CNCHnet . . . The Textile Arts Webzine of the Conference of Northern California Handweavers

Flax Cultivation-What’s in it for You?

At a CNCH 2000 workshop, Stephenie Gaustad introduced her earthy, homegrown flax and the long, abusive path the fibers endure to become the luxury fabric we know as linen.  Why would one venture on a journey to cultivate and process such a labor intensive fiber?  Perhaps it is the romantic notion of the CNCH 2009 conference theme “From Hand to Hand, Passing on our Fiber Tradition” or maybe a materialistic opportunity to add more fiber processing tools to our stash.

The journey begins with the seeds both literally and figuratively.  Here, I have annotated the stepwise process with my experience growing and processing flax.
Flax Fiber to Linen Thread
Cultivation – Seeds are planted in spring; blue flowers appear 60 days after germination; flax is harvested 30 days after flowers are at their peak.  My first plot was 4’ x 4’ and thickly sown with seed from the health food store; the plants grew to a height of 28” to 36”. The plants need a level growing area, sun and consistent watering. It is best if the plants are protected from wind or they may fall over The next year I purchased Linum Usitatissimum ‘Cascade’ (textile flax) seeds which grew to a maximum of 54” and had a sturdier stem which I believe will be more easily processed.

Dried Flax sheaves

Flax Plot

Flax sheaves

Harvest – Plants are pulled from the earth to retain their roots.  Flax stalks are aligned and placed in the sun to dry. The bundles were tied in sheaves and arranged to dry in whatever sun might shine in Mill Valley. It is important to maintain the alignment of the stalks throughout the processing steps.

Rippling the Flax

Rippling – Seeds are removed by drawing flax stalks through a hackle, an arrangement of spikes. The dryed stalks were drawn through 2 rakes placed over a tarp to catch the seed pods which could be used for another crop.  The pods were crushed to release the seeds which were passed through a sieve.

Retting – Flax stalks are ‘rotted’ by placing on grass and allowing dew to provide the moisture for fungi and molds  to decompose the cortex and the stem walls or by allowing flax to rest in slow moving water where bacteria and molds are the agents of decomposition. In lieu of a lawn or a stream, my husband dug a pit and lined it with plastic sheeting to create a retting pond.  The flax stalks were arranged in alternating layers; warm water was added; bricks were placed on the flax to keep it submerged;

Flax in retting pond

black plastic was placed on top to absorb any heat that the Mill Valley sun might supply; a screen covered the pond to discourage curious raccoons; some water was siphoned out of the pond daily and refilled with warm water.  After about two weeks, the retting process seemed complete; the test is that the pectin gluing the fibers inside the stem has been dissolved and the 10- 12 flax fibers within the stem separate.  The yield at this point was 23 ounces. Note: The retting process can be obnoxiously smelly so careful consideration of the placement of a retting site is advised.

Breaking – Dried, retted flax is either beaten with a corrugated mallet or placed in a hinged break to shatter the outer stem so that the long flax fibers can be separated from the waste, commonly called boon.  My husband built

Breaking Flax

a break that worked well to crack the outer stem and the inner cortex.  A small bundle of stalks were placed on the break frame starting in the middle; the brake handle is smartly lowered which cracks the stem and cortex; the bundle is then moved along the break to expose a new section of stems and the “breaking” process is repeated.

Scutching – The ‘broken’ boon is next separated from the flax fibers by scraping a wooden scutching knife along the fibers to push away the short pieces of stem.  I used a scutching knife made by Alden Amos and a scutching post made by my husband to scrape away the boon.  A bundle of flax stalks that had been processed by the break was placed in the “V” of the scutching post and the wooden scutching

Scutching Flax

knife was drawn down along the fibers to dislodge and scrape away the unwanted boon.  My boon was very stubborn and not easily removed making this step very difficult, slow and frustrating. My enthusiasm for scutching waned at this point, although I was very pleased and excited to see the “flaxen” fibers for the first time during this long process.  With persistence, I did scutch enough fiber to continue through the remaining steps.

Hackling -Flax fibers are drawn through rows of sharp spikes to separate the short fibers, tow flax, from the longer, more desirable fibers, line flax.  Alden’s hackle is a veritable, medieval torture-chamber implement that effectively separates the flax fibers into long silky strands.  It must be treated with respect and with a nearby supply of Band Aids.   The hackle is clamped to a sturdy table; a small bundle of scutched fiber is flicked onto the hackle beginning with the tip ends; then it is drawn through the hackle; the process is repeated moving up the bundle toward the root end.

Hackling Flax

The bundle can then be reversed to hackle the root end portion.  Tow fibers will collect in the hackle and must occasionally be cautiously removed.  As much as half of the scutched fiber can be lost at this stage; however, the tow flax can be spun into a coarse yarn or simply composted. When several bundles have been hackled they are carefully grouped into a strick making certain that the fibers are properly aligned, that is, all of the root ends are together. This is line flax.

Spinning – Flax is spun ‘wet’ to produce smooth, shiny

Spinning wet line flax

linen.  Flax is generally spun fine. The strick was tied at the one end and the fibers were fanned out. This arrangement was placed on an upright distaff and a bowl of water was hung on the spinning wheel.  As a small group of fibers were drawn from the distaff by the drafting hand, wet fingers of the other hand smoothed the newly formed linen thread.

Finishing – Linen threads are scoured in washing soda and/or detergent to remove excess pectin and lignin. The twist is set by drying as a skein or on a blocking reel. The linen thread was wound on a perforated plastic cone.  The cone was placed in a solution of washing soda and boiled for 2 hours.  The thread was then wound into a skein to dry.

Spun linen thread

I’m now at the end of the “line”, so to speak, having been disheartened by that stubborn boon, but I had fulfilled my goal of growing, processing and spinning an ancient fiber.  Yet, I did plant a second crop which has been retted and rippled, so I am still engaged in the process. Then a fifth grade teacher asked if I could help with the harvest of the class’s flax crop and demonstrate processing the plant into cloth. So I, in a colonial costume, loaded up my flax and processing tools and went to the farm for the harvest.  The teacher wanted the children to know where clothing came from during the colonial period, the amount of labor involved (including that of children) and that textiles were “dear” rather than disposable.  Their “That’s a lot of work”, confirmed that they got his message and flax is just the fiber to tell the story. The next year 3 classrooms of fifth graders used the tools to experience flax processing from rippling to weaving; the big hit was the menacing hackle.

Students with hackle

In preparation for this project, I truly enjoyed researching the history of flax and its contribution to various cultures down through the ages.  And yes, it is possible to take the flax journey vicariously through reading, but it is much more rewarding to engage in the steps yourself.  As my hands transformed the flax from a resistant stalk into a luxury fiber, I reflected upon our forebearers who toiled so hard and I developed an immense appreciation for their persistence.  Demonstrating the flax process was a very rewarding means of sharing a textile tradition with future generations.  To those who endeavor to cultivate and process flax, Alden Amos says, “Flax passes through several stages of abuse before it becomes a useful textile fiber.  Numerous rewards and your personal sense of satisfaction will give a new meaning to smug.”  It has. Oh, did I mention all of the cool tools?

Suggested reading:
Linda Heinrich – The Magic of Linen, Flax Seed to Woven Cloth
Alden Amos –The Alden Amos Big Book of Spinning, illustrated by Stephenie Gaustad

Source for Seeds – Browse the Internet.   Do not use perennial flax.

Source for Equipment
Alden Amos – : http://pweb.jps.net/~gaustad

Next, a look at cotton.