There are two general types of flax, one is grown for seeds, the other for its fiber. Linseed has been used for lamp oil, mixed into cough medications, laxatives and other medicinal teas. Linoleum was made from linseed oil and ground cork. The oilseed plant grows to a height of 24 – 30 inches and the root is larger.
The fiber flax plant produces a taller stem, growing to 30 – 47 inches. It is sown more densely, producing less branches and longer, finer fibers than the linseed oil plant. The fiber flax plant grows in most well-drained and tilled soils except heavy clay or loose sand. It requires adequate daylight, cool nights and warm, damp weather. It is sown in March or April, when the soil is warm enough for germination. It has a fairly short growing period of about 100 days. It can be harvested in July or August.
About 30 days after the flax plants have bloomed, it can be harvested. The seeds are soft and yellow. Lower parts of the stems are yellow and some leaves are beginning to drop. The upper portions of the plant should still be green. Harvesting should be done on a warm, sunny day. If the ground is too dry to easily pull the flax, you can wet the ground slightly, but not the plants themselves. Pull(don’t cut) the plants by grasping below the seed bolls, and brush off the dirt from the roots. Stack the flax plants into bundles, keeping them parallel and try to separate them into bundles of a similar thickness and length for more even drying. Place the tied bundles, root side down against a fence in a sunny location to dry. Turn them occasionally so they dry evenly. When they are dry, the stems will be firm and the seeds will rattle within the bolls.
Rippling removes the seeds from the stems. The dry plants are pulled through a rippling comb that is a wooden or iron device that has several rows of nails sticking up. The rippling comb is secured to a bench and the plants are held near the roots and pulled through the comb. The seeds fall off, and onto a cloth that has been placed under the table.
flax retting Retting softens and separates the fibrous core of the plant from the outer layer. There are two common methods of retting flax, dew-retting and water-retting. Each affects the quality and character of the fiber in different ways.
Dew retted flax is laid out in thin layers on the ground and allowed to weather in the dew and rain. This can take up to six weeks. The flax is turned over 3 to 4 times during this time to ensure even retting. Dew retted flax turns a silver grey in colour.
Water retted flax is produced by submerging the flax stems in either stagnant or moving water. Water retting takes about three days and gives the flax a golden or pale cream colour.
To know when the retting process is complete, the inner wooden core should swell and the fiber will be taut. Wind a stem around your finger. The fiber should separate freely from the core.
Rinse the fiber and then spread it out on the grass to dry and bleach in the sun for about a week. Once dry, it can be bundled and stored, or it is ready to be broken.
When the retted flax has dried, breaking separates the inner core. A flax brake looks similar to a saw horse and consists of heavy hinged wooden blades that fit into wooden grooves in the lower part. Put a large cloth under the flax brake. Open the bundles of dried and retted flax plants. Lay the plants across the grooves of the flax brake and lower the upper part of the brake sharply in quick repeated blows. This breaks the wooden part of the core and should fall to the floor, leaving the clean strick or flax fiber behind.
If the flax fibers are breaking, the flax has been over-retted. The wooden part of the core, called the boon can be used for garden mulch, burned as fuel in your fireplace or can be used in making particle-board.
flax scutching If any boon is left on the fiber after the hackling process, it is removed by scutching. A bat-shaped or knife-shaped wooden bladeboard or blade is used to scrape the flax to remove the boon.
Hackling separates the long line fibers from the shorter tow. A hackle is a bed of pins or nails. Secure the hackle firmly to a bench. Hold the flax firmly and one end and comb the fiber through the bed of the hackle. Be careful as the pins or nails are sharp. This is similar to carding wool. The longer fiber left over will be the strick. It should be shiny and uniform in length, with the fibers running parallel to each other. The fiber left in the teeth of the hackle can be removed and recombed to be used as tow.
The flax is now ready for use.