Flax to Linen: Flowering to Rippling

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

I planted ‘Marilyn’ flax in March. ‘Marilyn’ is a variety of flax to grow to produce flax fiber for turning into linen textiles, as opposed to the flax varieties best suited to producing seeds to eat. There is much to know about growing flax to have good fiber to spin. It needs to be planted in early spring and will be ready to harvest about 100 days later.

About 30 days before harvest you will find your flax in full bloom—but only if you visit your plants in mid-to-late morning. Too early and the flowers won’t have opened yet; in the afternoon the petals will have begun to drop. At the less-than-optimal time of the day you will see a few flowers bloom here and there, but not the whole bed in bloom. My flax is blooming now. Take note of that week of full bloom so you will know when to expect to pull the plants for harvest. Yes, you will be pulling them from the ground, not cutting them. 

Once the flax is harvested, the seeds need to be removed, which is a process called rippling. Spread the flax stalks out on an old sheet laid out on hard surface and gently step on the seed heads. The seeds will come right off. The stalks can be bundled, dried, and stored at this point or retted. Retting will be the subject of a future post. Learn more about flax flowering, harvesting, and rippling at Homeplace Earth.

When it comes to saving seeds from your flax harvest to plant next year, harvest time can be a balancing act. You could harvest earlier than 30 days after full bloom and get finer fiber to work with, but the seeds won’t be mature. At 30 days after full bloom, the bottom of the plants will have begun to yellow, but there will still be some green in the upper part of the plants. You will get some viable seeds then, but if you wait a couple more weeks, you will have more good seeds. If you delay harvest until the whole plant is yellow, all the seeds will be mature but the fiber won’t be desirable.

Ireland has been known for its fine linen. To have linen that fine, the flax would have had to be harvested before the seeds were mature, leaving nothing to plant the next year. In colonial times, Pennsylvania did a brisk trade selling flax seed to Ireland, particularly through the Philadelphia port. In return, the colonists imported linen fabric from Ireland. One place to read about that is the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. As much as we talk about self-sufficiency, we have to realize that the world’s people have been trading and depending on each other for quite some time. Nevertheless, it is fun to explore the whole process yourself at home and produce your own clothes from something you have grown.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

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