Growing flax to process into linen was a common activity on homesteads before the Industrial Revolution. In fact, a quarter acre per person might have been planted to take care of clothing and other textile needs for the year. When choosing a variety of flax to plant for linen, make sure the botanical name is Linum usitatissimum. The variety I’ve found to be available is Marilyn.
If you are just starting out and don’t know if you really want to get into this yet, you can get enough material to work with from just a small space in your garden. In that case, you may want to buy seed by the packet, if it is available. If you want to have enough to really play with, plant a pound of seeds. I bought seed through The Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Their one pound package of seeds indicates it is enough to plant 400 square feet. My main source of information about growing flax to linen has been the book Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich. That book suggests that one pound of seed is enough to plant 300 square feet.
The time to plant is in the early spring, about the time you plant peas. Flax wants to get its start in the cool weather and will be ready to harvest in about 90-100 days. You will need to plant it in a sunny spot and provide an even distribution of moisture throughout its growing season if you do not have regular rainfall. Whether you plant the seeds in rows or broadcast them, the seeds need to be close together so the stalks will grow straight with no branching. You will get more and better fiber from thin stalks than from fat ones. Attention needs to be given to keep flax weeded, especially when it is young. Find more details about planting flax at Homeplace Earth.
When it gets closer to harvest time I will be posting again with what to do next. Although there are many steps in the journey to linen, other than harvesting at the right time, those steps can be done at your leisure. The flax straw will have to be retted, which is soaking it in water or, my favorite, laying it in the grass and letting the dew take care of it. The fiber will be separated from the straw when you break it, then it is further cleaned by scutching and hackling. It sounds daunting, but once you understand it and have worked a bit with it, it is not so intimidating.
Many museums and festivals have flax tools on display and may do demonstrations. The Landis Valley Farm Museum has a wonderful display in their textile barn. One place to see flax to linen in action is at the Stahlstown Flax Scutching Festival in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania. That festival will be held September 16-17 this year, the same time as the Mother Earth News Fair in nearby Seven Springs. I am thrilled that we can see the flax to linen process at historical demonstrations, but we need to take it out of the museums and make it part of our lives. We can make the necessary tools ourselves and, once again, wear clothes that have come from our own land and our own hands.
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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