Last weekend I decided to process my 2022 flax harvest. Flax processing is always more laborious than I tend to remember it. Lucky me I had already broken and scutched it, back in September. Join me for some spring hackling!
As I was watching my 2023 flax babies sprout the other day, my thoughts went to my 2022 harvest. To save workload and storing space I had already broken and scutched the harvest from my two flax beds, so I just had to run it through the rough and fine hackles.
Processing flax takes time and energy.
Processing flax takes time and energy.
Processing flax takes time and energy.
Now I should remember for next time, shouldn’t I? Because there is no “just” in flax processing. There is always time, hard work and bloodshed involved. Still, having the flax already broken and scutched back in September was a sweet gift to myself now, eight months later. When I harvested the flax I also divided it into qualities – the edge plants (thick plants and rough fibers) in one bundle and the rest in separate bundnes according to fineness and length.
I have two antique hackles, one rough and one fine. I let the flax go through both of them. As I rough hackled the flax I could feel and see the difference between the bundles. The finer the flax the shorter the fibers.
Rough hackling is always quite straining – the boon (the pieces of cellulose that are made up the core of the plant and were broken in the first stage of processing) gets stuck between the fibers, and so does any underretted fibers. Therefore I need to work to get the flax through the spikes. But it did work and when I looked around me on the floor I was fascinated to see how much boon had fallen out of the fibers and down to the floor.
When I had gone through all the bundles with the rough hackle, I was ready for the fine hackle. I made sure not to take too thick bundles, to avoid strain on both my muscles and the fibers. Most of the boon and underretted fibers were out by now, but the fine hackling further aligns the fibers and removes tangles and the little boon that may be left. Provided the flax has been properly retted, of course. I’ll get to that further down.
In the fine hackling process I can really see and feel the quality of the flax. Since I had sorted it into qualities from the beginning, the bundles were very even in both length and quality. I was very grateful for having gone through the trouble of sorting the flax back in September.
When all the flax had gone through fine and rough hackles I was totally exhausted. I may have hackled for over two hours – flax and fingers. My hands looked like a mess, totally unfit for the photo shoot I had planned. Let’s take it again, with an addition: Processing flax takes time, energy and skin.
All through the hackling stages I got lots of waste – for every bundle I had to remove waste from between the hackle spikes once or twice. I ran this waste through both hackles again, to remove the very shortest bits and free the usable tow for a rougher yarn and/or weft. It resulted in a sizable strick of my re-hackled hackle waste.
The waste from the hackle waste ended up as mulching under my red currant bushes.
Josefin’s vs Berta’s flax
Last summer I spent a lot of time on the balcony, spinning exquisite antique flax from the Austrian Berta’s flax project. Spinning that was a dream. Working with my own flax harvest now gave me a good idea of what high quality flax should look like – the antique flax was perfectly retted and was very smooth to spin. I realized that, even though my 2022 harvest was the best so far when it comes to length, quality and yield, it was slightly underretted. But I am very proud of the process and the result, and grateful for learning something new on m flax journey every year.
My 2021 harvest, though, was a retting disaster – so much was wasted in the hackling due to underrating, I almost cried. But then I reminded myself that this is an experimental flax patch – I do it to learn. Even if I will never come near the quality of the antique flax, I know now that I need to be even more thorough in my retting process.
Lessons for the 2023 retting
Retting is truly vital for the quality of the fiber. Had the flax been properly retted I would have been able to remove more boon in the scutching step and less in the hackling step. It would have given a higher yield and lower waste. It would probably also have been a less straining hackling process for me. I’m certain it wouldn’t have resulted in less bloodshed. To add to my high expectations of my 2023 retting I am thinking about water retting it in a kiddy pool.
I have grown an experimental flax patch every year since 2014. The first year I had no intention of processing the flax, it was just a bag of seeds I saw and bought. But as August came that year I decided to process it after all. The strick is very short and with the circumference of half a rat’s tail, but still, it’s my very first flax.
Some years were underretted, some years better, but every harvest different from the previous. The difference can be in colour, length, retting or other. It is truly interesting to see the result every year and the difference between the harvests. I do like to think that I have improved since I started.
Flax summer of 2023
Every year’s flax harvest i have placed in a paper bag. I have been practicing and procrastinating, waiting to gather enough courage and flax spinning skills to deserve to spin it. In the meantime I have spun commercially prepared flax. Last year, when I spun the Austrian flax I realized the difference and the amazing quality in the Austrian antique flax.
This summer my plan is to spin my own flax, for the very first time. Very exciting and a little scary. I will make separate yarns from each harvest (perhaps not the 2014 harvest) and perhaps weave something where the difference shows. I think the time has come now, I do deserve to spin my own flax harvest. Before I do I will rehackle it all and brush it with my flax brush. You can see a video where I rehackle and brush old flax here.
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