Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sifting through the confusion between Linen Flax or Oil Seed Flax

Linen from flax seed to woven cloth

There are several kinds of flax seed available on the market. Sifting through the confusion to make the right decision on what type of seed to grow can be daunting for the first time linen grower.

Most of us know that the garden flax flower is not the right seed to pick up, just for the shear expense of the seed. Of the two remaining kinds -- oil seed flax and fiber flax there is more confusion.

Oil seed flax is grown commercially for its plump, oily seeds. It is a shorter plant -- usually 12 to 18 inches in height. It is sown sparsely to increase stooling (production of side shoots) which will optimize flowering and seed production. Its stems contain a bast fiber -- different to linen only in the length and coarseness of its fiber. This bast fiber has commercial uses and may be spun into thread, but because of the shortness of the fiber it should not technically be called "linen".
Fiber flax is grown for its long, fine fiber. It is a taller plant -- usually 24 to 32 inches in height. It is sown thickly to limit stooling and to optimize height and fineness of fiber. It also produces seed after flowering that may be used the same way as oil seed flax. However, its seeds are smaller. Its stems contain the bast fiber that is referred to as linen, due to its fineness and length. It is optimally sown at a density of 250 grams (1/2 lb.) of seed per 100 square feet. (30 meters square) for fiber production or 400 square feet (120 meters square) to increase seed production.
At Joybilee Farm, we grew oil seed flax the first year in order to test the viability of growing linen on our land. We harvested the fiber and the seed and had enough fine linen-like fiber to spin a few hanks of thread. The seed was purchased in bulk from the health food store, making it a very inexpensive experiment.

The second year we had difficulty locating a source of linen flax seed and bought a 250 gram package of seed and planted sparsely in order to increase our seed supply. Our seed from that planting was then used the third year to plant our field more densely. This second year linen harvest was quite coarse and although longer than the first year crop, was a lower quality due to the coarseness of the fibers.
In the third year we planted the linen flax, from our own saved seed, more densely and had a huge harvest of fine stems. A hail storm bent the stems before flowering and there is some loss of length due to the hail damage but the fiber is fine and the seeds abundant.

We now carry three varieties of linen flax seed at Joybilee Farm, at bulk pricing -- Hermes, an older variety of European flax, Ilona and Electra -- both daughters of Hermes. These are tall varieties with blue flowers. However, several cultural steps need to be taken to ensure a successful flax harvest -- as in all farming.

It is now time in my area to plant the linen flax plot. The ground must be deeply cultivated or rototilled before planting. I usually rototill and wait two weeks and till again to get out any young weeds that will choke out the fragile plants. In Saskatchewan the flax is not planted until after May longweeked -- due to the mud. Their flax is harvested after Labour Day -- so there is a large window of opportunity for planting anytime after the ground can be worked in Spring until 100 days before you expect your first killing frost.
Then I plant the field by broadcasting the seed thickly over the land. I plant 1 kg. of seed on my 20 x 20 plot. This year I will be planting two 20 x 20 plots with Hermes and Ilona, in my trial ground. I firm the seed in well by walking on it.

When the plants are 6 to 12 inches high, I will hand weed the entire bed thoroughly. It is alright to step on the plants at this stage and they won't be hurt. Later, stepping on them will break the stem and damage the plant. This is the most important step in ensuring a successful planting and should not be neglected.
The plants begin to flower around 85 days after planting and are ready to harvest when the plants are 2/3rds yellow to brown and 1/3rd green in the stems. The seed will be immature but will continue to mature on the stalk.
To harvest, the entire plant is pulled up by the roots, bundled and left to complete drying in a sheltered place. Protect from wind, rain and rodents. Plants can be rippled (seed heads removed) as soon as they are dry or in the Spring before planting the new plot. Chickens, goats, sheep and llamas love them -- so if you don't want to clean the chaff from the seed you can feed them to your pets. Or use them yourself after cleaning, as you would oil seed flax. Or use them to plant -- by crushing the seed bolls and broadcasting the loose seed, chaff and all.

If you'd like to learn more and experience the thrill of harvesting the linen field come to Joybilee Farm August 7th for our 3rd Annual Linen Festival -- camping is available at the farm.


  1. Have you documented anything in the past on your blog of how you ferment the flax (i,e, retting)?

  2. HI, Christine
    There are several posts on the Joybilee Farm blog regarding the retting process.

    You can do a search at the top of the page and it will give you all the posts. Or follow this link