Water retting

Since I started my experimental flax patch 2014 I have dew retted my harvest. This year I try water retting for the first time.

Every year I have been nervous about retting. About the retting process in itself because it is such a vital part of the quality and yield of the harvest, but also about something happening to the flax on the lawn.

Lawn issues

We do have a lawn right outside our house. The tricky part though, is that it is not our lawn. Our house is situated in sort of a park area through which people can stroll – there are practically no gardens and no fences. The lawn is also part of the whole row of four town houses.

Dew retting in 2022.

Last year our neighbours were renovating their kitchen. I had laid my flax out to dew ret the day before they started ripping out the old furniture and dumping it uncomfortably close to my flax. It all worked out in the end, but it is a challenge to hog the lawn for three weeks for something people have no idea what it is. To them it is just straw in rows on the ground.

Enter: The kiddy pool

As I went out every day last year to check on the flax and the threat of the renovation bags, I read about my friend Christiane Seufferlein’s water retting. For water retting, a creek or a lake is recommended, so that the water is not still. Christiane did her water retting in a kiddy pool, though.

We live very close to a lake, but I wouldn’t dare to leave my flax where passers-by can see it. We also have a creek, but there is only water running in it in the early spring from melting snow. So a kiddy pool was the perfect solution. I wouldn’t bother the neighbours, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the flax being trampled on and the retting wouldn’t take three weeks.

Most of the kiddy pools on the market seem to come with either Disney motifs or inflatable palm trees. Or both. I did manage to find a plain rectangular pool, though.

Water retting

I harvested my flax on August 7th, but due to heavy and frequent rain it wasn’t dry until late August. I rippled it and started the retting on August 30th. I threw some soil in the bottom of the pool to get the retting a head start. To keep the flax bundles from surfacing I covered them with a couple of compost grids and some bricks. When I had it all organized I covered the arrangements with hose water of around 20 °C.

To trick the pool into believeing it was a real creek, I removed a bucket of pool water and added a bucket of hose water every day.


As the days went by, the water got increasingly gunky. Luckily, water retting is usually a lot faster than dew retting. Christiane had told me to check daily once the make-believe creek started to smell. On day 6 I took out a few strands, dried them and checked how the fibers came off the core. It had definitely started but was not finished.

Drying some test strands on day 6.

End of process

I tested again on day 8, but it was on day 9 I decided to stop the process. The fibers came off the cellulose core with ease. On some strands the fibers had come off by themselves.

Knot test not failed.

I also tested the strength of the fibers by tyeing a knot and pulling. If the fibers break close to the knot the fibers are strong. My fibers broke just by the knot. Happy as a clam I removed the flax bundles from the pool, sprinkled them with the hose and put it all to dry around the base of our oak tree.

Our big oak watches over the drying water retted flax.

The weather was warm and dry during this time and the bundles dried quite fast. The stems weighed 900 grams when fully dried.

Breaking and scutching

I have no idea if I will get the time to process the flax before it gets too cold. However, I like to at least break and scutch it before the winter so that it takes up less space indoors.

Breaking flax is quite laborious, but also something I look forward to doing. My 1821 flax break was made for a shorter person and my back wined a bit. After I felt the first blister in my hand I put on a biking glove. Neither pretty nor contemporary, but sometimes style needs to take a step down. I did take it of for the photo shoot, though.

For the scutching I used my beautiful scutching knife, custom made for me last year by master carver Frej Lonnfors.

Test hackling

As I scutchted I started to suspect that the flax was underretted after all. Even if most of the boon came off, the fibers didn’t seem to separate. I decided to hackle a couple of stricks to investigate.

I ran the flax through rough and fine hackles and I was right. Despite the experience of ten harvests I obviously still haven’t learned how to ret properly. There were still lots of strands with the fibers glued together and there was quite a lot of waste, in both rough and fine hackling.

Baby soft

But the softness, oh the softness. I have never had a flax harvest as smooth as this! I read that water retting can make the fibers softer than dew retting and in this case it seems to be correct.

The colour is beautifully golden, in contrast to the more subtly silvery brown dew retted flax I am used to. Despite the high waste I expect to get more hackled flax than I have before. I had two flax patches this year, each around 1.5 square meters, and the flax quite high and even in length.

Next summer, sweet flax, you and I. Next summer.

Happy spinning!

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