This week I finished the retting of my 2022 flax. I decided to pay extra attention to the retting process this year. The aim of my experimental flax patch has always been to learn, and I keep learning every year. Walk with me through this year’s days of flax retting.
The 2021 flax harvest was quite large and of high quality. I was very pleased with it when I harvested it, but unfortunately I managed to underret it. The quality of the finished flax was not very impressive, full of boon and bits of bark. There was also a lot of waste and I ended up with two sad little stricks of hackled flax. For that reason I have been quite anxious about retting this year’s harvest.
With the painful experience of preparing my 2021 underretted flax I decided to pay extra attention to the retting this year and make the most of the harvest I got.
As I harvested the flax I divided it into sizes – the coarse outer plants in one bundle, then medium coarse, medium fine and fine. I dried the flax in bundles according to coarseness and kept this system even in the retting process. I figured the fine plants would ret faster than the coarse ones.
We live in a four family townhouse with no private space outdoors other than a patio on the front and a terrace at the back. The lawn outside our house, where I ret my flax, may be closest to us, but is by no means our property. People stroll by and lots of things can happen with unsupervised retting flax.
A kitchen conundrum
Mid-retting one of our neighbours announced that they would be renovating their kitchen. “A huge lorry will come and unload the kitchen furniture. You may want to move your flax”. Well I certainly wanted to move it, but I had no other lawn to move it to. The flax was retting on two patches of lawn and I did manage to move the flax that was in most danger from the unloading lorry, to the other patch. A bike rack had been placed on top of some of the flax when I got home on the first day, but no harm seemed to have been done to the flax. On the following days I peeked outside at the builders, keeping an eye on where they put things. They were very well behaved.
Days of retting
When I (dew) ret my starting point is 20 days, give or take a few depending on the weather. In my calendar I mark 10 days for turning and 17 days for starting the daily control of the retting to end the process at the right time.
To check the retting status I pick a stem between my pinched thumb and index fingers. I wiggle the stem a bit back and forth to allow the fibers to let go of the boon. I pull the fibers off the boon and make an assessment. The fibers should let go of the boon in its entire length and smoothly. If it is reluctant to let go it will need a few extra days of retting.
As I had suspected there was a difference in retting status between the different qualities of flax I had sorted my harvest into. The finest flax were nearly ready while the coarsest seemed to need more time.
I started testing my different categories on day 17. The fibers did let go of the boon on both the fine and medium plants along all the length of the fibers, but quite reluctantly. With the memory of preparing last year’s flax harvest fresh in my mind I figured that this reluctancy would probably result in quite a lot of waste and low quality flax.
On day 19 the fibers were still a bit reluctant to let go of the boon on the medium plants. The fine flax seemed ready to be harvested, but I decided to wait just another day. We were expecting some rain and I figured it would do the trick.
On day 20 I did end the retting of the fine flax. The fibers let go of the boon very smoothly and it felt like a good decision.
Since the medium and coarse plants hadn’t been ready on day 20 I didn’t check on day 21. Day 22, though, was the day for the medium flax and I ended the retting process for the largest part of the harvest. I expected the coarse edge flax to need an extra day or two, but it seemed ready enough so I took it up to dry too.
Drying retted flax is always an adventure. While I want some rain for the retting I certainly don’t want it for drying. There was some rain which wasn’t ideal, but there was also wind, turning my little flax tents over like dominoes and I retented them several times a day.
When the retted flax was dry enough to have some sort of integrity I brought it to the terrace to finish the drying there where it could stand openly but still protected from falling.
We are not expecting any rain this weekend, so I will let it dry some more. I’m note sure the weather and my schedule will give me an opportunity to process the flax before the winter, but I will at least hackle it for easier storing indoors.
The number of days of retting is just that, a number. This is what worked for me this year (I hope, the real result will reveal itself in the processing), in my part of the world, in the humidity of my corner of the world and the rainfall that happened to be. Your retting process may be quite different. For some pointers of the flax year, check out this flax timeline post that I wrote by a request. It covers some points based on signs for the different stages of flax husbandry rather than on dates.
Dreams of water retting
Next year I would like to try water retting. We do have a stream nearby, but it only runs (or rather crawls) in early spring with melt water. My hope is that a kiddie pool will do the trick. Not as romantic as sinking bundles of flax into the stream (I see Anne Shirley and Diana Barry before me), but I will have to live with that.
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