Growing Dish Towels In The Garden

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.

Blue Flowers On Flax

Blue Flowers On Flax

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.

Bundles Of New Harvested Flax

Bundles Of New Harvested Flax

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.

Flax Seed Heads

Flax Seed Heads

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.

Flax Is Harvested By Pulling It Up By Its Roots

Flax Is Harvested By Pulling It Up By Its Roots

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.

Flax Bundle Ready To Be Tied

Flax Bundle Ready To Be Tied

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.

Tied Flax Shock Against Fence Post

Tied Flax Shock Against Fence Post

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.

Katherine Grossman

Katherine Grossman was born and raised in the greater Washington, D.C area. For the last 30 years Mrs. Grossman has lived a life of deliberate self-reliance in rural western Pennsylvania. She loves to garden, knit mittens; makes a killer meatloaf and has been known to deliver triplet lambs with her eyes closed. 

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  19 comments for “Growing Dish Towels In The Garden

  1. Val Moreland
    July 29, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    I learned something today. But then again I am always learning from you. When will the next issue be sent out??? Can’t wait!!!

    Thanks for all the info!!!!

  2. July 29, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Very interesting new territory for me. Will you be posting the fiber into linen process?
    Thanks for what you do here.

  3. DFW
    July 29, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Can’t wait to follow this process. I find it fascinating!

  4. KMG
    July 29, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    Val, Ronnie, & DFW -
    I’m glad you are finding the linen project interesting :-)
    Yes I will post the next step in the process – rippling the seeds. But that probably won’t happen until some time in the fall.

    • Mary Ann
      August 3, 2013 at 10:00 am

      I, too, would like to chime in and let you know that I have been excited to follow this process since you announced it! Thanks for sharing!

      • KMG
        August 3, 2013 at 11:19 am

        Why you are very welcomed :-)

  5. Barb
    July 29, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Hey Cuz,
    This is so interesting. I had no idea that grew flax and made your own towels. You are amazing!
    Barb

    • KMG
      July 29, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      You are too :-) Love & miss you…

  6. July 29, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    This is such an interesting and intriguing subject. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole process. What size of an area did you plant?

    • KMG
      July 30, 2013 at 7:10 am

      A little bigger than 12X12 :-)

  7. July 30, 2013 at 12:10 am

    Have you been to my little village of Stahlstown where an annual flax scutching festival is held?

    • KMG
      July 30, 2013 at 7:11 am

      No I haven’t :-)

  8. Kathleen
    July 31, 2013 at 9:40 am

    You’ve done so well with this! Thank you. I’ve been interested in this process for a long time, and I have a book from the ’70′s about homesteading, which includes a chapter on flax -but, -I couldn’t make ‘heads nor tails’ out of it. I’ll look forward to trying this next year, and get started on preparations. I had heard, as you’ve indicated, too, that flax likes conditions ‘on the wet side’ -does this mean it could be planted in a place that’s a little soggy to start with? [not very soggy, but maybe you know what I mean-] I have a spot that we call the ‘willow nursery’, and I was thinking about planting -more like ‘broadcasting’-some there. I don’t do the best with plants that ‘like to have wet feet’ [even the houseplants, like cyclamen] -although the willows love it there, and peppergrass; I’d like to get the startup right, at least. If you have a patch that’s about 12 X 12, do you have an idea what your yield might be? Do you think flax might turn into the same volume as wool? [-not that I mean wall-to-wall sheep -and their fleeces, on a 12 X 12 patch :) -plus, linen is woven, of course,- but maybe you know what I mean -again, many thanks. I’ll be looking forward to the updates, as many others will, it seems. Don’t let us get you ‘bogged down’, though. Enjoy the rest of the summer!

    • KMG
      July 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      Kathleen-
      Yes flax likes a damp soil but not a soggy soil. A spot where willow will grow is perfect!
      The linen thread yield will depend upon how I spin it. You always spin with a project in mind.
      I could spin the line flax thick for linen yard for a summer sweater or shawl, or wet spin it thinner like a 20/2 pearl cotton for towels (which is what I’m planning).
      There’s a lot more fiber contained in the flax straw than what you’d imagine. Unless I run into trouble with white fungus while the flax is retting, I’ll probably have more than enough to make a couple of bread cloths and dishtowels :-)

      • Kathleen Wilson
        August 5, 2013 at 8:14 pm

        Dear Granny, I only today saw your kind reply. It took me until the Lard Pie Crust Recipe to figure out how to ‘follow’ these wonderful articles of yours. -Your directions couldn’t be clearer, actually, but I’m one of those [apparently now, sort of rare] holdouts concerning computers -I think they’re ‘a flash in the pan’. I am very dim-witted about computers, and this may be a primitive strategy which is possibly geared toward helping me feel superior to this plastic contraption. Oh I know it’s sort of, like, crazy, but at least with me, this seems to work. If I considered myself ‘on equal footing’ with this dinky plastic so-and-so, either that, or considered it in some way, superior, I’d probably have thrown it out a window long ago. This way, whenever it does the things it does [LIKE LOSE WHAT I WROTE, ETC.], I get to show the thing I’m too big for such behavior, and whatever it does could never possibly bother me.. -of course, no one needs to hear this, and probably everyone feels grateful that my original remarks -which were basically just, thank you for this really good information and I will keep these things in mind, when, hopefully next year, I get my own little patch of flax [not that I want to wish away the autumn and the winter, but, maybe you know what I mean]- got the big edit job.. :)

  9. Katy Allene
    July 31, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Granny,
    I have seen the term reet used in books, and you used it again in your latest column. While the context of how the term is used gives me a vague idea of what it means, could you please give me a definition?

    Also, I just looked at your 101 Basic Homesteading Skills and was very pleased to find that between my daughter and myself we already had 23 of the skills covered. I can now work on the rest one at a time.

    Thanks,
    Katy

    • KMG
      July 31, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      Katy -
      Retting is the process by which the tough outer layer of the flax plant is allowed a controlled decompose with water and soften up so that it can be later removed when the flax is further processed. Retting is an old word that comes from the word “rotting”. I’ll post more about retting flax some time in the fall :-)

  10. July 31, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    I noticed that one of the things you are making with your flax is a fancy bread cloth – do you mean you’re going to make your own couche for rising bread? That’s pretty neat.

    • KMG
      July 31, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      Sara -
      No. When I say “bread cloth”, I mean a cloth or towel that is placed in a bread basket :-)

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