Flax retting

While I have been processing the retted flax from the 2017 harvest, I continue to handle the the 2018 harvest. In this post I invite you to a very unconventional rippling, windy winnowing and a real retting adventure!

This is part five in a blog series about flax. The previous posts are about flax processing in general, the 2018 harvest in my experimental flax patchspinning flax on a spindle and flax processing. Last year I wrote about the first harvests in my experimental flax patch and my first attempt at spinning flax on a wheel.

Rippling

After the flax has dried completely I need to ripple it before I can ret it. This means that I remove the seed capsules from the stalks. The seeds will make a total tangle of the flax if they remain on the stalks and I need the seeds for next year’s cultivation.

Usually, you would use a ripple for rippling flax. A ripple looks like a giant comb. You pull the strick of dried flax through the tines and the seed capsules fall off the stalks at the other end. Easy peasy. If you happen to have a ripple. Which I don’t. I did see one at a flea market in Austria, though. I have never seen a flax ripple that big! The shop was closed, so I could only see it from the outside.

A rusty flax ripple in a shop window
Giant Austrian flax ripple

So, instead of a flax ripple, I do the MacGyvery thing and use a pillow case and a rolling pin! I put one strick at a time in the pillow case, put the pillow case on a table and start rolling on the pillow case with the rolling pin. The seed capsules break and stay in the pillow case and I can remove the strick of flax seedless.

A person rolling with a rolling pin over two bundles of flax in a pillowcase
Rippling without a ripple. Photo by Isak Waltin

This is where the neighbours walk past asking polite and curious questions.

Retting

When the flax is deseeded it is time to ret it. The retting process separates the flax fibers from the cellulose core with the help of humidity and mould. You can use running water, dew or snow – water retting, dew retting or snow retting. These methods take different amounts of time and result in different colours in the finished flax.

While we do have a creek nearby, I have never tried water retting. The creek is usually dry after the snow has melted and I can’t really count on it for flax purposes. I know some people use an inflatable kiddie pool, but I haven’t tried that yet. Snow can be very unstable too, so my best shot is dew retting.

As many of you may know, the summer here in Sweden has been exceptionally dry, so I was prepared to help the dew along with my watering pot. It rained the first nights after I had laid out the flax, though, and there has been lots of morning dew.

I spread the flax in a thin layer in rows. I make sure the roots are in the same direction in every row.

The neighbours are still curious and polite at this stage.

Turning and checking

Now I need to watch the retting carefully. Dew retting can take anything from 15 to over 30 days, depending on the rain and dew. I turn the flax once a week and check the process.

After one week I can see that the retting process has started, you can see that it has got dark spots. There is no sign of the fibers separating from the core.

A hand holding a flax straw. Flax on the ground in the background
Day 8 of retting. The retting process has started. You can see the dark spots on the straw. The flax fibers have not separated from the cellulose core.

Another week later the flax is darker but there is still no sign of the fiber separating.

A hand holding a flax straw. Flax on the ground in the background
Day 14 of retting. The retting process continues and the flax is still darker. However, the flax fibers have still not separated from the cellulose core.

On day 19 something has started to happen! After wiggling the stalk in different directions, the fibers actually separate from the cellulose core! It is still too early to break the retting, but I have to check every day now.

A hand holding a flax straw. Flax in the background.
Day 19 of retting. The flax is still darker and the fibers are starting to separate from the cellulose core.

Finally, on day 21, the retting is finished. Just as on day 19, the fibers separate from the cellulose core, but with significantly more ease. As soon as I wiggle the straw, the fibers separate fro the cellulose and I can pull the fibers off in their entire length.

A hand holding a flax straw, flax in the background.
On day 21 the retting is finished. The fibers separate easily and in their entire length from the cellulose core.

I roll up the flax in bundles and dry them standing up in a conical shape.

A bundle of flax standing in a conical shape on the ground
The retted flax needs to dry before I store it.

When the flax has dried it will keep for decades. Rodents stay away from it, since it has retted. I will keep mine indoors over the winter and process it outdoors next summer.

Winnowing

While the flax has been retting, the seeds that were saved in the pillowcase have dried in a bowl in the window. There is a mixture of seed, capsules and vegetable fragments from the stalks. I want to keep the seeds. Had I been a chicken owner, the girls would have got the winnowed capsules for breakfast.

I wait for a windy day to winnow them. I pour the seeds between two bowls in the wind.

Hands pouring seeds from one bowl to another.
Winnowing the flax seeds. Photo by Nora Waltin

The light seed capsules blow away in the wind while the seeds fall down into the lower bowl. I pour back and forth until most of the capsule parts are gone. This particular day, the wind had a very hard time deciding which way to blow. I danced around, trying to find the direction of the wind and ending up with most of the stuff in my hair and on my clothes.

I am very disappointed in my neighbours who weren’t even around to be curious and polite.

Hands holding bowls, pouring seeds from one bowl to another.
The wind takes the dried and light capsules to new adventures. The heavy seeds fall securely into the lower bowl. Photo by Nora Waltin

I end up with a promise of a successful flax season 2019.

A bowl of flax seeds.
Winnowed flax seeds

Happy spinning!


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