This past weekend was the Flax and wool days at Skansen outdoor museum in Stockholm. I went with a friend and brought last year’s retted flax. My focus for the theme weekend this year was Flax Day.
The experimental flax patch
I have a small experimental flax patch in the flower bed in our tiny townhouse garden. The patch is about one square meter and big enough for me to experiment and learn about growing and processing flax.
I have grown flax since 2014 and I have improved and learn every year. I have no tools for processing except a rough hackle and a fine hackle. For the other steps in the process I have had to improvise. I rippled the seeds by putting the flax in a pillowcase and roll a rolling pin over it. For breaking the flax I beat the flax with a fist-sized rock against a stone. I used a spatula to scutch. None of these methods work very well. Last year I took my 2017 harvest to Skansen outdoor museum for processing. I also made a video from the processing. The result was wonderful. For the first time I felt I could actually spin my flax.
Flax Day processing
So, this year I went back to Skansen. I put the retted flax from 2018 in my backpack and hopped onto my bike. My harvest was bigger than previous years and I had really watched over the retting process and got a very good result.
The flax biker
Last time I rode my back with a big load I crashed. I had a chili plant for a friend in my bike bag. When looking back to make sure the plant was ok I turned the handlebar too much and the pedal got stuck in a rock by the side of the road. The plant didn’t break, but I did. My left arm broke in two places at the shoulder. The doctor said I wasn’t allowed to move the arm backwards or sideways, but “small movements in front of the body are encouraged!”. I could still spin and knit and that was the important thing.
So I was a bit conscious of my load this time. Every few minutes of my 8 km ride I tilted my head back so that the helmet touched the flax. When I heard the scraping sound I knew the flax was safe and sound in my backpack.
I did get both me and the flax to Skansen safe and sound. I went straight to the farmyard where the tools were out for demonstration. The museum educators recognized me from last year and were happy to help.
The retted and dried flax is stiff and uncooperative. I want to separate the flax fibers from the cellulose core. This happens in a break. By jamming the break onto the flax I crush the core. When I’m finished the flax hangs sloppily instead of being stiff like a broom.
I had the museum educators at my side during the whole process. They were happy I was there and happy to help.
The hardest part of breaking is the upper tips. If the straws in the bundle aren’t even in length there will be a thin end of just a few straws. It is difficult to get the ends properly broken since they are too thin for the break to come far down enough to crush them. I knew this, at least in theory, but I didn’t realize the implications of uneven bundles. Always bundle the flax in even lengths, that’s what all the books say. But it is not until I see what happens in practice that I realize why. My mistakes are a map of what I learn.
The flax pull is a step between breaking and scutching. By pulling the flax through the puller (I have no idea what this tool is called in English) more of the broken cellulose is removed from the flax fibers.
Most of it ended up in my shoes.
I have never heard of this tool or read about it in my flax books. Perhaps it is a regional tool. Nevertheless, it is a great tool that will help you get a better result.
The goal of the scutching step is to remove as much as possible of the remaining cellulose bits. This is done with a scutching knife – a sword-like wooden tool – against a board. An ornamented scutching knife used to be a gift from the groom to the bride of a couple. These knives were seldom used for flax processing, though. Instead they were hung on the wall for decoration and keepsake from the wedding.
At Skansen there is also a scutching mill. This was open for demonstration on Flax Day. If you have ever seen a crime series in the English countryside, this would be the perfect murder scene! A big water-driven wheel with scutching knives doing the laborious work for the flax farmer.
The hackles are also potential murder weapons. A gazillion pointy needles on a board through which you comb the scutched flax. Usually you go through both a rough and a fine hackle, or even a third in between. Luckily I didn’t break any skin this time.
After two hours my friend Cecilia and I had finished all the flax from my tiny patch and ended up with this pretty strick. Imagine the time needed to process a whole flax field! I guess the whole village would take part in this work.
I was really happy with the result. The strick was more than double the size of the 2017 strick. I had really paid attention to the retting process and it gave a great result. Almost all of the cellulose is gone.
In the image above you can see the results of all the steps of the process. From left to right:
- Retted and unprocessed. The glue has been retted away and the fibers is ready to be separated from the cellulose core.
- After being thoroughly broken in the break the cellulose core have been chopped to pieces. The bundle of fibers is no longer straight.
- The in-between step of pulling gives a good result – some of the cellulose bits have been removed.
- After a waltz with the scutching knife most of the cellulose bits are gone (most of them in my shoes, actually).
- In the rough and fine hackling the fibers have been aligned and shorter bits removed.
- A final step in the process can be a flax brush that is used to brush the line to remove the very last bits of shorter fibers, just before spinning. They didn’t have one here, though.
Flax analysis 2014–2018
Even if my first rat’s tail of flax from 2014 is truly sad and despicable, I have saved it and all my stricks of flax from the following years. Looking at them I can learn from my results and experiences.
2014 – an unplanned harvest
Well, what can you say. It is just a rat’s tail really, but it is my rat’s tail. I processed it at Skansen this first year. I had only cultivated the flax for fun as a companion plant in the allotment, and without any sort of plan. Not until August did I come up with the idea to actually process it.
2015 – First fiber intention
This was the first year I had a fiber intention with my flax patch. The result is actually quite good, even if the fibers are rather short. I processed this harvest at home. The only tools I had (and still have) were two hackles. The other steps were creative inventions (see above).
2016 – under retted
This was the year of poor retting. The glue hasn’t been solved properly and a lot of the cellulose bits are still in the strick. Because of the under retting I got lots of waste and poor quality tow.
2017 – new crop!
I got new seed from a retired flax farmer. In the image below you can see the difference in length compared to previous years. I processed the flax at Skansen. This was the first harvest with actual spinning quality. The retting seems to be good too, even if I didn’t have a structure for it.
2018 – my best flax day yet
The result I got from the 2018 harvest is by far the best. This is actually a real strick of flax! This was a really good Flax Day!
I realized already in the summer that this would be a good harvest. Long and straight stems of even length grew in my tiny patch. Come harvest day I had very pretty bundles to dry and ret. I was very structured in the retting process and kept records. All of his gave a good result.
When processing a relatively large harvest I learned a lot and could improve during processing. I knew where to hold the strick, when I needed to work more in a step of the process and what to look for. I can actually spin with this flax, and not just a meter or two! Perhaps I can weave myself a small project bag together with the tow.
I don’t think this year’s flax will be as good as the 2018 result. I had sowed the seeds unevenly which resulted in plants with uneven length and thickness. Towards the end of the summer the flax bended and looked rather sad. I’ll let you know next year how it turned out!
Gotta get my rolling pin and a pillow case ready, today is rippling day for the 2019 harvest.
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