Saturday, July 17, 2010

Linen fields are flowering

The two 20 x 20 plots of linen that we sowed in May are now flowering and about 28 inches (60 cm) high.  One, the Hermes variety, was thoroughly weeded with help from our Irish wwoofer, Fiona, our friend, Karen and the rest of us at Joybilee Farm.  The Ilona variety, sown on the same day as the Hermes, is only 2/3rds weeded, as it grew so fast that it is now past the 12inch (30 cm) height where it would recover easily if stepped on.  We did get the thistle weeds out, but now it will have to grow with lambs quarters amongst it, until harvest.

So far I haven't seen any difference in height or vigour between Hermes and Ilona, even with one being mostly weed free and the other growing amongst the weeds.  Both 20 x 20 plots were seeded with 1 kg. of fiber flax seed, broadcast and then stomped in.  Our linen should be ready for harvest by August 7 to 15th.

I had an email this morning from Mieke in Belgium who reported that she visited a linen flax field in Northern France a few days ago to see the linen harvest.  In Belgium and Northern France they are already harvesting the linen.

Mieke writes, "All the flax they grow in that region is for textile. It are all quiet small fields[sic]. We saw a machine in labor. After the retting on the field, the flax goes to a local factory (Van Robaeys in Hondschoote) where they scutch the flax, than 80% is exported to china, the rest to the eastern european countries [sic]."

The machines they use to harvest the flax take the seed heads off and combine them, while laying down the straw in neat piles to rett in the field.  This field retted flax is then taken to a nearby scutching mill to break the stalks and release the linen fiber.  This is the stage where it is sent away for processing.

Steps that still need to be done on the scutched flax -- hackling/combing, spinning and weaving into cloth.  The hackling/combing can be done with low tech equipment --

a wool flicker brush or a dog brush with teeth similiar to a wool card can be used to comb out the flax.  This is good for a small amount of flax but the teeth of the flicker become loose over time.

Or someone can use a stationary wool comb.  I have a Doukhobor tartar comb that has a double row of tines that works for an initial hackling.  The shorter flax that stays in the teeth of the comb is the tow fibers and the smooth long line flax is spun wet for linen.

One can create a linen hackle by hammering very long, spikey nails (about 4 inch (10cm) ) into a board.  By making a series of nailed boards with the nails progressively closer together, a hackle can be improvised.  Usually 3 hackles were used from coarse to finer.

I found an interesting article on the world history of linen .  It focuses on Irish linen and is quite informative.
Its a large file but very interesting reading if you like history, as I do.

Remember to visit the 3rd Annual Joybilee Farm Linen Festival on August 7th -- all day. Come play in the linen and learn.


  1. Would love to see some photos of your flax fields in flower!

    I have heard the same statistics about China, and suspect it has something to do with water pollution standards etc.

    Will you be retting your own, and if so, do you plan to do water or dew?

  2. The flax field in flower looks pretty nondescript -- tall green stems moving in the breeze, rippling across the tops like a field of grain. The blue flowers open in the morning and drop off in the afternoon -- lasting only a few hours, so the field is never full of blue flowers, like I think it should be. But I will try to get some pictures for you.

    We water rett the flax in a bathtub that we trashpicked from the local dump. I can take a picture of that. I thought it would be awful smelling but it is really only bad if you are grabbing the wet flax. And the smell doesn't go onto the linen. The water retted flax is a lighter colour than the dew retted flax I've seen. In Sask. they are experimenting with enzyme retting using pectinase (used for wine clearing) but the flax I tried that had gone through the enzyme retting was brittle and the fibers broke easily during breaking so that the yield was low.

    I'll try to get some pictures for you. That's the hard part of blogging, as I rarely take the camera into the garden with me.