Flax timeline

A follower asked me to make a flax timeline she could follow for her own flax. This is a lovely idea. I am so grateful for suggestions on blog topics. I write for you and if you have requests it’s even better. So thank you Kathy!

Making a timeline with dates for flax is a challenge, though, depending on different climate zones and on which side of the equator you are living. Any approximate dates would be a challenge even within Sweden. The official arrival of spring is around February 20th in the southernmost part of Sweden and May 5th in the far north. In this flax timeline I have tried to use signs as a starting point. You need to translate these signs to your own context.

Five stricks of flax. Smallest to the left and chunkiest to the right.
My flax harvests through the years. From the left: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

In short

Instead of a timeline with dates I have tried to make a guide with practical indicators to help you know what to look for. In short, this is what I came up with:

  • Sowing: When the soil is manageable
  • Harvesting: When the stalks are yellow up to 2/3 of their height.
  • Drying: Outdoors in dry weather.
  • Rippling: Outdoors in dry weather.
  • Winnowing: On a dry and windy day.
  • Retting: Dew retting can be done in the fall or in the spring.
  • Processing and spinning: When you are able to do it outdoors.

In the paragraphs below I have tried to elaborate these indicators.

Cultivating

Sowing

This is the easy one. Sow your flax on Karolina Day, may 20th. This will result in high flax plants. The women sowing should wear no underwear (to show the seeds that they need new underwear). In addition to that, they should sow barefoot, wear at least three white garments (this would result in a white and shiny flax), walk with high strides (to guarantee a high flax) and let their hair down.

A small flax field in bloom
The experimental flax patch in July.

I sow when the soil is ready. This means that any ground frost should be gone and that the soil is manageable. In my part of Sweden this means sometime in April or early May.

This is also the time when the weeds start sprouting. Especially chickweed, a kind of weed that in its initial stage looks very much like flax and gives me lots of trouble when weeding. So I have waited for the weed to sprout, remove it and then sow the flax. This made my life easier and resulted in less chickweed.

When I did some research for this post I learned that sowing early would provide for a more even nourishment for the flax. Sowing later would result in uneven lengths of the flax straw. This explains a lot. My 2019 harvest is very uneven in length (albeit chickweed free). For the 2020 flax season I will start when the soil is manageable, as recommended. I’ll just have to deal with the chickweed.

Harvesting

The time for harvest will again depend on your climate zone. In some countries it may even be possible to have several harvests in one year. It will also depend on what fineness you want your flax fibers – fine medium or coarse. A fine flax is of coarse appealing to many, but it will also result in a seed capsule that isn’t ready. An early harvest for fine fibers will thus not give you any seeds for next year’s cultivation. Medium harvest will give you medium fibers and more developed seeds. A late harvest results in coarser fibers and fully developed seeds, something you may be interested in if you are harvesting the seeds for oil purposes.

I harvest my flax at the medium stage, when the stalks are yellow up to the lower two thirds of their height. According to my flax book that is around 25–30 days after blossoming, but this too would be depending on climate zone and weather.

Bundles of flax on the ground. The top 1/3 of the bundles are green and the bottom 2/3 are yellowed.
I harvest my flax when the stalks are yellow up to 2/3 of their height.

Prepare for process

Drying

When I have harvested the flax I dry it. How long that takes will depend on the weather and the moisture in the air. The air in my part of Sweden is quite dry and if the sun is shining the flax will dry quite quickly, in just a few days. This year I wasn’t that lucky. The sun was out, and when I planned to keep it out for just a couple of days more, it started to rain. Several times.

In the southern parts of Sweden you can find old flax saunas, especially from the 19th century. These were simple buildings used to dry the flax over an oven when the sun wasn’t enough to dry it.

Rippling and winnowing

When the flax is completely dried I ripple it. I take care of the seed pods and make sure to dry them some more. When the seeds are completely dry I wait for a windy days to winnow them.

Hands holding two bowls. The top bowl is pouring seeds into the bottom bowl. Dried plant material is blowing in the wind.
I winnow the flax seeds in dry and windy weather.

Retting

Retting flax is an art form in itself and I have just started to understand what to look for. There are several methods – dew retting, water retting and snow retting. I have experience from dew retting only. In all three methods the flax goes through the same stages, but with different duration. Water retting can be done in a fortnight while snow retting can take over 100 days.

A hand holding a flax straw. The fibers have been separated from the core.
The retting is finished when you can easily pull the fibers from the core in all its length.

I usually dew ret the flax directly when it has dried. Dried flax can still be interesting to pests, whereas retted flax is not. I make sure the lawn is newly mowed so that the stalks come as close to the dew as possible. My general retting period is around 20 days. I turn it over after ten. After around 15 days I check more regularly. The fibers should be easily removable from the core and in its entire length. This year it took exactly 20 days, last year 21.

After the flax has retted I dry it in standing bundles in a windy place.

A bundle of retted flax standing on the ground.
I dry the retted flax in standing bundles in a windy place.

Processing and spinning

Theoretically you can process and spin the flax any time of the year. In practice, though, you need to process your flax at a time when you can do it outdoors. Flax processing and spinning is very dusty and you really don’t want that to go into your lungs. I usually do it in mid-August, since that is when I take it to the Flax Day at Skansen outdoor museum for processing, but I could just as well do it in the spring or summer.

A woman hackling flax on a table outdoors. There are many flax samples on the table. Another woman in period dress behind her.
I process the flax outdoors. to get as little of the flax dust as possible in my lungs.

I hope this gives you an orientation of when to do what. What would be the flax timeline where you live?


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8 Replies to “Flax timeline”

  1. Josefin, This is a great timeline! There are so many variables with growing anything but you have given an easy-to-follow set of directions. I do not have a flax plot but this will help anyone who wants to build one! Thanks for writing and all the photos!!

  2. Very useful thanks.
    I’ve not grown flax as a crop (just as flowers) but plan to do so in 2020. I’m nearly 700m up in the Massif Central mountains of France.
    We don’t normally sow outdoors until late May. Wish me luck! At least the bees might like the flowers

  3. This is so useful and so informative. Thankyou. Your thoughts are particularly helpful. I really appreciate all your posts and this will be another one I refer to again and again.

  4. Josefin,

    Thanks SO much for this timeline. I have had NO luck with my flax crops. This gives me a great deal of useful information. Over the years, I have collected every antique processing tool needed. Unfortunately, I never have the flax to process! I plan/hope for this year to be different thanks to your information.

    1. Thank you Jennifer! I’m glad you found my structure useful. I hope you get to grow your flax next year. And remember, you don’t need a lot of space to do it – my flax patch is around one square meter! 😊

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