Homegrown Flax to Linen: Retting


flax layed out for retting

Growing flax for fiber to spin into linen requires many steps. Once it is harvested and the seeds removed, it needs to be retted. Retting flax is the process of freeing the flax fibers from between the inner core and the outer layer of the flax stalks.

The fiber you want to work with extends from the top of the plant into the root in long strands between these two layers. Separating them requires that you dissolve the pectin that holds everything together and you do that with water. There are microorganisms involved, but your part is only to add water to get things going.

You could soak your flax in a stream or river, dig a small pond or hole to flood for the flax, or use any available container that will hold water and is large enough. That would be called water retting. On the other hand, you could merely spread the flax out in the grass and let nature supply the moisture in the form of dew and rain, which is called dew retting. If the conditions are too dry, you may need to add water with a hose or watering can.

Although it takes longer to dew ret than to water ret, I choose to use the dew retted method. It is my flax retting in the grass last summer that you see in the top photo. I will be laying out this year’s harvest soon. More specifics about my retting can be found at Homeplace Earth.

Temperature can affect retting flax. According to Linda Heinrich in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, it may take only nine days in warm wet weather for the retting to be complete, but six weeks or more in cool weather. In my experience here in Virginia, it took 17 days to dew ret flax in July and at least 21 days when I did it in late September. It is possible to ret in the winter, it just takes longer.

8/5/2017 1:04:16 PM

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