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Archive for June, 2017

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

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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

 

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