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Archive for the ‘flax’ Category

spinning wheel-flax distaff - BLOGI have promised to take you through the whole process of seed to garment with flax this year. You start with getting seeds in the ground, then once harvest occurs—which is about 100 days from planting—a whole lot more needs to happen before you have fiber to spin. Nevertheless, I have decided to jump right to spinning. You can learn to spin flax fiber you have bought while you are waiting for the harvest. That is what I did starting out. When it is closer to harvest, I’ll write about what to do next.

Whether you are going to spin flax or cotton, it is always a bit different working with “store bought” fiber, rather than with your homegrown fiber. However, any experience you have with whatever fiber you can acquire will be beneficial. Lacking homegrown flax, you can buy flax to spin in either strick form, also known as line flax, or roving. A strick is what you will have from your homegrown flax. It is long flax fibers, just as it would come from the hackles. You will learn about hackles in a future post. You need to keep those fibers manageable while you are spinning, and that is the part that was daunting to me at first, until I learned that all I needed to do was to hang them up like a ponytail and pull fibers from the bottom to spin. You can see in the photo that I hang a flax strick from a fancy stand that I believe held a lamp long ago. I thought it was interesting when I found it in someone’s barn, not knowing that I would put it to use as a distaff.

distaff with flax - BLOGA distaff is what is used to hold fibers for spinning. You might have seen photos of traditional distaffs with flax fibers surrounding a core with a ribbon holding everything in place. In the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School I learned to spread the fibers from a flax strick out and fill a distaff. This photo was taken during that class. Some distaffs are shorter and made to be portable. The spinner puts one end in her/his belt or pocket, supporting the rod with their arm, as they spin on a spindle.

That was interesting and traditional, and I am sure it has some advantages, but hanging up the flax ponytail is a lot easier. A ribbon can still be added if you like. A simple free-standing distaff can be made from a long dowel or broom handle mounted on a base. A knob on top will give you something to tie the flax to. In her book The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, and Hemp, Sephanie Gaustad suggests putting a broom into a Christmas tree stand for a distaff. You could even hang a flax ponytail from a nail in the wall.

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Turkish spindle with flax roving.

When I spin at home with my Louett S10 wheel, I use the set-up you see in the first photo. That spinning wheel was a gift from a friend who no longer needed it. I didn’t shop around and choose it for spinning flax. When I spin flax away from home I spin on a spindle; more specifically, a Turkish spindle. There are many kinds of spindles you could use, but I chose this one because I was in need of a spindle for flax when I visited the Woolgatherers store in Wisconsin and found this one made by a local woodworker from local wood. Furthermore, the woodworker’s name was Scott Snyder—same name as my brother in Ohio, who is also a woodworker. My brother makes rocking horses and other rocking things. I think Turkish spindles are great because they come apart, leaving you with your ball of yarn intact. You spin a length of yarn, then wind on going over two legs and under one all around (or over one and under two). Attach the yarn to the top of the spindle with a half-hitch and you are ready to spin some more.

You can make a drop spindle with a ¼” dowel, about 12” long or so, and a 2” wooden wheel, such as you would find in a craft store. If you put a hook in the end of the dowel, you don’t have to bother with the half hitch at the top when you are spinning. Once you spin a length of yarn, you wind it on the dowel, then spin some more.

Although I spin cotton clockwise (Z twist), I read in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich that flax fibers naturally spin counter-clockwise (S twist), so I spin flax counter-clockwise. To tell the truth, I never took the time to notice the natural spin of flax. You can spin either way, as long as you remember which way that is and always do it the same.

turkish spindle with flax strick - BLOG

Turkish spindle with flax strick.

The flax you buy to spin might be in roving form (above photo), which is sort of an untwisted rope. Cotton spinners may be familiar with cotton roving. The fibers in roving, which is machine prepared, are shorter than line flax. When I was first learning I bought flax roving from Paradise Fibers and a strick from Woolgatherers. At first I thought that the roving would be easier. I left it wound up in the bag it came in and pulled from there. I put the flax bag inside a shoulder bag so that it was hanging at my side and spun it on my Turkish spindle. However, the more I worked with the line flax, the better I liked it. Also, the line flax was what I would be working with once I grew my own. I learned that I could fold a towel around the line flax and lay it in my lap while I spun on my spindle. Of course, if I am walking around, like I tend to do at a handspinning meeting, I need to drape the towel over my arm or put in my shoulder bag hanging at my side.

It is best to moisten flax with water or saliva while you are spinning it. It will help to make it smooth, avoiding a hairy appearance. Traditionally, a spinner would lick her/his fingers while spinning to provide the moisture. Although I have used the saliva method, and like the idea of my enzymes being added to the fiber, I usually spin at the wheel with a dish in my lap holding a rag moistened with water or, if I am moving around with the spindle, I attach a cup to my belt loop with a small carabiner to hold the moistened rag.

I hope these tips will help to get you started spinning flax. Practice now and you will be ready when you have your own homegrown fiber to spin

.homeplace earth

 

 

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Homegrown flax straw, line flax, and linen thread spun from the line flax.

Growing flax in your garden and making it into linen is a great experience. Linen is the name for flax fiber once it is made into thread. It is hard to believe that what you harvest in the summer, something that looks less vibrant than the straw that results from growing wheat and rye, can produce fiber that can be made into fabric. Knowledge and the right tools is all it takes, in addition to planting the flax seeds at the correct time.

The variety of flax you will be planting for linen (Linum usitatissimum) is different than flax for culinary use (Linum perenne). Also, the planting is different. For linen you will need to plant the seeds closer together to get a very thick stand. The goal is to have straight stalks with no branching. A variety of fiber flax that I have found readily available is Marilyn. The Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania sells Marilyn flax seed, as does the Hermitage in Pitman, Pennsylvania. Richters in Canada is also a source of flax seed. One pound of flax seed will plant about 300-400 square feet. You might find it for sale in some places by the packet for smaller areas.

Don’t delay in ordering your seeds because the time to plant is in early spring. Last year I planted on March 8 here in Virginia in Zone 7. Using the information in Linda Heinrich’s book, Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, as my guide, I waited until the soil had warmed to at least 43-46° F. (6-8° C.). Soil that is too cold will slow germination. Since I was planting in beds in my vegetable garden, I had the required open and sunny space. One guideline as a time to plant is to count back 100 days from when hot weather (80° F., 27° C.) sets in. Here in Virginia it can get hot early, so I went with the soil temperature guideline.

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flax flowers

Harvest time is 90-100 days from planting, or 30 days after the crop is in full flower. I watched for that and marked my calendar for harvest in 30 days. There will be some earlier blooms and some later ones, but watch for the major flush of blooms. I harvested most of my flax on June 22. I let one bed go about two weeks later to let the seeds mature, harvesting that bed on July 8. I thought I would be sacrificing the quality of the fiber if I waited for the seeds to mature, but so far, it looks good. I have processed it into line flax for spinning, but haven’t spun it yet. Time will tell.

I prepare in the fall for my early spring flax planting. The area needs to be moderately fertile. In the fall, instead of planting a cover crop, I cover the intended flax beds with leaves from the oak and maple trees in our yard, since I can never be too sure what the weather will be in early spring and I want the beds ready early. If I could depend on having the cover crop winterkill, I would plant for that. However, sometimes our winters are too mild for a sure winterkill, which has happened this year. I pull off the leaves a week or two before planting to let the soil warm and, when the time is right, put in the seeds.

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Flax growing in rows in a 4′ wide garden bed.

Everything I have read about flax cautions about keeping up with the weeding, but I found that was not a problem. The flax was well established by the time weeds appeared. The leaf mulch over the winter might have helped with that. Planting can be done in rows spaced close together (3-4 in., 7.5-10.5 cm.) or broadcast. Planting in rows will help you identify what is flax and what is weeds, making weeding easier. When it is time to harvest, you will be pulling it up, roots and all, rather than cutting it. The fiber extends all the way into the roots and you want every bit.

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Flax brake, scutching board and scutching knife, and three hackles. The middle hackle is an antique. We made the other two.

Growing flax is the easy part. Once it is harvested, it will need to be retted, which can be accomplished by soaking it in water or laying it out in the grass to let the dew take care of it for a couple weeks. After that, you will need equipment, which may not be readily available, to process it into line flax to spin. Of course, then you need to spin it, then weave or knit it. Don’t worry, I will be telling you about retting and processing in future posts. We have made a flax brake, scutching board and knife, and hackles to do the processing. The spinning can be done on a handspindle or a spinning wheel.

If you would like to work with flax and you do not intend to grow your own, you can purchase unretted flax from the Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Museum. That’s how I got started. Places that sell spinning and weaving equipment may have line flax for spinning. The class I took at the John C. Campbell Folk School in 2015 helped jumpstart my flax education.

Get your seeds in the ground this spring and watch for them to flower in 60-70 days, then mark your calendar for harvest 30 days after that. I’ll be posting again before harvest time to guide you along. This will be fun!homeplace earth

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Homegrown cotton vest with black walnut-dyed shirt.

Fibershed is the name of a non-profit organization started by Rebecca Burgess in 2010 in California. Her goal was to “develop and wear a prototype wardrobe whose dyes, fibers and labor were sourced from a region no larger than 150 miles from the project’s headquarters.” Since then her work has expanded and other Fibershed groups around the world have signed on to explore textile production in their own regions. You will find their Facebook pages and activities on the Internet. It is a fitting name for a group looking close to home for their fiber sources. Just like watershed is concerned with where the water comes from for a region, and foodshed looks at our local food systems, I can see the word fibershed becoming a buzz word anywhere someone is talking about clothing themselves locally.

On the Fibershed website I found the term soil-to-skin. I have often used the term seed-to-garment, but I like soil-to-skin, since it takes the concerns further. I also found soil-to-soil used on the website. If your clothes will compost, just bury them at the end of their useful life and let them replenish the soil. Twenty years ago not so many people were as concerned about the source of their food as they are presently. Now, I hope they start talking more about where their fiber comes from—their fibershed. As with their food, it all starts with the soil to produce cotton, flax/linen, and wool. Synthetic fibers are not part of this conversation.

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brown cotton boll

Many of the Fibershed groups deal heavily with wool. That could be because there are more farmers with small herds of fiber animals than there are farmers with small plots of cotton. I don’t say much about wool because I have my hands full with the cotton and flax/linen from my garden. So much of the cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified that you might think that non-GMO organic cotton is not available to the consumer. I sew my own clothes and set out to see what I could find. It would be wonderful to have sewn a whole wardrobe by now from my homegrown cotton and linen, but so far I have only a vest and a shirt. Spinning the fiber takes time, but it is mindful and enjoyable work. I have learned about the toxic effects of textile dyes and have been exploring those, also. There is a black walnut tree in my backyard and I eat lots of onions from my garden. Walnuts and onion skins are both terrific for dyeing.

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Shirt dyed with onion skins.

I like to use Kona cotton for shirts because it wears so well. When I did some checking I found that it met the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX certification for human-ecological requirements. That doesn’t mean it is organic, but they are moving in the right direction. You’ll find Kona cotton in fabric stores and quilt shops. I wanted to make a shirt to wear with my homegrown cotton vest, but couldn’t find a color in my fabric store that would do. However, this fall I had experimented with the black walnuts and realized that produced just the color I needed. Furthermore, I discovered that Dharma Trading Company sold Kona Cotton PFD (prepared for dyeing); meaning that it was not treated with optical whiteners. I bought enough for two shirts. You can see the black-walnut dyed shirt in the first photo at the top of this page and the shirt dyed with onion skins here. Obviously, this shirt took the color well from the onion skins. I’ve already rinsed out any extra color, but it may fade a bit over time. The buttons were in my stash from previous projects or cut from old clothes.

I needed a new turtleneck shirt to wear with my new homegrown cotton shirt. It is hard for me to find cotton turtlenecks in the weight of fabric I want (they all seem to be too thin) and ones that have cuffs and enough length in the body and in the sleeves. My search for organic cotton led me to Organic Cotton Plus, a company started in Texas by organic cotton farmers to sell directly to people like you and me. It has since entered the global marketplace. I found nice organic cotton interlock for my turtleneck shirts! You can order swatches (99 cents each) of the fabrics you are interested in if you want to see and feel it first, like me. I bought enough fabric for two shirts and made a pattern from an old turtleneck that fit me best, making adjustments as necessary. I love this new shirt. It is a recent project, so sorry, I have no photo to show you of the turtleneck I made, but you’ll see it eventually. I will make the second shirt when I decide what I want to dye it with. Organic Cotton Plus had this interlock in colors, but none that matched what I needed.

I initially took an interest in Organic Cotton Plus because I was looking for organic cotton grown in the U.S. I had already bought naturally brown denim for jeans from Sally Fox at Vreseis.com. Although that’s how it started out, not all the cotton for fabrics sold through Organic Cotton Plus comes from this country. I see that the organic fabric for my turtlenecks came from India. Maybe I’m helping to support the Indian farmers that Vandana Shiva worked with to overcome their experience with Monsanto and GMOs. That would be a good thing.

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I knitted three pairs of wool socks this past year from yarn I bought from Kathy Oliver of Sweet Tree Hill Farm. Kathy is a shepherd and we are both members of the same handspinning group. I bought the first two skeins at the Powhatan Fiber Festival in April and knitted the first pair in the natural color. I grew Japanese indigo last summer and used it for my first dyeing adventures, resulting in the blue socks. It was so much fun I bought a third skein when I saw her at the Fall Fiber Festival in October. I used that skein to play with indigo, onion skins, and black walnuts to make variegated yarn.

I applaud the groups that are working to develop textile systems that are environmentally safe and people friendly. It is when we take a closer look at our systems that we can detect ways we can change them—or, maybe do without. You probably know that I’ve worked with growing food and looking closely at what it would take to grow a complete diet. In my blog posts on Homegrown Fridays I share my experiences of limiting what I consumed on the Fridays in Lent to only what I grew myself. That was definitely an eye-opener, so I can see that if someone decided to limit their clothes to what could be produced naturally in their region, they have an adventure ahead of them. Rebecca and her group are working to change the system. I am on a personal journey to produce my own clothes as close to home as possible. If I have to buy fabric or yarn I want my purchases to do the most good they can. Meanwhile, I hope that by sharing my experiences, others will start a journey of their own. There is so much fun stuff to do in this world on our way to making it a better place!homeplace earth

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SeedLibraries covergrow a sustainable diet coverAfter being away from this blog since I broke my wrist in March, I’m back! To celebrate my return, I am offering a 25% discount through January 1, 2017 on my cover crop and garden plan DVDs and on my books Grow a Sustainable Diet and Seed Libraries. As always, shipping is free in the US. My DVDs and Grow a Sustainable Diet are educational tools and used in the sustainable agriculture program at Reynolds Community College in Goochland, VA where I used to teach. When I produced them, I had in mind those who couldn’t take my classes in person. So, if you have been wanting to learn more about cover crops, garden planning, garden plan dvd coverplannicover-crop-dvd-blogng your diet around your garden, and planning your permaculture homestead, take advantage of this opportunity to purchase an educational  program that will walk you through the process and help you apply your new found information to your own situation. Or, you may have someone on your holiday gift list that would benefit from these materials. You’ll find these sale prices on my website at www.HomeplaceEarth.com, along with deals for a few great books that I didn’t write.

flax-flowers-blog

flax flowers in the garden

I did enjoy my time off from writing. No matter what you are involved in, it is always good to step back now and then. My wrist has healed nicely, although I am still a bit careful with it. My husband and I took a long-awaited trip to Ireland in May and it was nice not working blog posts around that. In spite of working slower due to my injury, I grew several new crops this year. Flax for linen has been harvested and retted and is

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wool yarn nestled among the Japanese indigo plants it was dyed with

waiting for me to build some fiber tools to process it (next on my to-do list). I trialed two kinds of rice this year. I also grew Japanese indigo and used it for some dye work, part of my new focus on fiber and textiles. Once I was sufficiently recovered, I was back to spinning my homegrown naturally-colored cotton for a shirt that I intended to make, weaving the fabric on my small table loom. It’s finished and I wore it for the first time on Thanksgiving.

Working with homegrown fiber is important to me in so many ways. Of course, there was the challenge to see if I could grow, spin, weave, design, and sew garments for myself to wear, and now I have a vest and

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa shirt. Hurray! I’ve used my time away from this blog to read and learn more about the history of textiles. What was once local production fueled the industrial revolution and the exploiting of people and resources has continued ever since to bring us cheap clothes—way too many cheap clothes. When you shop for clothes I would like you to consider how the people who produced them and the earth that provided the raw materials were compensated to bring you such bargains. There is much to talk about on this subject, so stay tuned. I will be telling you all about my new homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton shirt in a future post. I will also be sharing my adventures with the flax, rice, Japanese indigo and other natural dyeing, while I continue addressing the many topics you have enjoyed in this blog.

Learning about my new shirt, however, will have to wait until I fill you in about what has been happening in the seed library world. Seed libraries have been deemed exempt from state seed laws, by the way. You can learn more about that in my next post, which should appear next week. After that I will go back to my old schedule of posting every two weeks.

The video Seed: The Untold Story has been making the rounds and will be shown in Charlottesville, VA on December 8. You need to reserve your ticket ahead of time and you can do that here. After the film there will be a question and answer period with a panel staffed by folks from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and ME. If you go, be sure and catch me afterwards. I’m always happy to meet the people who read my words.homeplace earth

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In Nfolk school signovember I had the wonderful opportunity to take the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School  in Brasstown, North Carolina. I don’t remember when I first heard about the Folk School, but it was many years ago. Whenever I met someone, most often broom makers and blacksmiths, who had taken a class there, they always recommended it. I came across the Folk School’s listing for their Flax to Linen class this summer. It was a busy time and I still had two major trips ahead for the Mother Earth News Fairs, so I put the thought of attending aside but kept it in the back of my mind. By the time I had returned from Pennsylvania where my flax experiences included the Stahlstown Flax Scutching Festival and the Landis Valley Farm and Museum, in addition to the MEN Fair, I was ready to consider the flax class. It was full, however, and I was put on the waiting list. I thought that if I was meant to be in that class, a space would open up. A couple of weeks before the class was to start I got the call that I was in.

There were eight students in the class that was taught by Cassie Dickson and her assistant Peggy Patrick. Cassie was a great instructor and was backed by much experience. She grew some of the flax we were working with. Peggy makes her own shoes, among other things, and has taught classes at the Folk School about that. I was pleased to see that Jan Thomas, a fellow member of Clothos Handspinners, was there. Although Jan and I were there because we intend to grow flax and make linen for ourselves, not everyone aspired to be producers. They were there to learn the process because they thought it was interesting, to learn more about their heritage, or to learn enough to encourage the museum they volunteered at to add flax-to-linen as a program.

flax to linen classAmong the students there was a wide range of skills and previous experience with flax or any other fiber. I had acquired a spinning wheel in August, but delayed getting started with it until I could replace a couple parts. I was an experienced spindle spinner, but spinning on the wheel was something else and took getting used to. I kept at it so I would be comfortable with the wheel before I attended the class. For me, spinning flax was important. For some of the others, the exposure of what was involved was all they were after. I was able to take my wheel, but if you didn’t have one there were wheels available to use. Everyone was spinning before the first day ended. After having just gone through my learning process with the wheel, I had great respect for those who were learning to use the wheel in class for the first time. We learned about distaffs and how to put line flax on one, which I found helpful

breaking flax-ronThe second day we worked outside breaking, scutching, and hackling flax. How well the flax is retted before you work with it is important. We had the opportunity to work with flax from more than one harvest and retting. Since the processing can be dusty, we were advised to wear a mask while we worked, which explains why Ron was wearing a handkerchief over his face while he was breaking flax, as you can see in this photo. Ron is a Folk School regular, taking a new class every couple months or so.

The focus at the John C. Campbell Folk School is to help people develop skills in a non-competitive environment. Everyone learned at his/her own speed and could concentrate on the aspects of the craft they were most interested in. To quote from their 2015 catalog, “…the Folk School seeks to bring people toward two kinds of development: inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community.” I enjoyed being in the class and couldn’t help but think of the students who took my classes in the past at the community college. They, too, arrived with different skills and ambitions and it was fun seeing them work toward their own goals. Unfortunately, they also had to work toward my goals and I was required to give them a grade. There are no grades at the Folk School, just learning.

dyeing linen--yellows and madderThe third day we were into dyeing, although processing and spinning continued. Cassie prepared dyepots of marigold, osage orange, broom sedge, onion skins, madder, butternut, and butternut with iron added, plus two indigo pots. She had already prepared the linen samples by mordanting with alum, tannin, then alum again. The marigold, osage orange, broom sedge, and onion skin dyes yielded yellow colors. Samples of each yellow were put in the indigo to produce green, each expressing a different shade. The madder was dug from the Folk School garden the day before to make the red dye.

dyed linenPlant fibers take up dyes differently than animal fibers. In this photo you can see a sample of wool yarn that came out a deeper red than the linen dyed with the madder. The photo also shows four green samples from the yellows overdyed with indigo. Cassie plans on teaching this flax class next year, but dyeing won’t be part of it. Instead, silk will be added. Yes, she has her own silk worms and knows what to do with them. The next day we had the opportunity to try our hand at weaving patterns on three small table looms that were warped and ready to go. We each prepared a book of samples of the flax straw, processing at each stage, and our own spinning and weaving. The books included linen swatches from each color dyed.

Besides this class there was so much more going on around us. I stayed on the grounds, as did many others and we all ate together in the dining hall. That was a wonderful opportunity to meet others and learn about the classes they were taking. In the evenings there were other activities to participate in. It happened to be Shaker Week, so much was centered around that. Our class finished each day by 4:30, allowing us time to take advantage of these activities. However, that was not so for some of the other classes. The weavers, woodworkers, and basket and broom makers tended to return to their studios in the evening. The last afternoon everyone gathered in the main hall with each class displaying their work. It was fun to see what we had been hearing about all week.

homeplace earthIf you want to meet interesting people and learn something new, check out the John C. Campbell Folk School. I am happy I had the experience.

As the holidays approach, remember that Homeplace Earth now offers free shipping on books and DVDs. In addition to the ones we have written or produced, there some other great books that are available at a discount while supplies last.

 

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cotton in field

Brown cotton ready to harvest after the frost,

Fall is the best time to plan your garden for the coming year. If you manage cover crops with hand tools, like I do, when you plant them you need to carefully consider what goes in next. With this type of management, tilling them in anytime you choose is not an option. Some cover crops will be in the ground longer than others. That’s why, if you are going to grow cotton and flax in your garden, you need to plan for that now. Having a harvest of cotton and flax will open up a whole new world for you of growing your own textiles.

I wrote about cotton when I told you about my homegrown handspun cotton vest. Cotton needs long hot days to mature. Plant it after the last expected spring frost when you put in tomatoes. It will be in the ground until the first fall frost, and maybe a bit beyond, so plan for that, also. The varieties I grow are listed as 120-130 days to maturity, but it seems to take longer than that for the bolls to open.

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Red Foliated cotton. Fiber is white.

I can transplant cotton into a mulch of rye and Austrian winter peas that has been cut when the rye is shedding pollen, which here in zone 7 is the first week in May. Cotton transplants would go in two weeks later, after the rye roots have had a chance to decay somewhat. If I wanted to plant closer to the last frost date, which is about April 25 here, the preceding cover crop would be Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, or hairy vetch. These legumes can easily be pulled out at that time and added to the compost pile. The soil will be ready for the transplants without waiting the two weeks. The pea, clover, and vetch plants could be cut and left in place as mulch; however, it would be a fast-disappearing mulch—much different than the rye mulch. The cotton plant in this photo has a mulch of grass clippings.

Flax, on the other hand, needs to be planted early in the season. Using Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich as my reference, the time to plant flax seed is mid-March to early April when the soil is about 43-46°F (6-8°C). Planting in soil that is too cold will set you back. It will mature in about 90-100 days, so be prepared to harvest sometime in June or July, depending on your planting date.

As with any early spring crop, to be ready for flax, you would need to have a cover crop there that has winterkilled, such as oats or radish (oilseed or fodder). It is getting late to plant those crops now and have the best benefit. Late August into early September is the optimal time for that. You could plant Austrian winter peas now. Although it won’t have put on too much growth by the time the flax needs to go in, it would have put on some, and the plants could be pulled out for the compost. The easiest cover when anticipating early spring crops is to mulch the bed with leaves. That provides a good habitat for the earthworms over the winter, leaving you with friable soil in the spring. Pull the leaves off the bed about two weeks before the flax will go in to allow the sun to warm up the soil.

You will want to plant a variety of flax suitable for fiber production, which is different than varieties best for culinary uses. Flax for fiber is planted at close spacing so the plants grow straight without branching. The plants are pulled (not cut) for harvest before the seeds are mature, so if you want to have a seed harvest for fiber flax, plan for that in another spot. For mature seed the plants would be spaced farther apart to allow branching and the harvest would be about two weeks later than when the fiber harvest occurs.

I usually write about food production, but obviously my garden interests have broadened to include fiber. I believe that, just as people are concerned about where their food comes from now, sometime in the not so distant future, they will also be concerned about where their textiles come from. There are some pretty bad things going on within the globalized networks that bring us cheap clothes—way too many cheap clothes. If we want to be free of that, we would need to look for textiles closer to home, grown in a way that everyone and everything benefits—from the soil and the lowest paid worker to the consumer.

Red Foliated cotton blossom

Red Foliated White cotton blossom.

I don’t expect that all of you are going to start clothing yourselves from your gardens, but it could be fun to learn about the production of textiles from seed to garment. Just growing a little of it and learning how to process it can start the conversation with others about our present textile industry. From an historical point of view, growing cotton and flax in school gardens would definitely add to the curriculum. Besides that, it looks so good in the garden. Even if you can’t grow cotton in your area, you can probably grow flax. If you don’t grow it, you could buy the fiber and learn to spin it. Of course, that leads to learning to knit or weave it. The opportunity to learn new skills is boundless.

Maybe you are not ready for this, but you find it interesting. If you don’t have sewing skills yet, you could start your fiber journey there. Learn to sew and you will increase the production of your household. Besides learning to use the fabrics you buy (start inquiring about where they come from), you can bring new life to textiles that are finishing their first life, such as clothes, sheets, and towels, by turning them into something else.

unretted flax

Unretted flax from the Heirloom Seed Project at Landis Valley Farm and Museum.

Cotton is something I’ve already been growing, but 2016 will be the first year for flax in the garden. I’m not waiting to grow my own to start learning about it, though. I’ve bought flax fiber to spin into linen thread using a spindle and a spinning wheel. The results will be used for weaving. While we were in Pennsylvania recently we visited the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum. They grow flax there and have a textile barn dedicated to showing you how it was processed in the past. Unretted flax straw is available through their Heirloom Seed Project. I bought some and am learning about that, too. Right now it is laid out in the grass being dew retted. I’ll be writing about that one day.

So many fun things to do! If you want to join me on this fiber journey, plan now to plant cotton and/or flax in your garden for next year.homeplace earth

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