you need to supply a large enough space, parking, clean bathrooms, etc. Instead, I hosted Cassie and her husband at my home as friends and loved having everyone here for the workshop. Our barnyard provided parking space. The twelve people who signed on for the workshop each paid $140.

 

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Clotho’s Handspinners’ Flax to Linen Workshop, June 2017

It was a great time! Yes, it was a lot of work getting ready to have the workshop here, but that meant projects around the house that we had been putting off got done. The only time the four of us (Cassie, Charlie, Walt, and I) had to sit and enjoy talking together was during dinner before the evening program and breakfast the next morning.  It was a busy time, but now more Clothos members know the ins and outs of working with flax, so I have more people to play with. It was a great way to start the summer!homeplace earth

 

Flax bundles waiting to be retted.

Flax bundles ready for retting.

It is time to harvest the flax that I planted for fiber in early March. I wrote about harvesting (pulling the stalks) and taking the seeds out (rippling) on May 23. The nice thing about flax is that, once the flax is pulled and dried and the seeds removed, there is no rush to process it further. It can be stored in your barn or shed until your time opens up to work with it. After I pull it to harvest I put it somewhere to dry, which can be outside or inside, depending on the weather. I usually gather it up in bundles with baling twine around each to hold it together; but when I want to dry it, I’ll loosen the twine, or take it off, and leave the flax spread out and leaning against the shed, fence, or the picnic table. I can take the seeds out once it is dry, or do the rippling just before retting, if I am going to be retting soon. I store the flax bundles in my garden shed.

Dew retting fiber flax.

Dew retting fiber flax.

Retting is the process of freeing the flax fibers from the inner core and the outer epidermis of the flax stalks. This is done by dissolving the pectins that hold everything together. I prefer to ret my flax in the summer so that it will be ready for processing further whenever I get to it. Before I studied flax-to-linen I thought that retting involved pools of water or a stream and was happy to find out about dew retting. All I have to do is to lay the flax straw out in the grass! It needs to be spread thin. Of course, here in humid Virginia the grass is heavy with dew each night. If you live in a very dry climate this method may not work as well for you. If the weather is too dry it will be necessary to water the flax every few days. I do that here if it doesn’t rain. It will need to be turned occasionally to keep the moisture level even throughout.

Flax retting complete

Fully retted flax.

Retting is complete when you can break the stalks and see the flax fibers inside. Under retted flax can be retted again—even at a much later date. Over retted flax is ruinous to your crop, since the flax fibers themselves will have broken down. Watch carefully! Last year, the first year I grew flax here, retting was complete in 17 days in July. During that time, July 9-26, the nighttime temperatures ranged from 67-79° F. (16-26° C.) and the daytime temperatures were 87-93° F. (31-34° C.), so it was quite warm. If the weather was cooler, it would have taken longer. Warm temperatures speed it up and cold temperatures slow it down. The previous fall I retted some flax I bought from the Landis Valley Farm and Museum Heirloom Seed Project. I remember that it took at least three full weeks then.

Water retting flax.

Water retting flax.

If you are in a hurry, or don’t have a suitable place to leave your flax lying around for several weeks, you could water ret it. Just about anything that can hold water and allow your flax straw to stretch out is suitable to use as a container for retting. When I took the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School, flax was retted in a plastic box. I have heard of using a child’s rigid plastic swimming pool and even a plastic toboggan sled for the project. I saw the sled idea submitted to the Flax to Linen Facebook page by Corrie Bergeron.

From what I have read, I have come to understand that if flax is left in stagnant water it will produce a smell. To avoid that, you could add fresh water to the container or keep your flax submerged in a flowing stream. Flax has a tendency to float, so it is necessary to put something on top to keep it under water. Boards and/or rocks may be used or anything else you have to keep it down. Water retting is usually faster than dew retting, depending on the temperature of the water.

Once the retting is done, the flax needs to be dried before storing. Just like drying it after harvest, lean the loose bundles against something so that air can pass around them. When dry, the flax bundles can be stored indefinitely until you are ready to process them for the fiber. Processing for fiber—now that is where it gets exciting!

Clotho’s Handspinners held a Flax to Linen workshop at my place on June 10 and the participants processed retted flax into linen to spin. They brought their own spinning wheels and the equipment for processing the flax was here for them to use. I will tell you about that workshop in my next post (July 11). The post after that will have specifics about the equipment you need, such as a flax brake, scutching board, and hackles. This is going to be fun!homeplace earth

cindy in cotton vest - BLOGI have come to the conclusion that the English language is deficient in vocabulary to adequately describe the value of our homegrown/homemade products. Each week my local farmers market devotes a booth space to a nonprofit organization for educational purposes. Recently that space went to Clothos Handspinners, of which I am a member. For my part, I set up a display to demonstrate how flax straw becomes linen thread, spun cotton on a spindle, wore my homegrown, handspun vest, and had my homegrown, handspun shirt on display. From conversations there, it was apparent that people wanted to put a value on my shirt and vest and the only way they knew how to do that was to put a price on them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven though I made it clear that they weren’t for sale, I was repeatedly asked how much money I would take for my vest and shirt if they were for sale. This has happened to me before. These garments are priceless. I will not put a price tag on the cotton I grow and the labor of love involved in bringing these garments to life. Granted, when I grew for the markets I had to put a money value on my vegetables and eggs.  I don’t do that now for the food I grow and for anything else I make for my family’s consumption and use and that which I give to friends. It is a relaxing way to be. Market growers need to grow high value crops to make ends meet. However, there are many other great things to grow and to make that wouldn’t bring enough money if you were to sell them, but would greatly enhance your well being.

Unfortunately, putting a monetary value on things is how our society of consumers operates. There should be words to describe an item that includes more than the materials, labor, and overhead that are involved, which is what is usually considered when setting a price. How about the love that is extended in the growing and making? I truly believe that there is a special positive energy in something grown or produced with love and that the people who are the end users benefit from that energy. Likewise, if something is grown or produced by someone who is not of a loving nature throughout their work, the results would not be so positive.

Cindy's booth at 17th street--BLOG

Cindy’s booth at the 17th St. Farmers Market, Richmond, VA in 2001. Photo display is in the back.

With that in mind, you might want to keep a positive attitude with everything you do. If you are not growing all of your food, take care to get to know the producers of the food you buy. At first glance, the vegetables might look the same, but rather than make your decision on price, dig deeper and make your purchase decisions on attitude. Ask questions, such as; what kind of fertilizers are used, how are the plants protected from insects, and if measures are taken on their farm to build the ecosystem. Those growers who are in tune with their land will be oozing with great information. From their answers, you will identify those you might want to steer clear of. I once asked a grower what he did to keep Colorado potato beetles from his potatoes. He proudly told me about a product from Bayer that knocked them dead. Needless to say, I did not buy potatoes from him. On the other hand, a grower might tell you that she has no problem with potato beetles because she has a diverse ecosystem on her farm that attracts beneficial insects that take care of the bad ones, which is what has happened at my place.

The Inuit language has more than fifty words that describe snow. I wish we had the vocabulary to describe the value when someone puts their heart and soul into what they produce. Here in the United States we have different labels, such as Certified Naturally Grown and USDA Organic, which help to differentiate the growers, but there is more that goes into things than is measured by those terms. How do you adequately quantify and express the love and care involved?

Fifty Plus cover--cindyI sold vegetables and eggs from 1992 through the 2001 season. Although I followed good organic practices, I never bothered to get certified organic because I was selling directly to restaurants and families and I told them how I grew things. When we started the Ashland Farmers Market in 1999 I had a photo display that showed my gardens and compost piles. Besides being an educational tool, it gave people a reason to stop, see what I was doing, and ask questions. In 2001 I also sold at the 17th St. Farmers Market in Richmond, VA. Two of the farms at that market were certified organic. A few weeks after the Richmond market opened for the season the monthly publication, Fifty Plus, came out that included an interview with me. I had turned fifty that year and I was on the cover holding a chicken! In the interview I explained how I did things at my farm, working with nature and making compost. The next week a woman came to my booth to shop and said that in the previous weeks she had only bought from the certified organic growers because she thought they were the only ones who had what she valued. After reading about me in Fifty Plus she realized that I was the one she wanted to buy from.

It is with more than food that we need to look deeper. Everything has energy and we should want to make sure that it is as positive as it can be for the things we bring into our homes and lives. With my work with fiber, I know that not everyone is going to go out and grow their own clothes. My hope is that it will open the thought process of discovering the origins of the clothes that are being worn now. What is the fiber used and what are the environmental consequences involved in bringing it to you? Who made the garments and how are they compensated for their work? The list of questions could go on and on for each thing that comes into your life.

I don’t mean to burden you, but to urge you to look at everything with new eyes and to recognize the all encompassing energy that is involved. How do we express the value of things that are produced with the heart? I believe we can feel it, but have no words at this time to express it.homeplace earth

 

Marilyn flax flowers - BLOG

Marilyn Flax flowers.

The first of my flax plantings started to flower last week. I planted this bed on March 9 and it was 70 days later when I noticed the bed full of blooms. It is important to note the time of flowering so you can estimate when to harvest, especially if you are new at this.

Flax will bloom profusely for about a week or so. That is the time to have on record. Look forward to harvesting in about 30 days. You will still see flax flowers pop out, probably even up to harvest, but it is the major bloom time that you calculate 30 days from.

Marilyn flax flowers in bed - BLOG

Marilyn Flax in bloom.

You could easily miss this great show if you only visit your garden in the afternoon or evening. The flowers themselves are short-lived. They will bloom before noon, then the petals will drop off. By later in the afternoon you wouldn’t know that the whole bed had been in bloom in the morning. So, if it has been two months since you planted flax in your garden, keep a mid-to-late morning eye out for the blooms.

It is time to harvest when the plants begin to turn yellow at the bottom. The tops will still be green and will have seed heads on them. In the photo you can see freshly harvested flax laid out on the ground next to a bed of flax still growing. I waited two more weeks to harvest that standing bed to give the seeds more time to mature. In 2016 I planted flax on March 8 and harvested the first bed on June 22 and the second bed on July 8. I live in Virginia in zone 7.  Last year was my first year to grow flax, so my experience is limited, but I didn’t see much difference in the fiber from the two harvests. However, by waiting the two weeks, the seeds looked better. To harvest flax you pull it right out of the ground. Not cutting it, as I am used to doing with wheat and rye, was a surprise to me, but it sure made it easier. Usable fiber goes all the way into the root.

flax ready to harvest4--BLOG

Harvested flax ready to bundle and a bed of flax ready to pull.

I have read that earlier harvested flax will yield finer fiber. In fact, in The Big Book of Flax, Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf say that if you are only after fiber you can pull the plants just after flowering when the plants are still green. If you want seed only, you can wait until the whole plants are brown. The fiber will not be usable, but you will have fully mature seed. I relied on what I’d read in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich and planned my harvest close to 100 days after planting and 30 days after major flower flush. Actual harvest of the first bed was 101 days after planting. I’m sure different weather conditions can affect harvest time, but this gives you an idea of what to look for. One year I might experiment with harvesting earlier and later.

flax ready to harvest--seedhead closeup - BLOG

Seed heads on flax ready to harvest.

When you pull the flax you will need to put it in bundles and dry it. A piece of flax can be used to tie each bundle together, or you can use a piece of twine for that. I lay the bundles against a fence to dry a bit before putting them away in my shed. Keep the flax stalks going the same way in each bundle, with the seed heads at one end and the roots at the other.  The next step, called rippling, is to remove the seeds. It can be done at harvest or after the stalks have dried. The seed heads will be full of seed which are attractive to birds and rodents, so don’t delay.

flax bundles--with seed and without--BLOG

Rippling flax by laying on solid surface and stepping on the seed heads.

I have seen plans for rippling combs made of wood, but you don’t need to bother with that. Just lay an old sheet or a tarp on a hard surface, place the stalks on it, and gently step on the seed heads. The bolls will pop open and spill their seeds right there. Nothing could be easier. In the photo you can see one bundle with the seed heads still on, and one bundle that has been stepped on. The seeds will need to be winnowed to remove the chaff.

My yield for the 80 sq. ft. bed that I harvested on July 8 last year was 6 oz. (170.1 g.) of fiber for spinning, 19 oz. (538.6 g.) of tow, and 6 oz. of seeds. Calculating the yield in terms of 100 sq. ft., that would be 7.5 oz (212.6 g.) of fiber, 23.75 oz. of tow (673.3 g.), and 7.5 oz. of seed per 100 sq. ft. I have not worked with the tow yet, but I know that I can salvage some for spinning. That flax was planted in rows. This year I broadcast all my flax so I expect my yield will be higher.

There is a lot to learn in order to turn flax into linen and it can be exciting. It is even more fun if you can do it with others. My handspinning group is having a flax-to-linen workshop in June, broadening the group of friends who have the skills to do it. I will be telling you about that in a future post. After rippling, the flax can be stored until the next step, which is retting. After that is the breaking, which is when you actually separate the fiber from the stalks. I will be writing about each step and what equipment you will need. A heads up about retting—you can lay it out in the grass and let the dew work on it, no pool of water necessary. Once you understand the whole process and actually work through it and have fiber to spin, doing it again will not seem so daunting.homeplace earth

 

Cindy's nametag-Homespun_cotton_of_colorI took a serious interest in growing cotton and learning to spin it in 2011. I had grown a few cotton plants at a time before, but that year I planted an 80 square foot bed of Nankeen Brown and 22 square feet of Erlene’s Green. The cotton beds were about 100 feet apart. My first weaving project, a nametag, used cotton from the 2011 harvest and in the photo you can see the brown and green I grew. The white was from cotton I grew in the late 1990s. I cropped this image of the nametag from a photo taken by Mary Delicate, while I was wearing it at a VABF conference. A nametag might seem like an unlikely first weaving project, but I made it to wear at my spinning group meetings and have had fun with it elsewhere. It has come in handy to document those early colors. Although my records show the brown variety was Nankeen, that has been called into question recently since, apparently, Nankeen Brown has fuzzy seeds and my brown has naked seeds. Learn more about that at Seed Conundrum.

My cotton varieties were much closer than the recommended distance for avoiding cross pollination. The crossing was not reflected in the fiber that year from the parent plants, but held within the seeds. Some plants would have been pollinated by those of the same variety, but others would have been touched by pollen from the other variety. The plants that grew from those cross-pollinated seeds would be the F1 generation.

You have probably seen varieties designated as F1 in seed catalogs. That is always an indication that it is a hybrid. With hybrids, the parents are from different varieties of the same crop, and their offspring (F1 generation), although a mixture of genes with loads of potential, produce a predictable crop. Hybridization is done to produce the special qualities that can be found, and predicted, in that F1 generation. It is when you move beyond the F1 that things get exciting.

In 2012 I grew cotton from the 2011 harvest. The seeds for the green cotton were fuzzy and the seeds for the brown were naked. The green and brown colors of cotton that I grow are faint at harvest, deepening to their ultimate color once the skeins are scoured by boiling in soapy water after spinning. Since I was not aware of the extent of the crossing, I didn’t examine the fiber from each bed, considering everything from the green bed green and everything from the brown bed brown. I would have had to look closely to distinguish the difference in color within each bed when the fiber was all mixed together. In the photos, the color looks evident because it has already been sorted.

2014 harvest-Green bed - BLOG

Part of the 2014 Green bed harvest.

I was spinning the cotton off the seed, so I didn’t see the seed until the fiber was already on my spindle. Examining the seeds helps determine differences. Once I scoured the spun yarn and the colors popped, I could see how much crossing had occurred. The vest I made in 2014 contained harvests from my 2012 and 2013 green cotton beds. It made for a wonderful pattern and made me think about what was happening with the seeds.

2014 Harvest-Brown bed - BLOG

Part of the 2014 Brown bed harvest.

In 2014 I planted brown and green cotton seeds saved from the 2011 and 2012 harvests. In 2015 and 2016 I grew Red Foliated White cotton only. I decided to study my 2014 harvest by closely examining the seeds and fiber from the green and brown beds. The fiber from the green bed was either green or light brown and the seeds were all fuzzy. The fiber from the brown bed was brown or light brown, with the darker brown having naked seeds and the lighter brown having fuzzy seeds. It appeared that what had crossed expressed itself as light brown, whether in the green bed or the brown bed. Apparently, brown is the dominant color. The green cotton had a more silky feel than the brown and that showed up some in the light brown fiber. The feel of the fiber helped me separate the brown bed harvest. Next, I wanted to see what would happen if I grew out these four sets of seeds.

I enlisted the help of my daughter, Betsy, daughter-in-law, Stephanie, and friends Molly, Susan, and Margaret. Betsy had seeds from the brown bed with the dark brown fiber (B/B), Stephanie grew out seeds from the brown bed with the light brown fiber (B/b), Molly and Margaret grew out seeds from the green bed that produced green fiber (G/G) and Susan grew seeds from the green bed that produced light brown fiber (G/b). I asked them to grow out about 10-12 plants for me. Some grew more than that, and some grew less. None of them are spinners or have any other interest in cotton other than joining in the adventure with me. I have wonderful family and friends!

Most likely this was the F2 generation, but some could be F3. What Betsy grew, B/B, was uniformly dark brown fiber with naked seeds. Stephanie had light brown and dark brown fiber, all with fuzzy seeds. Surprisingly, she also had four bolls with white fiber! Although they just look dark and fuzzy now, the lint on the seeds of these white bolls definitely looked green at harvest.

M-M--2016-G-G

Harvest from Molly and Margaret (G/G). we were expecting mostly green fiber.

I thought that the plants with fiber that was definitely dark brown or green had not crossed. That was apparently so with Betsy’s harvest, but not so with Molly’s and Margaret’s (G/G). They had fewer plants, but nevertheless, I was expecting green and instead, got light brown to tan, with only a very small amount of green. Green is definitely recessive and elusive.

Susan--G-B-2016 - BLOG

Susan’s harvest (G/b) was sorted into 9 colors/shades.

Susan (G/b) had a very interesting harvest with the most variation of green and brown and some of her colors were quite dark when scoured. Although most of her harvest had fuzzy seeds, she had some medium brown with naked seeds. I am sorting the colors of each harvest and spinning them separately, then scouring to find the true colors. In my garden this year I am growing the greens. I have pulled two from Susan’s harvest, the small bit from Molly and Margaret, and I will be including Erlene’s Green from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I’m looking forward to seeing what I will get, knowing full well they will be crossing with each other.

My wonderful crew is helping me again this year. Stephanie is growing out the white cotton. With green fuzzy seeds, we’re thinking she will get more than just white fiber. Molly and Margaret are each growing the light brown/tan fiber from their harvests. There should be green in there somewhere.  Susan is growing seeds from the plants she grew that yielded silky brown fiber and had green fuzzy seeds. Betsy had to bow out of The Cotton Project this year because she is growing cotton for Southern Exposure. They asked her to grow Nankeen Brown, which is how we realized there was a question with naked vs. fuzzy seeds for that variety.

Sally Fox of Viriditas Farm has been researching colored cotton since the 1980’s and has been breeding for longer staple length and color. She says she has some F19 generations of cotton that haven’t settled yet and still yield surprises. We are having a good time with this and, from looking at Sally’s experience, it appears the adventure could continue for quite some time.homeplace earth

 

Seed Conundrum

tomato seeds--Long Tom-Barnes Mt Red-Cherry - BLOG

tomato seeds–l to r, Long Tom, Barnes Mountain Red, Cherry

Seeds aren’t always what we think they are. They are part of our world, which is always changing, so it is logical to think that seeds change over time, also. We can take great care to keep seed varieties pure, or mostly so, and then find out things happened that we didn’t expect. That’s life.

We can’t always tell by just looking at seeds how they will express themselves. Here are seeds for three varieties of tomatoes I am planting this year. One is a cherry tomato that is large by today’s cherry tomato standards, red, and has a real tomato taste, not sweet like the newer varieties. I used to grow these for restaurant sales more than 20 years ago. One variety is for Long Tom tomatoes. Long Tom is a very meaty variety that grows to an oblong shape weighing about 4 ounces. It is great for drying and has few seeds.

The third variety is for a tomato I call Barnes Mountain Red. It is a large red meaty tomato with great taste and good for all uses. A few years ago my daughter, Betsy, received seeds for Barnes Mountain Pink to grow out for a seed company. Unbeknownst to the seed company, the variety wasn’t stable and the seeds produced yellow, pink, and red tomatoes. The seeds for the pinks went back to the seed company with the instability noted. Betsy loved the yellows and saved the seed, wanting to work with it when time allowed. I am not big on off-colored tomatoes, but loved the red ones, so I saved the seed from some of those. I was happy they produced red tomatoes for me. (Many of the varieties in my garden have some sort of story connected to them.) Each of these tomato varieties is much different than the others, but you can’t tell that by looking at their seeds, except that there are always fewer seeds from the Long Toms and in this photo they look a bit darker.

You know that I have been working with cotton, specifically Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green. Betsy grows seeds for four seed companies and this year the seeds she agreed to grow for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange included Nankeen Brown cotton. I happened to be around when she opened the box of seeds she had received from Southern Exposure and had the opportunity to take a peek at the cotton, expecting to see dark seeds with no lint, otherwise known as naked seeds. To my surprise, they were fuzzy!

Nankeen Brown Cotton--SESE-Sunfield-BLOG

Nankeen Brown Cotton seeds–from Southern Exposure on left, my seeds (now called Sunfield Brown) on right.

I first grew what I know as Nankeen Brown in my garden in 2005 and saved the seed. I still have the seed container labeled 2005 in my stash. I didn’t grow them out again until 2011 when I also grew Erlene’s Green. There was eventually some crossing that I will tell you about when I write about my Cotton Project. Every year since, the darkest brown fiber had seeds that were naked. If the fiber was lighter brown, it had crossed with the green and the seeds were fuzzy. To my best recollection, I bought the seeds from Southern Exposure and even remember there was a story about a Nankeen shirt connected with that variety.

The folks at Southern Exposure are friends of mine, so I contacted them questioning what they had sent. Anything they could find on Nankeen Brown indicated it had fuzzy seeds. They didn’t start working with Sea Island Brown, which has naked seeds, until 2008, so I wouldn’t have gotten those seeds. Although I keep many records, including seed invoices, I can’t seem to find the file from 2005. What a conundrum! Until now I would have sworn I was working with Nankeen Brown and it had naked seeds. I don’t know what happened there, but life goes on. I am renaming my brown cotton Sunfield Brown, since Sunfield is the name of our very small farm.

Most varieties don’t expose themselves like cotton does. Visual inspection doesn’t reveal differences. Seed companies do their best to make sure the seeds you receive are what they say they are. I have heard stories about gardeners having ordered seeds that grew out to be different than advertised. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. The companies are dependent on their growers, who farm in a variety of areas, most likely with different soils and more or less a different climate than you are gardening in. I’m sure the growers work to ensure cross pollination doesn’t happen. However, anything can happen from seed, to plant, to seed that is distributed—and it does. Of course, this doesn’t explain what happened in the cotton mix-up. What a conundrum about that cotton.

We can get tied up in names of varieties, complete with detailed descriptions of what they will look and taste like and how they will grow. Personally, I don’t think the same variety of anything would grow the same in different climates and different soils, even within the same region. What matters most is how it grows in your garden. Discover what you want to produce, and experiment with varieties until you come close. Then save the seeds each year to have a strain of that variety that is acclimated to your soil, weather, and gardening habits. Seeds contain a whole history in their genes and you can bring out what works best for you. Then name it what you want. However it came to be that you grew that variety is your story and now you can give it a name.

coldframe seedlings--tomatoes-peppers-zinnias - BLOG

Peppers are coming up in front of the tomatoes in the coldframe.

So as not to be too far from what you started with, you might include the name of the original variety in your new name. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog carries a tomato variety called Roma VF Virginia Select, a strain of Roma VF that Pam Dawling developed at Twin Oaks Community near Louisa, Virginia. You probably know that peppers like warm conditions to germinate, but I have two pepper varieties that germinate well in the cooler soil of a coldframe—Ruffled Hungarian and Corno di Toro. I have not renamed them, but have been saving my own seeds and growing them in the coldframe for years. I donated seeds to my local seed library. I would love to see seed libraries stocked with varieties of seeds that are acclimated to their area and contain descriptions of what the local growers experienced. No matter what you call it, if it grows well in your garden, that is all that matters.homeplace earth

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