Thursday, August 13, 2009

2nd Annual Linen Festival is a happy memory

42 people enjoyed the 2nd Annual Linen Festival at Joybilee Farm on Saturday. Randy Cowan was here, from Crop Fibers Canada (Saskatchewan) and gave several very informative talks about growing flax, different kinds of retting, and offered us a wealth of handouts, recipes and brochures. Two Grand Forks area farmers attended and took home enough fiber flax seed to grow an acre. Many others took home enough seed for a 20 x 20 plot (1 kg. when planted for fiber production or 500 grams when planted for seed production.)

Joybilee Farm now has four varieties of fiber flax seed to test -- two are white flowered and two are blue flowered. Although this seed originated in Europe, it was grown in Saskatchewan.

I learned much more about linen and flax. I learned that there is no such thing as a dual purpose flax -- since the seeding rates for fiber production and for seed production are different. When seeded for seed production, the stems are thicker and the resulting fibers are coarser. When seeded for fiber production the stems are finer and longer but the resulting seed yield is less. Randy recommended that when growing flax for fiber production, a second plot for seed production be planted, so that there is enough seed for another year's crop, when both are combined. Oil seed flax can be grown for linen production when it is planted thickly (1 kg. seed for a 20 x 20 plot). Linen fibers should be 50 cm long. Fibers that are shorter are considered tow fibers.

I learned that I wasn't retting my linen flax long enough. I learned that I need to soak the flax for a day, then empty the bathtub and refill. Then rett it past the slimy, bubbling, stinky stage until the outer core breaks easily from the stem. The first soaking begins the breaking of the outer fiber and begins the retting process. The second soaking deals with the lingons and pectins that hold the fibers together in the outer core.

I learned that there is an easy test to see if your flax is retted enough. Take a 6 inch piece of stem. Break it and place it in a test tube. Put on a lid and shake it vigorously. If the outer fiber separates easily from the inner linen fiber, then the flax is retted enough. This test saves you having to dry the fiber and test break it. Randy also provided me with samples for field retting so that I can compare my retted flax to see if its finished retting.

I learned that linoleum is made from flax. And most of the world's linoleum is made from Canadian flax.

I learned that Canada is the world's producer of flax -- mostly as oil seed. And that 80% of this flax is grown in Saskatchewan -- mostly oil seed flax. Most of the fiber from this production is burned in the field -- incurring baling costs to the farmer as well as being a major source of air pollution. But oil seed flax is a very good source of linen tow fibers -- with many uses. Much of the world's textile linen is now "cottonized" (chopped in to small bits to be carded with cotton) which reduces its production costs, allowing it to be processed with cotton equipment. However,when linen is cottonized it loses many of its distinctive qualities -- especially its durability and wearability.

I learned that China is now the world's producer of linen fabric. There are no mills in Canada capable of processing linen. There is a project in Saskatchewan to set up a mill capable of processing this luxury fiber -- a project looking for venture capital. Talk to Randy at Crop Fibers Canada if you are interested.

I learned that flax seed has many health benefits -- prevents cancer, levels blood sugar, and helps prevent high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. That both the fresh oil and the seed are beneficial, largely due to their antioxidant properties. Flax tastes great in baked goods and can be added to many foods. Its also a great addition to pet food -- especially when your pets are following a natural rearing diet. Flax improves coat condition and adds minerals and vitimins.

I learned that Value Village is a great source for shirts made with 100% linen. And you can find it by feel. Linen has an uneven weave structure, with slubby texture, making it easy to spot on the racks. Most people don't want them because they need to be ironed. But linen improves with washing so don't let a few wrinkles deter you from wearing this luxurious fiber.

A big thank you to Randy Cowan for traveling all the way from Saskatchewan to enhance the 2nd Annual Joybilee Farm Linen Festival. We were all enriched by your vast knowledge of linen and your generous sharing. Randy has promised to come back in 2010 to the 3rd Annual Linen Festival on August 7th at Joybilee Farm.

Thanks also to Dave and Connie Carlson. Connie's organization of the volunteers for the day, allowed for everything to go smoothly and without incident. Dave's entertaining us with his hammock knotting gave variety to the spinning circle.

Thanks to Ruth, our WWOOFer from Israel, for helping out with the admissions and directing traffic for the day. And for helping with the clean up afterward. We valued your assistance and it made the day go more smoothly.

Thank you to Miranda and Ian for organizing the food and providing us with refreshing smoothies, chia and mochas on ice.

Thanks to our visitors for supporting us -- Denise from Arrow Lakes, Jan from Edmonton, the family from New Zealand, Evelyn from Roberts Creek and many others. It was great to share our enthusiasm for Linen with you.

Requests were made to make the linen festival a weekend event with camping on the farm. Arrivals would be on Friday night, with organized festivities on Saturday and a brunch on Sunday before every one headed home. If you would find this appealing let me know so we can begin to plan for next year.


  1. Sounds like a great day - and I had no idea Canada produced so much flax. :)

  2. wonderful - I am really sorry I couldn't join in what must have been an information packed day. Evelyn

  3. Thank you for a terrific post about flax!

    I esp. appreciate the tip about the test-tube test--(as I have been inclined to over ret or under ret and knew there must be some science involved to get it just right!)

    What are the names of the varieties of seed are you growing? Would it be possible for me to purchase some? Is it untreated seed?

  4. I just ran across your blog looking at information on flax for fiber. I planted a small patch at my parent's farm on PEI this spring and I am looking for some help in how to harvest it, retting, etc. Any useful information you could provide would be great. Sorry I missed your Festival - will look forward to attending next year. Do you have any seed available for purchase to plant a couple of 20 x 20 plots next spring? All other seed I can find around the Prairies is oil seed rather than fiber seed [lower yield of fiber, from what I understand].

    I am interested in retting the fiber in the field and am wondering how long that takes, how often to turn it, etc. And then, how do you separate fibers from the plant, etc. Looked on the web and did not find many "good" resources.

    Thanks so much!

    Robert Gaudet

  5. Hi, Robert
    Thanks for your comment. When retting the fiber in the field, you will want to keep it damp and to spread it out so that all the stalks come in contact with the ground. The length of time depends on the ambient temperature and how much moisture in on the stalks. It would take at least 3 weeks but could take longer.

    Dew retted flax is ready when the stalks are a silvery grey colour and the outer stalk breaks easily away from the fiber. You should be able to separate the outer stalk from the fiber just by rubbing the stalk between your thumb and forefinger, when its wet. And you want to stop the process right there, and dry the stalks. If it goes longer, you will weaken the linen.

    You don't need a lot of tools to process the flax fiber (linen). Once the stalks are dry you can break the flax with a flax break or even with a wooden mallet and a hollowed out stump. If you break it so that none of the chaff is bigger than 1/8th inch, you can hackle the flax with just a flicker brush or dog brush.

    Of course the process goes much faster if you have dedicated flax tools.