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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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