Homegrown Flax to Linen: Retting

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

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.

flax retting complete - BLOG

The method of retting can affect the color of flax fiber. Dew retting will result in a darker color in shades of gray, whereas water retting will give you a more blond color. With that in mind, make sure to ret all of your flax at the same time if you want it to match once you have spun it for a project. If you are just learning how to do this, I wouldn’t worry about the color so much as the timing. Leaving it too long in the dew or water tank will result in a ruined crop. Not long enough can be remedied by retting it again. The time to stop the retting process is when you can break the stalks and see the flax fibers. This photo shows retted flax that I have stored since last year, but it would look the same if you were to check it in the field. Once retted, flax can be stored indefinitely. 

Flax is a fairly quick crop, particularly compared to growing cotton. It likes cool weather and needs to be direct seeded in early spring when you would be planting peas and onions. Pull it for harvest in about 100 days, hopefully before the temperature has been over 80° F. (27° C.) too often. My harvest is taking place now with time to plant another crop, such as cowpeas, in those beds.

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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