When I talk to people about my experimental flax patch I often get the question of yield – how much flax do I get per square meter of harvest? I have never been able to answer the question since I haven’t documented the numbers. But this year I tried to estimate a flax yield.
It is a relevant and interesting question. But, as always, there are many parameters that need consideration and there is a lot more than just a figure. I will however give you some numbers and then challenge them.
This year I planted two of my community garden allotment beds with flax. They are approximately 3 square meters in total. After I had harvested, dried, retted and dried again I had 900 grams of flax. I have nothing to compare it with, but of the ten harvests I have had it was at least one of the top three in harvested flax.
Despite careful checks I managed to underret my flax this year too. More than usual, actually. While the fibers were very soft from the water retting, as well as long and fine, there was a lot of waste. The fibers were very strong, so the waste was in the amount of fibers (lots of plants where the fibers hadn’t separated) rather than in length.
After breaking, scutching and rough and fine hackling I had 72 grams of prepared flax. I arranged the flax in two stricks, one with the long first hand quality and one with the second hand hackle waste that I rehackled. In addition to that there was a lot of waste that ended up as mulching in the garden beds.
So, I have listed some interesting parameters to challenge and break down these numbers. Some of which I can experiment with and improve and others that I just have to deal with. Some of which spell C-A-T-S.
Area, distribution and height
While I can measure the flax patch area there are lots of parameters that I can’t really influence. I aim at fine fibers, so I plant quite tightly, but I don’t measure the distance between the plants. Depending on my deweeding diligence there can be more or less weed between my flax plants.
I buy the seed that is available that particular year. Sometimes it is a higher plant sort and sometimes a lower.
Height and fineness
Even if the seed has an estimated height, the individual plants can of course vary. The further the distance between the fibers, the more space the plant gets to grow, and the taller and rougher the plant will grow. This is especially clear in the edges of the flax patch where the plants have lots of space to grow. But height through roughness isn’t necessarily what I want. Where the plants have grown tighter the fibers will be finer, but also shorter. The tighter growing plants will also have less branching and a higher quality than the tall and branched rough plants. Finer fibers would also result in a lighter yield.
Some years the plants are very different in height and I haven’t got the slightest clue to why. But perhaps it has something to do with the soil? I have read that flax likes to be planted on an even surface and so I try to make it as flat as I can by walking over the whole patch after sowing, pressing the soil even.
No matter how well I tend my flax patch, the weather always has the final say. Whether it is too wet, too dry or too windy, the weather will influence the quality of the flax. This year, for example, we had some very heavy rain in a couple of early August weeks. The flax laid flat and got too heavy to rise. Flax lying flat on the ground can result in mold or retting while it is still in the ground.
The retting, oh, the retting. How it eludes me. I have managed to underret most of my harvests so far. It seems like I need to overret it once to understand what perfect retting is supposed to look and feel like.
When the flax is underretted there will be more fibers that still stick together in a band. These will make the hackling more exhausting for me and result in more tangles and broken fibers. A lesser quality, no doubt, and, in the end, more waste.
I’m not joking here. The more the neighbourhood cats that take naps in the flax field, the more bent the plants will get, resulting in the same disaster as heavy wind or rain. And no one has any say in the catdom other than the cat.
This year Findus the neighbour’s cat trotted around in one of my flax patches as I tried to harvest it, resulting in tangled plants and lots of fuss. The main fuss was caused by heavy rain, though.
Waste or tow?
I have to admit I’m not very good at taking care of the hackle waste. I do try to unwaste the longer hackle remains and rehackle it into shorter bundles. But I am certain I could make more of an effort with the tufty tow and make a rougher yarn with it. This is actually a parameter where I can step up and turn some waste into unwaste.
My flax patch has been experimental from the start back in 2014. My main aim is to learn, which I do every year, sometimes with varying degrees of pain. The more I learn the better quality my flax gets. There was a lot of waste this year. From the 900 grams I started with I ended up with 72 grams of prepared flax. That makes a yield of less than one per cent from the original dry weight. I have nothing to compare it with, but it sounds very low. Still it isn’t as simple as only numbers. I am very happy with the quality of those 72 grams.
Retting is and will always be a factor that heavily influences the yield and a constant adventure. Soil, fertilizing, weather and weeds are others. And cats.
I have written quite a lot of flax posts through the years. Use the search field to find them.
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