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.
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.
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.
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!