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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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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

 

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tahkli and cotton--green-brown-bolls and skeins - BLOG

Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green cotton with a tahkli spindle. The fiber is lighter at harvest, as you see in the bolls, and darkens once you scour it.

I love to spin cotton, but I will be the first to admit that it is not an easy thing to learn. I had no knowledge of spinning any fiber when I took on cotton, but I wanted to learn to spin fiber that I grew in my garden. Wool spinners had told me it was hard to spin cotton because it was such a short fiber. However, since I would learn on cotton, I figured that would be my normal.

Cotton is a short fiber, being only about an inch or so long, more or less. You are probably familiar with seeing drop spindles that spinners use. You see them hanging from the fiber in front of the spinner while she/he works. Short fibers, such as cotton, require a lighter weight supported spindle. The tip of the spindle rests in a small dish while spinning. I needed to acquire a spindle and instruction, so I turned to Joan Ruane in Arizona. I didn’t make the trip there, but learned from her video, which came in a kit that included a tahkli spindle, support dish, bobbins, and cotton sliver. It took much practice to go beyond something that resembled rope to something that resembled thread, but I kept at it. Eventually muscle memory kicked in and things got easier. Joining a handspinning group helped tremendously.

When you look for cotton fiber to spin, most likely what you will find is cotton sliver, which is a long rope-like preparation. You might come across roving, which is a thinner preparation of sliver. I often use the words sliver and roving interchangably. I learned when working with sliver that, by dividing it lengthwise into several strands, it was easier to work with if I only used a strand at a time. You might also find cotton in the form of punis, which is cotton that has been carded and rolled into cigar shapes. I have never spun from punis.

lazy kate-bobbins and carboard box - BLOG

Box holding tahkli for winding off; plastic, wood, and homemade bamboo bobbins; lazy kate that holds two bobbins for plying.

None of those preparations are quite like what you will be working with from your homegrown cotton, but it is something to learn from. I believe that anyone learning to spin should learn to spin with a spindle before progressing to a wheel. For one thing, it is cheaper to get started. Also, you gain skills that will help you with any spinning. With only one tahkli spindle I was able to spin enough cotton to make my vest, which you can learn more about here. Once the spindle was full, I would wind it off onto a bobbin and fill the spindle again. In the photo you can see the cardboard box I used to hold the spindle while I wound off onto bobbins. I bought plastic and wooden bobbins and even made some from bamboo. With 2 bobbins on a lazy kate, I could ply the cotton on a larger spindle made with a dowel and 2” wooden wheel. I used 2-ply cotton for both warp and weft when I wove the fabric.

book charkha-cotton-seeds-mat - BLOG

Indian book charkha from New World Textiles.

After the vest, I made a shirt. By this time I had acquired an Indian book charkha from New World Textiles and used that to spin all the cotton for the shirt. I had also acquired a Louet S10 spinning wheel. I used the spinning wheel for the plying, but I needed to get a high-speed bobbin to do it. No matter how fast I treadled, the regular bobbin did not go around fast enough. Cotton requires a high spinning ratio. Plying with the wooden spindle worked great, but using the spinning wheel for that job was faster.

I can spin off the seed with the tahkli, but find the charkha is so fast that it is better to take the seeds out first, which I do by hand. However, when I first started working with cotton I thought I would need to card it. Cotton cards cost more than I wanted to spend for a project I was just getting into, so I bought dog brushes at the pet store. They worked fine. I’ve since acquired regular cotton cards, but the lighter weight dog brushes are great for starting out. I only card the fiber if it has become compacted. I’m working with some cotton right now that I didn’t grow. This cotton had the seeds removed with an electric cotton gin and I find that I need to card the fiber before spinning. Some spinners card cotton and roll it into punis. I find that unnecessary. The fiber that I’ve taken the seeds from is loose enough to spin as it is and the fiber that I’ve carded is also loose enough. Of course, spinning it off the seed is the easiest way and that can happen with your homegrown supply.

Sliver, roving, and punis are fiber preparations that are better for commercial transactions. They can be manufactured, measured, stored, and shipped easier than working with cotton fluff pulled from the seed. Actually, in manufacturing, the fiber isn’t pulled from seeds, it is cut from them in the ginning process.

balls of cotton for shirt and swift - BLOG

Swift with skeins and balls of naturally colored cotton for a shirt.

When I made the vest, I worked with one spindle at a time and put the fiber on bobbins. From there it went into skeins. Since three spindles came with the charkha, once I had three spindles full, I wound the fiber from all three spindles into one skein using my swift. Lacking a swift, you could wind it around anything that you could remove it easily from. I scoured the skeins by boiling them in a large pot of water with washing soda and a bit of soap. That is when the color pops. The fiber was then wound into balls over a core of crumpled paper. The balls you see of cotton in this photo are what I prepared for my shirt.

The cotton you grow in your garden is a premium product. Hand picking ensures that the fiber is never subjected to the harsh treatments that commercial cotton is. Take care in the picking to not also gather leaves or other bits of the plant that will dry and be hard to pick out later. Removing the seeds by hand is not hard. You can take a small bag of seeded cotton with you anywhere and work on the seeds while you are waiting for whatever you need to wait for. It is good to keep your hands busy. Save the seeds to plant next year.

For spinning, I have recently moved up to a Bosworth attache charkha, which is wonderful. As much as I like it, I would hope that you start your cotton journey with a tahkli, like I did. I still use my tahlki and spin with it in public whenever I can. Spinning in public is a great way to meet people and spread the word that this is actually something you can do, not something out of the history books. Have fun spinning!homeplace earth

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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.

turkish spindle with flax sliver - BLOG

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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cotton-brown-openboll-BLOG

Brown cotton ready to harvest.

This year I am on a mission to encourage gardeners to grow textile fibers and take them all the way to clothes to wear. The last post was devoted to flax for linen and this one is about cotton. Not everyone lives in a climate where cotton thrives, but even if it doesn’t actually thrive where you live, you might get a few bolls to play with. I know of someone who grew some cotton in her greenhouse in Northern Ireland in 2016 and harvested 21 grams of fiber. That’s the amount that would fill 3 spindles from my Indian charkha! Not enough for a shirt, of course, but enough to experience what it is like to grow and spin your own cotton. You could buy fiber someone else grew and spin it, adding yours into the mix, and make a garment from that.

You will need full sun for cotton, along with hot weather. Cool nights will diminish your harvest. I generally tell people to plant cotton like they would tomatoes. That means start the seeds about 6 weeks ahead and transplant out around the time of the last spring frost. If you live in a hot climate you may have a long enough growing season to direct sow the seeds, eliminating the need to grow out transplants. The soil temperature about the time of our last spring frost is 60°. Even better for cotton would be a soil temperature of 65°. For a more in-depth look at soil temperatures, I found Development and Growth Monitoring of the Cotton Plant from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Good germination depends on warm conditions. You can grow cotton in pots. If you do that and live in a not-so-favorable climate, you could bring the pots inside toward the end of the season.

red foliated cotton in the garden 3016-BLOG

Red Foliated Cotton in the garden–red foliage, white cotton.

When I first grew cotton I purchased seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia. Now I save my own seed to plant back each year. Southern Exposure is local to me and a great company to work with, and I’m not just saying that because they put a photo of me wearing my homegrown, handspun cotton vest in their catalog. The Southern Exposure catalog suggests setting cotton plants 18-30 inches apart in rows 5 feet apart. Cotton requires a good long season—120 days or more, depending on the variety—and it needs every bit of that. I’ve found it usually takes longer for most of the bolls to mature than the days to maturity that are listed for the variety. It all depends on the number of heat units the plants experience over the season. Refer to the Texas A&M article above for more on that. By the time frost hits here there are often bolls that have not opened yet. They can be brought inside and left in a basket to ripen at their own pace into winter. Sometimes I have put those unopened bolls in my solar food dryers and let them pop open there.

Susan--G-B-2016 - BLOG

Part of the Cotton Project. All these colors were grown in the same bed in 2016 from seeds of cotton that had grown in a bed I thought would produce green fiber, but had light brown fiber.

I start cotton seeds in my coldframe, as I do everything else, and set the transplants out a few weeks later than the last spring frost date, since the preceding cover crop is usually rye that is cut at pollen shed and left as mulch. I often transplant on 12 inch centers in my 4 foot wide beds. Varieties will cross with each other, so if you want to keep the variety you are planting pure, the best way to do that is to grow only one variety a year. Southern Exposure suggests isolating varieties by ⅛ mile (660 ft.) for home use, and ¼ to ½ mile or more for pure seed.  I have experienced the mixing of colors when I grew both green and brown cotton in the same year. Even if it crosses, the harvest is still great cotton to work with. In fact, that’s what made my homegrown vest so interesting. In 2016 I carefully sorted seeds from a previous harvest according to fiber color and if they grew in either the green or the brown bed. Some of my friends and family grow them out. We called it the Cotton Project. I’m working with the harvests now and will be writing about it at some point.

If you live in a cotton growing state you may need to get a permit to grow even a small amount of cotton in your garden. Each year, here in Virginia, I contact the Office of Plant Industry Services of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). If I lived closer to the cotton growing areas of the state I would be required to pay a per-acre fee and VDACS would place a boll weevil trap at my place, to be monitored by an inspector throughout the season. The boll weevil, once a scourge to the cotton industry, has not been seen in Virginia since 1995, nevertheless monitoring for it continues. The boll weevil is still alive in Texas.

I checked information online about Georgia’s Boll Weevil Eradication Program and see that few permits are given for non-commercial cotton, and those involved heritage farms that had educational programs, but you could still inquire what it would take to get a permit for you to grow cotton. States that are part of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, which is any state with commercial cotton production, would have a policy for non-commercial growers, such as yourself. In my case, all it takes is an email explaining where I am growing cotton again this year for educational purposes and how much area will be in cotton production. I measure the area in square feet, not acres. I receive a waiver by return email, no problem. The program is taken so seriously because the fear of the boll weevil making a comeback is so strong. Boll weevils can move around via our interstate  highways as fast as our cars and trucks can carry them as hitchhikers, and could find a safe harbor in your garden if not watched for.

green spun cotton, seeds, spindle - BLOG

Erlene’s Green cotton. Seeds plus fiber total 1 ounce. Fiber is 25% of weight.

I like to grow cotton so that I can spin it and make clothes—a vest and shirt, so far. It is fascinating to plant a seed, harvest the fiber, and produce thread. I think it should be part of every school garden that has the right climate for it. History can come alive for the students when they harvest the cotton bolls, take out the seeds, and learn to spin. If the students don’t spin it themselves, someone should be on hand to demonstrate that for them with their very own school-grown cotton. Most likely, the cotton that will be harvested in the fall will have been planted by the previous class. The harvesting class will save the seeds from their harvest and plant them out as a gift for the next class. What a great way to live!

Planting for fiber is the easy part; learning what to do with it is another thing altogether. This year I will be leading the way for you with my blog posts about cotton and flax, with directions for what’s next. In fact, since cotton and flax fiber to practice on is available for purchase many places, I hope to have you spinning while you are waiting for your harvest.homeplace earth

 

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flax-straw-spun-thread-on-spindle-a2-2016-blog

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.

flax-flowering-blog

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.

flax-growing-in-rows-in-the-gardenblog

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.

flax-equipment-blog-brake-hackles-scutching

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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