Low Humidity! April Vacation!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to process flax, you’d better do it while the humidity is low. I am not entirely positive why this is so, but I know from experience that it is true. If you try to break or scutch your flax while it’s humid, the stalks just bend and the shives cling to the fibers for dear life. You do not hear the gratifying crackling, snapping sounds that should accompany such activities. It is arduous and futile. Well, maybe not futile, but it’s certainly a lot easier and more successful when the humidity is low.

I suspect that this is related to one of the properties of linen that make it a desirable fabric. Flax fibers are hydrophilic, meaning that they absorb water easily. I am sure someone has done research on how being damp also makes flax want to stick to itself. If you know of good resources on this, shoot me an email.

For the past several days here in western Massachusetts, we have had very, very low humidity. Well, low for Massachusetts. It’s been anywhere from 30-50% in the morning, dropping to about 18% in the afternoon. The weather has also been bright, sunny and warm. And best of all, it is April vacation! So, I have had time to sit and process flax! Everything I’m working on this week is the variety Marilyn, though I’m chipping away at bundles from various years.

I have been doing the equivalent of scutching and hetchling using my “hardware store tools” method. Since I have written about that before, I will skip the photos this time. Instead, here are some silly vacation photos. Don’t you like my hair? Flaxen locks!

don't you love my hair?

hands-free hair

Or a flaxen moustache!

walrusy moustache

Magnification Technology Mach 2

Apparently one of the unforeseen functions of my blog is to document the decline in my vision over the decade of my forties. I have written about it here and here. Despite my attempts to be philosophical about it, I still find it annoying (at best) and unsettling (at worst) that I can’t see as well as I used to. Fortunately, magnification technologies come to my rescue at opportune moments. So honestly I cannot complain. Here’s a great example of such a rescue.

I’ve been stripping the seed bolls off of my flax from last summer, and sifting through debris for individual seeds. Flax seeds are shiny and glossy, and they stand out amidst the beautiful but comparatively lusterless dried leaves, flowers, and other bits of plant debris. Well, they stand out a *bit*. They do not stand out a *lot*. The chaff and other debris are highly textured and multicolored, and even glossy, shiny seeds can get lost in the mix. Especially with my not-so-awesome eyesight. The other day I was stripping the seeds off of the variety called Ariane. I’d removed all the seed bolls from the plants. Yay. However, I had a huge pile of debris to sift through with loose seeds mixed in. Sigh. Time to double down.

The time-honored way to separate seeds from chaff is winnowing. I am not good at winnowing. Seeds and debris seem to sail away with equal abandon. In fact, I wrote about the problem of winnowing weld seeds in my first post. I am sure I could improve with practice and guidance. Flax seeds would no doubt be more sensible than weld seeds to practice my winnowing skills on, since they are not as mind-bogglingly teensy. However, until I actually become good at it, I do not want to waste my hard-won seeds from the flax plants that actually managed to survive and thrive last summer.

N.B. As a step down from winnowing, I sometimes crush several bolls in my hand and then blow gently across my cupped palm to blow the debris away. This works pretty well, and I can modulate the strength of my breath much more precisely than a fan or the wind. However, it means a lot of exhaling and controlled breathing, which can get tiresome.

Meanwhile, I developed a system of moving a small quantity of the debris in front of me with a kitchen knife and scooping up the seeds with a spoon. I scraped a thin layer of debris across the row cover, not too thick to see through. I was wearing my reading glasses, so the magnification was hands-free. However, it was insufficient. It was slow going. Then came the brilliant thought! Well, it was more like a useful memory.

Actually, I can’t retrace the exact thought pattern that sparked the memory, but at some point I recalled that Matthew’s mom had bestowed upon us a lighted magnification lens such as one might use for embroidery or other fine crafts. I knew exactly where it was in the otherwise chaotic crafts room upstairs. I ran upstairs, grabbed it, took it out of the box, put in a lightbulb, and noodled around trying to get the lens set up in an effective position. Fantastic! Once I could spread the debris under the lens at the correct angle, I could see the seeds clear as day. The knife and spoon looked humongous! Triumph!

View from above:

double magnification

View from my perspective:

magnified seeds!

Or, If it’s April It’s Time for Snow

On Sunday morning after I took all the photos for my last post, I woke up to this snowy scene:

Sunday snow sceneIt was just a dusting, but it came along with some much colder temperatures. Maybe it isn’t really spring? Here’s another view of the back yard yesterday morning, including kitty paw prints:

paw prints in the snowAnd here’s a view of the woods a bit later in the day when the sun came out. It’s like spring in the foreground where the sun melted the snow, and winter in the woods where it was shady:

winter woodsThis morning, Monday, we had snow for real:

van under snow

So, I am a bit less anxious about the fact that I haven’t planted my flax yet!

If It’s April It Must Be Time to Plant Flax

It is, in fact, April. No foolin’. I am excited that it’s spring but, as usual, I’m ill prepared. Even though we had a mild winter here in terms of temperatures and snowfall, it was still winter. And I was still surprised by the sudden acceleration of the hours of daylight around the spring equinox. Winter winter winter winter winter, then, ta da, spring!

The other day I read on a blog post from one of the Vävstuga students that they had planted flax as part of the Väv Immersion class (tip: hit the back button to get back to my post from these links). What? I felt a sudden panic. I am not ready to plant.

I have been slowly chipping away at removing the seeds from the fiber flax varieties I grew last summer. We have had plenty of warm, dry weather over the past couple months. For example, on the last Sunday of February I gave my FIBERuary presentation at Sheep and Shawl. It was about 60 degrees that afternoon, and we set up the brake, scutching board, and hetchels outside for people to try their hand at. Fun! Warm! Dry!

On Friday afternoon it was a balmy and sunny 70 degrees. However, it seems that whenever I have free time to deal with my flax seeds, it’s raining, cold, or dark. Lo and behold, on Saturday it was raining, but I hunkered down indoors to work on flax. When I’m stuck in the apartment, I try to minimize the mess of dealing with flax straw. By “mess” I mean dried soil that stuck to the roots, teensy shriveled little fibers that fall off the roots (well, they’re small root hairs, I guess), dried leaves and flowers, and dried seed bolls that fall off and get into the carpet and everywhere. Here is a photo of what I’m talking about:

dried flax debrisIt’s very pretty, actually, but very messy. In fact, it was evocative of summer and handling the plants was very pleasant. There were lots of little dried flowers that looked very sweet. This type is a white-blooming variety, and the teeny dried blossoms had an antique quality sort of like baby’s breath:

white flax blossomsHere are some dried flower buds still on the plants:

dried blossoms on the flax strawTo store the bundles of flax over the winter, I wrapped them up inside the row-cover that I used to make the isolation tents. I keep the bundles nestled in those while I pull off the seed bolls.

unwrapped bundle of 5NNIt has been working pretty well, but pulling off the seed bolls is a very, very slow process. Thus far I have removed the seed bolls from the 3 tallest types from last summer, the ones nicknamed 1602, 5NN and Peynau. Matthew took these photos while I worked on Saturday, so you can see the set-up.

handling seed bollsThe bundle is resting on a 6 foot table and I have a floor lamp and desk lamp for light.

pulling off seed bolls

separating flax stemsThe tips of the stems are really prickly and sharp. My right index finger is especially scratched up now. You can see the ziplock baggie on my right where I’m putting the bolls.

A much faster way to do it is to crush the bolls with a wine bottle, and then sweep up all the debris:

wine bottle methodI was able to use this method this summer to quickly remove a lot of seed that I wasn’t planning to save. I was worried about attracting mice, though, so I got off all the seed before I stored the straw. I will employ this method on the next dry weekend day. Meanwhile, I’m pulling off bolls by hand.

crushed seed bolls using wine bottle








Here’s a close-up of the dried seed bolls on the stalks. They are at different stages of maturity. I’ll have to do some germination tests to see if the color of the boll affects how viable the seed is.

dried flax seed bollsLast, but not least, below you can see a photo of some of that beautiful, messy debris with the precious objects of all this labor hiding within it like jewels. Flax seeds are really shiny. You can see a few glossy brown seeds gleaming here amidst the chaff:

Can you see the seeds?In case you need help seeing them, there are a couple seeds between the dried white flower bud and the tan-colored boll right in the middle of the photo. If you click on the image it should open up a bigger image that might be easier to see.


FIBERuary in Western Massachusetts

In case you haven’t heard, it’s FIBERuary here in Western Massachusetts! Carole Adams, of Whispering Pines Fiber and Herb Farm in Colrain, came up with the idea as a way to promote local fiber farmers. She was inspired by an initiative in the UK called Wovember which encouraged people to think more deeply about where wool comes from, to celebrate the incredible diversity of British wool, to wear 100% woolen garments, and to knit with British wool. Continue reading

Wrapping Up A Loose End

I have not done much dyeing lately. My last dye day was on September 6th when I ran my second Japanese indigo vat. Since then, I managed to rinse and dry the skeins, but didn’t get much further than that. They’ve been sitting in a tub waiting for closure. On New Year’s Eve I finally wrapped up that loose end.

As I noted in my original post, I don’t have good photo-documentation about that vat. But at least now I can show you photos of the skeins I dyed. All the yarns are wool. Here are the blue skeins.

over dyed blues with Japanese indigo Continue reading

What Are Those Bees Doing?

This is yet another post in which I attempt to catch up on the wealth of observations from the summer’s flax project. In this post I will share a lot of photographs of bees. Photographing bees and other flying insects isn’t easy. However, my certainty that bees visit flax blossoms was the main reason that I was worried about cross-pollination when I was setting up my USDA seed project this spring. It’s the reason I covered the plants, even though flax is considered self-pollinated. I’m not sure what bees and other insects are doing, exactly, when they visit flax flowers. I just know that they do.

Here’s a bee visiting a flax flower on July 29, 2015.

July 29 2015I didn’t make note of what variety it was on. Continue reading

More About Flax Seed Maturity

This is a follow-up to my recent post about fiber flax seed maturity. After I posted it, I realized that I have a lot more photographs depicting the things I was trying to describe. So, here’s a bit more visual detail.

Let’s revisit the problem of dehiscence. This would mean that mature/over-ripe seed pods, bolls, or capsules would a) fall intact from their teeny withered stems onto the ground or b) shatter, pop open, and drop their glossy seeds willy-nilly on the ground. As a seed-saver, I was not in favor of either of these possibilities. Continue reading

Saving Flax Seed: Days to Maturity

This is the next installment about the USDA germplasm project I have been working on this year. In this post I will discuss the definition of “days to maturity”, which was one of the pieces of information I was supposed to be tracking for the USDA. I will also share some of my thinking around how I decided to harvest seeds this summer.

Since there has been a significant lapse of time since my last flax-related post, I will quickly recap. In this first season of the project, I was hoping to increase our supply of seed. I tried to prevent cross pollination by using isolation cages made out of lightweight Agribon and wooden stakes. Half of my project suffered utter crop failure in mid-July due to predation by rodents (or possibly other unidentified flax-stalk chewers and flax-seed eaters). Luckily, the other half of the project escaped largely unscathed, thanks to better weeding, daily monitoring, and cat-pee soaked scraps of cloth pinned to the isolation cages. You can read my earlier posts from April to August of 2015 for more details. Continue reading