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Archive for August, 2017

Onion braids hanging in my shed.

Onion braids hanging in my shed.

I have been writing quite a bit this year about growing cotton and flax, with the idea of taking the fiber all the way to clothes you can wear. Scroll through my posts and you will have enough information to begin working on growing your own clothes. You will be hearing more about fiber in the future, but now I will turn my attention back to food crops.

Onions are a great crop! Plant them at the right time in the spring, harvest them all at the same time, and, if you have grown enough and stored them carefully, you can be eating your homegrown onions all year. Onions grown for storage can become a staple crop for your homegrown diet. Open-pollinated onion varieties good for storage include New York Early and Red Wethersfield, but there are others. Sweet onion varieties, however, do not last as long as the varieties grown for storage. The descriptions in seed catalogs should indicate if a variety will store well or not.

If you have had a problem with the onions you buy at the grocery store sprouting in a relatively short time after you brought them home, you are probably wondering how you could ever keep them long term. Well, the ones you grow are much different from the ones you get at the store, primarily because you can manage them from the time they come out of the ground. Most likely, the store-bought onions have already been kept for a long period in cool conditions and, once they are brought out to room temperature, they are ready to sprout.

onions in fence circle just after harvest

Onions in fence circle just after harvest.

By this time of the year you have probably already harvested your onions, hopefully before the tops died back. If so, you will have them to braid. Onions need to be cured after harvest under conditions with good air circulation. You could lay them out on a screen or board in the shade or lay them out on your barn floor, which is what I used to do before I began putting them on a circle of fencing. I went to the fence circle once I was growing more than my barn floor could accommodate. For each circle, I use a piece of old welded wire fencing with 2”x4” spacings. It sets on two cement blocks in such a way that allows good air circulation up through the middle. It could also be hung from the rafters, which would get it off the floor and provide even greater air circulation. I put each onion in the middle of the circle and pull the green top through the wire to the outside. Those tops will die back in the next couple weeks. Having them on the outside, allows them to dry quicker than if the onions were on the outside of the circle and the tops were inside.

Onions in the fence circle ready to sort.

Onions in the fence circle ready to sort.

Most likely, no matter what you have done with them, you have reached the stage where the onions tops have dried and it has become apparent that not all your onions are going to keep till the spring. It is time to sort through them. Identify the ones to use early and which ones you can keep for later. Hold each onion in your hand and put your thumb over the spot where the top comes out. Press down. If there is much give, put it in the “use now” pile. If it is very hard, set it aside to braid or otherwise store for the long term. If there is just a little give when you press down with your thumb, put it in the “use next” pile, meaning it will be used after the “use now” pile is depleted.

Onions in solar food dryer.

Onions in solar food dryer.

The “use now” onions are what you want to be using as you are canning salsa, spaghetti sauce, or anything else that needs onions this summer. You could also cut them up and put them in a dehydrator. Here is a photo of some onions in my solar dryer. My extra “use now” onions are sitting in a basket on my back porch and that is what I am using for summer cooking. I’ve braided my “use next” onions and labeled the braids so that I will use them before the long term storage braids. For now, all the onion braids are hanging in my garden shed. About mid-October I will transfer them to the crawlspace under our house. I have put nails in the joists just to hang onion and garlic braids through the winter. Even in the coldest times here in central Virginia it never freezes there. You can find details about how to braid onions in my July 28, 2015 post.

There are many ways to manage onions, but this method is what I have found to be most helpful  It is a wonderful feeling to reach the point where you are growing most, if not all, of the onions you will need for the year. The important thing is to not crowd them in a warm place. They need to have air circulation. A story for another day is about using onion skins to make a natural dye. As I use the onions, I save their yellow skins in a mesh bag to use in dyeing. There is much fun to be had from what you can grow in your garden!

Onions have many health benefits, which I wrote about on January 24, 2012. Knowing how healthy onions are for you should prompt you to include onions in your diet as often as possible. Learning to store the onions that you have grown for the long term brings you one step closer to being able to put homegrown meals on the table all year long.homeplace earth logo

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hackling flaxHackling takes freshly broken and scutched flax and turns it into fine fiber ready to spin. You toss the ends of the flax onto the hackle and draw it through. With each new toss, add more length of fiber until you get to the middle. Then turn it around and do the other side, beginning with the tip.

Just like with flax brakes, flax hackles may be hard to find. I found my first one for $60 in an antique mall in Pennsylvania. The spacing of the tines varies and you will find them in fine, medium, and coarse spacing. Lucky for me, the one I found in that antique mall was a medium. The tines are a half inch apart with offset spacing, meaning they are not lined up like the corners of a square. If you have a medium hackle you can do a good job of processing flax into fiber to spin with just one hackle.

line flax-tow-hackle

line flax, tow, and medium hackle

The first flax I processed here was some I bought unretted from the Landis Valley Farm and Museum. When you hackle flax you will end up with line fiber that will look like a ponytail and you will have a good quantity of tow. Tow is what is pulled out of the ponytail by the hackle and can amount to quite a bit. You can re-hackle the tow and get usable fiber. Tow fibers longer than 6” can go back through the hackle. If the tow is shorter than 6” you will need to card it. Wool cards can be used for tow, but it is best to have a set just for flax. In this photo you can see line flax, tow, and my antique medium hackle.

coarse hackle in use

homemade coarse hackle

The medium hackle worked well, but I wanted to take it further and make a coarse and a fine hackle. For the coarse hackle, I sharpened 28 16D common nails and set them into a piece of walnut 1″ apart on offset spacing. The nails were 3½” long. I chose to use that many because I was keeping to the size footprint of my medium hackle.—about 4”x5”. I used walnut because we had a walnut board. I used a drill press to make the holes in the board using an ¹¹̷₁₆ drill bit. The nails didn’t fit quite as tight as I wanted, so I set them with epoxy. I made the base from pine. Screws are inserted from the bottom of the pine into the bottom of the walnut to hold the two pieces together. I sharpened the nails by putting each one into a drill press and holding a metal file to it until it was shaped as I wanted it.

That worked well for the coarse hackle, but sharpening all those nails was slow work. For the fine hackle I needed 267 16D finish nails, 3½” long. I decided to use the nails as they were, without sharpening. I put them at ¼” spacing and this time I lined them up as on the corners of a square. I used graph paper with ¼” squares and marked where each line intersected, poking a nail through the paper to mark the wood. I used a ⅛” bit in the drill press for this. The nails fit snug enough that there was no need to use epoxy when I set them. Since there were so many nails in this hackle we added a ½” wide aluminum strip around the sides, screwing it on at two places on each side. It may or may not be necessary to keep it from splitting, but it really looks great!

fine hackles-old and new

fine hackles–antique and newly homemade

We used the plans from Woolgatherers as a guide to start, with added inspiration from the medium hackle I already had. Flax hackles can be as distinct as the maker. In days gone by, they would have been made on the farm or by a blacksmith. In her book, The Practical Spinner’s Guide to Cotton, Flax, and Hemp, Stephanie Gaustad says that the tines on hackles for flax should be square in cross section, with each side sharpened, rather than round like the nails I used. However, they are round on the antique medium hackle I have. I was able to purchase a fine hackle at the auction at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May for $40. The cross section of the tines on that hackle is square. The edges may have been sharp at one time, but they aren’t now.

I thought I would eventually get around to sharpening the ends of some nails for a fine hackle to compare to the one with the plain nails, but I haven’t done that yet. Since I acquired the antique hackle, I don’t know if I will bother making another. I thought I might notice a big difference between the two fine hackles, but I have worked with them side-by-side and nothing stands out so far. Future work with the two hackles might reveal a bigger difference. I do like having fine, medium, and coarse hackles.

This is how people processed flax for linen on their farms until commercial fabric was available. Some people are learning this so they can demonstrate it for historical purposes. I think we need to look at it as, not only something done long ago, but as an activity that we can do on our homesteads and actually make clothes and other textiles for ourselves again. We can go from seed to garment, right at home!

There is a Fibershed movement going on that is exploring ways to make local fabric a viable production possibility. For that, you need to go beyond the flax brakes and hackles that I have described to increase production for a community. It just so happens that the Taproot Fibre Lab in Nova Scotia has been working on production scale equipment. Also, the folks at the Chico Flax Project in Northern California have been working on a community Flax to Linen project and there is a Flax to Linen group in Victoria, British Columbia. So, local linen is a possibility for communities in the not so distant future, although it already is a possibility in your backyard.homeplace earth logo

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