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Posts Tagged ‘John C. Campbell Folk School’

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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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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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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