Flax: The Fibres that Bind Us

The Fibres that Bind Us is a year-long project following the journey of a flax plant from fibre to textile. The flax patch, located at Stanford Hall CSA, is tucked away at the side of the farm and is designed to be sat and walked amongst, whilst considering the labours and processes involved in producing linen. Alongside the patch is The Dyeing Garden, which features plants for natural dyes, such as madder root, yarrow, Dyer’s greenwood, weld, woad, hollyhock which we can apply to the finished textile.

The flax seeds (Linum usitatissimum) were sown as part of a LAARC activity on Sunday 10th April 2022.

Some seeds were sown thickly in drills roughly 10-15cm apart, and some were broadcast sown. We are hoping to be able to measure the differences in growth and final fibre output and quality between these two sowing methods.

Germination occured on 14th April.

The dyeing garden plants were sown on 17th April. The next workshop for the Fibres that Bind Us project will be in a few weeks time once the plants are established enough to plant out. We look forward to seeing you there! You can join our mailing list or get in touch for more details: laarcs@hotmail.com

The plants required a little additional watering for the first 2 weeks after germination due to exceptionally hot weather.

Below is a gallery of the flax’s growth progress, scroll down to read about how the flax was harvested.

The flax was harvested on 21st July following a heatwave. The stems were 2/3 brown and yellow, with the top third of the plant still a little green. The flax was pulled keeping the roots intact and laid upon the soil where it was grown in piles approximately 50mm thick. This begins the retting process which in these dry conditions could take up to 2 months. Below are pictures of the pulling of the flax.

Overall observations, where there had been tree coverage the flax grew shorter. Damage from animals once the plants were well established was difficult to recover from. Weeding was impossible on the plants that were broadcast sown. It is recommended to sow drills as wide as you can comfortably fit a hoe between. The longest stems occurred in the row-sown drills. Some weeding can be done during harvest with weeds being extracted below laying the flax down.

Workshops will continue on the first Saturday of each month where the group will make wooden scutching and heckling tools before starting the next stages of the flax journey.

At the first of our monthly Flint + Flax events on Saturday 3rd September the retted flax was checked. Each stem had a mottled greyish mould all the way around. The flax was retted during a hot period and so was watered manually twice and was turned 3 times during the full retting period. The final check to see if retting is complete is done by breaking the stem gently and seeing how easily the fibres fell away. In this case, the woody parts were still a little difficult to break, but the lovely silky fibres revealed themselves so I decided to start processing some whilst leaving the majority to ret a little longer. I will continue to do this until the flax is perfectly retted (the straw flakes easily from the fibres), at which point it will be stacked in bushels to stay dry. Once the retted flax is dried, it can be stored indefinitely until you are ready to process it. I had been very worried about this part of the process having read that over and under-retting each causes problems with the quality of the final flax fibres, and so was relieved to see the process had so far worked!

Breaking is just that, breaking the woody straw away from the fibres, but it also the name of the device that is commonly used to do this; a wooden frame with a wooden saw-toothed lever that is brought down across the stem of the plant. Given that our experiments are more focused on ancient approaches to textiles processing, I have taken the naive approach and use both my hands, and a flint stone with aa rough edge for breaking and a smoother edge for scutching.

The rougher side of the breaking/scutching stone

Taking a bunch of stems that are roughly the same length and being careful to keep the roots at the same end, I work up and down the stem breaking the straw casing.

The smoother edge of the breaking/scutching stone

I then use the smooth edge of the stone and scrape the woody fibres off down the length of the stems. A lot of fibres come away with the stem, this is called the tow and will be graded and used for spinning a coarser fibre, for now we are working the longest finest fibres. I have been reassured that tow is a natural part of the process, and results in a large percentage of the final fibres. The final small fluffy bits left that are impossible to spin make great chicken bedding, so nothing will be wasted.

The tow that comes away as a result of breaking and scutching

I continue to do this carefully for about 40 minutes until I have something that looks like a long lock of hair. At this stage I comb the fibres with a flowerhead from a Stiff Teasel, which I understand has been used for wool processing/carding throughout history and is a native plant. This combing removes most of the last parts of woody detritus.

The final results and the tools used.

The Flint + Flax group will meet again on Saturday 1st October to continue these process, all welcome!