Flax

Flax can be grown in most soils, but it will grow tallest in full sun.  It is good for it to have moisture while growing because its roots are shallow and you want it to grow tall during its growing season.  Prepare the soil well so that it is loose and weed free.  You want to seed the flax by hand thickly, and at a time when the weather is such that the flax will germinate quickly so that it can grow and overtake any weeds that might sprout.  I have very little problem with weeding if I sow and water the flax seed at a time when there is a bit of warmth and it is able to germinate right away and get a jump on weed growth and choke out weeds.  Then there are only a few weeds that can be easily pulled out.

I’ve heard you can press the seeds in after they are broadcast, or rake them in.  I tend to do a bad job when raking seeds, and end up pulling or pushing them into a pile!  So, maybe lightly pressing or, just broadcasting and letting it be.  Make sure birds don’t come and eat your seeds though!

I have read that historically, women and children would go through the field when the flax was small to weed and their light feet would only bend and not break the young flax seedlings.  The flax would straighten up and be unharmed.  However, I’d prefer to have the soil well-prepared and plant at a time that the seeds have the best chance at getting a jump on weed germination to minimize any future weeding.

You can sow flax overly thickly, and because I’m someone who thinks that if a little is good, more is better…….I definitely have seeded my flax way too thickly.  I did not have a problem with lodging, which I’ve heard warned about if you seed too thickly.  I think the thickly seeded stems would not lodge just because there are so many of them.  I think lodging is more likely to happen from wind knocking stems over or animals knocking stems over (like my cat laying in the middle of them!)  When I seeded my flax patch wayyyy too thickly, the stems just did not grow as tall because they were over-crowded.  The flax stems were nice and thin and I got nice, fine flax.  It just wasn’t very long flax fiber. 

So, you want to seed flax seed thickly, but not crazy thickly.  You want the stems to grow crowded because you don’t want them to send out side branches.  If a stem grows thick and strong with side branches, the central stem’s fibers will end (be broken) at the point where the branch comes out of the central stem.  So you want the stems to grow crowded, so they don’t have room to grow very strong and thick and start sending side shoot branches.  You will probably see some of the stems at the edges of your patch do this. 

4oz of flax seed should seed 50 square feet.

8oz flax seed should seed 100 square feet.

1lb flax seed should seed 17’x17’

Flax will bloom in 50-60 days after planting.  The blue flowers open in the morning and close by mid-day.  You may see a flush of blooms and then sporadic blooming. 

You will want to harvest about 20 days after full blooming or when the lower third of the flax stalks are yellowed.  If you harvest later, the seed bolls on top will be more mature, but the fiber on the stems will be more coarse and mature.  Coarser fiber is perfectly fine and useable, but I can feel the different with my hands when processing the fiber.  Either is useable, but finer, soft fiber is preferable, especially if you want to use the fiber for clothing worn near the skin. 

I read that the finest flax was grown by shading it or somehow making it grow somewhat weakly so that it needed support, and this would produce the finest fiber fit for royalty.  Reading this led me to try sowing my flax path ridiculously thickly, which, I can’t say I recommend, because I definitely sacrificed fiber length!  Though the stems were nice and thin. 

The pods and seeds will be unripe at the time you pull them for fiber use, but they will continue to mature a bit after harvesting and while drying. 

You harvest flax by pulling up the stems by the root.  How you want to lay it and bundle it is up to you.  Many times I see where flax is laid to dry outside, but be aware that rain and dew will cause retting on the sides of the flax that is exposed.  This can cause uneven retting and stems that are retting before they are fully dried and have matured.  For this reason, I personally don’t prefer to dry it while laying or standing or bundled out in the elements.  I prefer not to bundle it either, because you will find that the outside stems may dry, while the inside stems are still green and full of moisture.  If bundled in humid weather, the stems can get very mildewy/moldy.  So, I prefer to lay out the stems in a covered area where I can turn the piles to help them evenly dry.  Even this way, the stems can still get moldy if they don’t have enough air flow. 

I have seen old videos show flax bundles being dried in huts over fires.  This makes more sense to me than the letting flax out to get prematurely retted unevenly in small bundles in the rain. 

After your flax is completely dried, you can ripple the seed bolls off.  Traditionally this was done with a flax ripple that was wooden or metal teeth that you would draw the seed pod ends of the flax stems through to remove them.  Many of us don’t have a flax ripple, so you can take a mallet or something akin to that and just smash the seed pods off, or pull them off with your hands.  Alternatively, you don’t even really need to remove them at this stage if you don’t want to save the seed from them.  I find that I pull the stems early and the seed is not as mature as I’d prefer to use to re-seed with.  So, I opt to just buy new seed, and the seed I save from the pods can just be used macerated with water to use on my fingers to wet the fibers as I spin it. 

It has been said that flax is not compatible with itself for 7 years, if grown in the same spot, and other say it will be fine after 3 years, and others say that they know places that grow it in the same location year after year and it is fine.  I was talking to Omar Gamal who grows flax in Egypt, and from whom I get my Egyptian flax, and he said it is that flax needs high levels of nitrogen and other elements such as calcium and phosphorus, etc, and so the ground needs to be left for 3 years to rebuild those elements.  So, I’d say, if you have no other area to grow it then the same spot, then just amend the soil well.

After your stems are completely dried and the seed pods removed, you will want to ret the stems so that you can remove and use the fiber.  Retting, is really pretty much just ‘rotting’.  To ‘dew’ ret the fibers, you can just lay the stems out on the grass thinly, so that the rain and dew fall on it.  If your stems are very thick or you have not laid them out very thinly, you might be able to notice that the tops of the stems exposed to the rain and dew will turn brown and mildew faster than the bottoms of the stems that are more protected.  You can turn over the piles so that they are evenly retted.  Thinner stems will ret more quickly than thicker mature stems, so be aware of that, if you should have a part of your patch with thinner stems and part with thicker stems.  (I very much noticed the top of hemp stems retting before the bottom stems, becaue hemp stems are much thicker, so they really required turning for even retting.)

Alternatively, you can water ret your flax stems by putting them in a stream, pond or any container of water large enough to put them in.  Weight the stems down so they are submerged by putting boards or something heavy on them.  The weather/temperature will make water retting go faster or slower, but I have left flax in a stream in the fall for 3 days before pulling it out and letting it thoroughly dry and it was retted pretty nearly the way I wanted it.  Allow your flax to thoroughly dry before you test the stems to see if it is retted as much as you want.  If it is not thoroughly dried, you may think it is too much or too little retted.

If you retted your flax in water, and it is retted to your liking, then you may end up with a lighter, more blond flax fiber.  Dew retting causes the fiber stems to be more gray brown and mildewy-color.  If you pull your flax stems out of the water and let them dry, and then find they are not retted enough, then you can just let them dew ret the rest of the way, so that the continued process will go more slowly and you will be able to test the stems every day after the sun has dried them out.  This way you will not over-ret your stems.  If your stems are under-retted, no problem!  Just give them a few more days in the rain or the dew!  If your stems are over-retted, then, that is an irreversible problem, because you cannot make fiber that has been broken down too much, strong again. 

The first time I retted flax stems, it was the wettest year I ever remember and it rained pretty much non-stop for over a week.  So, it was about a week and a half before the rain stopped and the stems dried up so that I could check them.  They were already just a touch over-retted from the warm, humid, non-stop wet conditions!  That was an unusual year when everything was molding and getting mildewy, so the dew retting process usually isn’t quite that quick. 

So, how to tell when your flax stems are retted nicely?  I’ve meant to put up a video on Youtube to show this visually.  Maybe I’ll get to it sometime, but in the meantime, don’t be afraid.  Take a dried, retted flax stem and break it in your fingers.  The inside of the stem will be a hollow woody core that is called the ‘shive’.  The outside, around that hollow core, is the flax fiber you want.  So when you snap that stem, you should be able to pull off the long outer fiber away from the central hollow stem.  Does the outer fiber pull away and is it able to be stripped off the woody stem easily?  Great! That is what we want!  Secondly though, do the outer fibers strip off in thin flat strips?  The retting/rotting process is breaking down the pectins that hold the fibers together.  So, I want the fibers to not only be able to be easily pulled away from the hollow inner stem, but I also want the pectins to be broken down between the fibers so that I don’t end up with flat strips of flax fibers, but individual flax fibers.  So, I want the stems to be retted enough that I don’t have a lot of stiff, very flat strips of many flax fibers, but instead I want strips of fibers that are are softer and can be brushed out into individual fibers.  I want the pectins broken down between individual fibers, so I’m not trying to spin dense, flat strips of flax fibers that don’t want to separate!  You’ll see what I mean when you rett the fibers and test them.  There is no better way to learn than by doing! 

I have a video on Youtube under my business Walnut Farm Designs that shows how I processed my flax, with just a mallet and some wool hand cards.  I have a flax hackle, but really, I found it easy to just pound a handful of flax stems down the length with a rubber mallet, so that the shive and fibers were smashed and broken up.  Then I twisted and rung the handful of fiber from one end to the other with my hands, to break up the shive and stems further.  Then I just brushed each end of the handful of stems with my wool hand cards as if each end was a pony tail.  I worked my way from the ends of the pony tail to the middle, making sure I brushed the whole length of the flax till it was clean of shive and chaff. 

Alternatively, if you want a really slow, cathartic way to process your flax, you can sit and pass a summer’s evening by just stripping the flax fiber off the stem core, stem by stem, or few stems by few stems.  Then when you get a bundle of fibers stripped, you can just brush it out with the wool hand cards. 

Your wool hand cards will fill up with broken, shorter flax fibers that you have brushed out.  I sometimes pull those out of the cards and give the longer fibers a bit of a brush and save those to spin as well. 

I gotta say, I do find flax growing and processing cathartic……if I have the time and leisure.  If you think about the time and effort preparing the soil, seeding it, and then the time gathering, drying, retting and then processing the fiber before you even can dream of spinning it……you realize that wool seems much more readily available!  You just need to shear the sheep, wash it or not and away you go spinning!  But, linen is an amazing fiber, and well worth the time and effort for its cultivation and use. 

I hope you enjoy growing your own flax as much as I have. 

If you are ever unhappy with seed or any other product you receive from me, please let me know.  Especially with seed, I feel that if the seed should not produce well, the waste of the growing season is the biggest shame and a refund unfortunately cannot make up for that loss of time.