The experimental flax patch

I grow my own flax in a miniature experimental patch. Miniature means about 2 square meters and experimental means that I try to improve every year by experimenting and learning from my previous mistakes. I started in 2014, it was all coincidental. I was seed shopping for our allotment and found a pack of flax seeds for spinning flax. When I planted them I had no intention of processing the fiber, but come August I thought I might give it a try. I had no knowledge and no tools, but my plan was to keep it experimental and grow flax just because I could, and I was sure to learn a lot in the process.

The first year’s result was meager, but I was still  very proud of it. I had grown it and gone through all the steps required to produce fiber. With no tools, I had to be very inventive. After drying and retting, I separated the seeds by putting the bundles in a pillowcase and hammering on it with a mallet. I broke and scutched the stems with a rolling pin on the tiled kitchen floor. I think I used a comb to hackle the fibers. And I was left with a line the thickness of a rat’s tail. But it was my rat’s tail.

A very thin stick of homegrown flax.
Flax harvest of 2014

The following year I had a small experience bank to build on. I planted tighter and more, which gave result. One problem was weeds that sprouted at the same time as the flax, and it was difficult to deweed without deflaxing as well. I had found two hackles which helped me a lot and the result was much improved, the thickness being of approximately 3 rat’s tails, and a lot longer and finer fibers than the first year.

A thin stick of homegrown flax. Hackles and tow in the background.
Flax harvest 2015

In 2016 I waited for the weeds to sprout before I started the flax planting. That way I could deweed before I put the flax seeds in the ground, which was a success. The flax grew nicely and the patch looked very promising. Until the next problem arrived. The problem spelled C-A-T. Frasse, the neighbour’s cat had found a new bed. In my flax bed. He lay there every day and didn’t care about my golden fiber at all. So a lot of the harvest was ruined by cat.

Also, the fall was very dry. I dew retted the flax longer than I had before, but when I processed it, it was really hard to separate the fibers from the core. The consequences of which led to both more waste (=less usable fiber) and more core cellulose in the finished fiber. And I think it has less shine than the previous harvest.

A thin stick of homegrown flax. Hackles and tow in the background.
Flax harvest 2016

But this is why I do it – I learn every year and use my experience to improve the next year. And I did end up with 4 rat’s tails!

This year’s flax has had its ups and downs. To start with, I put a compost grid 5 cm above the soil to prevent the cat from hi-jacking my flax patch. He came, he sulked and he left. I increased the patch with two pallet collars below our big oak. Also, I got some new seeds (Ilona) from a retired flax gardener. But the oak sucked out all the water from the soil and all that is left are some sad yellow stems, about 20 cm high. So we are left with the original patch. Which is full of weeds between the flax stems. However, I planted the new seeds on the original patch and this flax is a lot higher than it ever was before, so I’ll make sure to use the new seeds next year.

Flax flowers.
Flax in blossom

First flax

I have spun my first flax!

I bought a kilo of heckled flax from Växbo lin a year ago, but I have been a bit intimidated by it. I have read a lot about flax spinning but I haven’t had the courage to start spinning.

Two books about flax processing.
Reading up on flax spinning and husbandry

Also, I didn’t have a distaff, so I asked around and finally got a comb distaff. It was hand-carved in the -80’s after an old original. But I had no holder for it and I started playing with ideas how and where to arrange it. We have a floor lamp in the living room and I thought it might be a good idea to tie the distaff onto the lamp shaft.

I wanted to get some sort of container for water to be able to wet-spin the flax. My idea was to hang the container on my spinning wheel, so I needed something with a handle. Last week we went to a flea market and I found a pretty copper cauldron that would be a perfect candidate for the job.

A small copper cauldron hanging on a spinning wheel.
A cauldron for wet spinning

Today I decided it was the day to face my flax fears and start spinning. When I looked at the lamp to figure out how to attach the distaff to it, I saw my blocking wires behind the lamp, neatly stored in their one meter tube. And it was the perfect distaff stand!

So I started spinning with the distaff tube tucked under my arm. It was a little awkward, trying to spin, hold on to the tube and wisp away flying flax fibers at the same time. I realized that I had to spin outdoors and organize myself. So, I moved my equipment out to the terrace and folded up the parasol against the sun and the showers in the ambivalent weather. And I found the perfect floor stand to the distaff tube in the lounge furniture!

Josefin Waltin spinning flax on a spinning wheel on the balcony.
Spinning flax with inventive distaff holder and stand. Photo by Dan Waltin

Finally, I was able to spin. I was happy as a clam, spinning away in my perfect little arrangement. The rain was pattering cozily against my parasol canopy and the bobbin slowly turned into a treasure in pale gold.

Close-up of a bobbin full of flax yarn in motion
A golden thread. Photo by Dan Waltin

And I’m really happy with my first flax yarn. And now there is only 974 g flax left of my 1 kg!

A skein of handspun flax yarn.
First flax skein, 209 m, 26 g
A hand wound ball of flax yarn.
First flax ball