Flax Growing, Rippling and Retting
There are two general types of flax, one is grown for seeds, the other for its fibre Linseed has been used for lamp oil, mixed into cough medications, laxatives and other medicinal teas. Linoleum was made from linseed oil and ground cork. The oilseed plant grows to a height of 24 – 30 inches and the root is larger.
The fibre flax plant produces a taller stem, growing to 30 – 47 inches. It is sown more densely, producing less branches and longer, finer fibres than the linseed oil plant.
The fibre flax plant grows in most well-drained and tilled soils except heavy clay or loose sand. It requires adequate daylight, cool nights and warm, damp weather. It is sown in March or April, when the soil is warm enough for germination. It has a fairly short growing period of about 100 days. It can be harvested in July or August.
About 30 days after the flax plants have bloomed, it can be harvested. The seeds are soft and yellow. Lower parts of the stems are yellow and some leaves are beginning to drop. The upper portions of the plant should still be green. Harvesting should be done on a warm, sunny day. If the ground is too dry to easily pull the flax, you can wet the ground slightly, but not the plants themselves.
Pull(don’t cut) the plants by grasping below the seed bolls, and brush off the dirt from the roots. Stack the flax plants into bundles, keeping them parallel and try to separate them into bundles of a similar thickness and length for more even drying. Place the tied bundles, root side down against a fence in a sunny location to dry. Turn them occasionally so they dry evenly. When they are dry, the stems will be firm and the seeds will rattle within the bolls.
Rippling removes the seeds from the stems. The dry plants are pulled through a rippling comb that is a wooden or iron device that has several rows of nails sticking up. The rippling comb is secured to a bench and the plants are held near the roots and pulled through the comb. The seeds fall off, and onto a cloth that has been placed under the table.
Retting softens and separates the fibrous core of the plant from the outer layer. There are two common methods of retting flax, dew-retting and water-retting. Each affects the quality and character of the fiber in different ways.
Dew Retting Dew retted flax is laid out in thin layers on the ground and allowed to weather in the dew and rain. This can take up to six weeks. The flax is turned over 3 to 4 times during this time to ensure even retting. Dew retted flax turns a silver grey in colour.
Water Retting Water retted flax is produced by submerging the flax stems in either stagnant or moving water. Water retting takes about three days and gives the flax a golden or pale cream colour. If retting flax at home, it can be laid out in a children’s wading pool. The flax has to be weighted down as it will float in water. After about 2 days, empty the water and refill. Check the fibre every 24 hours and change the water.
To know when the retting process is complete, the inner wooden core should swell and the fibre will be taut. Wind a stem around your finger. The fiber should separate freely from the core.
Rinse the fibre and then spread it out on the grass to dry and bleach in the sun for about a week. Once dry, it can be bundled and stored, or it is ready to be broken.
I took this flax video during a Spin Flora Workshop that I taught at the AGWSD Summer School 2017. Peter Hoare was kind enough to bring along his flax brake to show us how it is done.