A couple of days ago I harvested the flax that I planted in the early spring. This year’s flax crop did very well because we’ve had plenty of rain.
Lots of moisture is of benefit when growing flax. But rain is also a benefit to unwanted garden weeds. The flax plot this year was very weedy – but then so is this year’s vegetable garden. 2013 will be remembered as the “Year of the Weed”.
For those of you, who may be new readers to this website, I planted flax for a homegrown linen dishtowel and cloth project. I wanted a couple of fancy bread cloths and dishtowels and thought it might be of interest to some readers to see exactly how linen cloth is made.
The ability of a household to produce some of its own cloth is a measure of self-reliance. There are several different traditional housewifery skills involved in the home production of linen cloth: growing the flax from seed and the actual flax fiber preparation; the handspinning of the fibers into linen thread;perhaps dyeing the thread and finally weaving the spun thread into cloth.
The flax I planted is a special fiber type of flax and not the food variety of flax. The fiber type of flax used for linen cloth grows taller than the type of flax used for food, and the interior bast fibers of the linen varieties are generally softer and finer. Bast fibers are the inner core parts (phloem) of certain plants once you remove the outer covering of the stem.
You could say I’m basically growing dish towels in my garden.
With the harvest of the flax I completed the growing phase of the linen.
Flax is ready for harvest when the lower third of the plant begins to turn yellow. Usually seed heads will have formed on the plant and there may still be immature seed pods and sometimes flowers present. It is important not to wait too long when harvesting flax.
That because the older the plants become the courser the fibers become and the quality of the linen is reduced. Young plants make the best and finest linen.
Flax is harvested by pulling it up by the roots in small bunches.
Traditionally flax is not harvested by cutting – only by pulling. That’s because the entire plant – from tip to root can be used.
The way that I harvest flax is by pulling the entire plant up, and then laying all the plants in the same direction across a piece of old baling twine to be then tie up.
Once the plants are in bunches they are then arranged in a shock to allow the flax straw to dry. Flax shocks are traditionally arranged loose and without being bound by twine. I do bind my flax bundles loosely because I shock them against a fence post or wall and don’t want them falling over.
It takes a week to 10 days of warm sunny weather to dry the green flax plants into flax straw. The flax drying in the shock will lose about half of its weight in water while it dries. When dry, the bundles will be very light and I’ll be able to hear the flax seeds rattling in the pods. For the time being the weather is good, but if it rains too much or birds become a problem by eating the seed heads, I’ll move the flax shock under cover and into the barn.
Once the flax straw is dried, the next step will be to “ripple” the flax for seed. The seed can then be used to plant flax next year. Traditionally farmers sold excess flax seed as a cash crop because flax seed is used for the production of linseed oil.