On Saturday September 23rd, I demonstrated the flax-to-linen process at Historic Eastfield Village’s Founder’s Day celebration. It was a lovely day! We had a heat wave later that week, but under the oak trees that day it was pleasantly cool and shady.
I brought dried flax stalks with the seeds on, retted flax, and all the tools to break, scutch, and hetchel the fibers. I also had some commercial linen yarns that I dyed with madder, weld, woad, and black walnut.
Historic Eastfield Village is a very interesting place. You can read more about their history, buildings, and classes on their website. Last year, I attended Founders Day with Lisa Bertoldi, on the invitation of Niel DeMarino of the Georgian Kitchen, whom we had met at the Flax and Linen Symposium in August 2016.
This was my favorite image from Founders Day 2016:
It really captures what motivates me, and what I aspire to in my own knowledge and skills. Not that I am always successful! Still, words to live by.
Last year I got to wander all over the site and take photos of various artisans and craftspeople at work. Here’s the printer, for example:
This year, I didn’t get to see all the other demonstrations and vendors at work. But I did get to talk to a lot of interesting people!
Early in the morning, things were slow. So, I started breaking flax to see if I could lure people over to the tent.
It worked! Some of the other demonstrators and living history folk came over to visit.
This fellow, Henry Cooke, is a well-known 18th century tailor, but was there in his capacity as a militia member from the early 1800s. He was at Historic Deerfield the following weekend, as part of their Historic Trades series.
And there were lots of regular non-historical people, too:
In this photo I look like I am telling a tall fish tale. “It was this big, I swear!” Actually, I am describing the height that fiber flax can reach under ideal conditions:
Here I am explaining the dyes I used to make these colors:
As I mentioned in my last post, this is a “retro time” account of my flax harvest this year, not a “real time” account. Here’s the belated next installment.
I started digging up the Electra plot on July 31st. I didn’t finish until August 12th. Now it’s all pulled up, dry, and stored safely in the back of the van. Because that’s where the flax gets stored.
The yield was small but the effort was mighty! I could only work for a couple hours a day, and some days I didn’t work at all. This summer taught me a profound lesson in the privileges and assumptions I have carried with me all my life as an able-bodied, pain-free person. My motto used to be, “Do all the things!”* This summer, not so much.
On August 4th, Lisa and Carolyn from my flax and linen study group came to help with my flax harvest. Three people work much faster than one!
Here’s our haul after a couple hours. We were very happy with this lovely pile, and celebrated with Chinese food.
Granted, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a lot to show for that much work. However, since I wasn’t able to weed earlier in the summer, most of the plants we were removing weren’t actually flax. It was more like mining or excavating for flax. A lot of rubble punctuated by gleaming moments of excitement.
To maximize the learning opportunities (and to slow this whole process down to the speed of cold molasses!), I sorted most of the bundles according to stem thickness, height, and branching pattern. Why on earth would I do such a thing? Well. I often have questions regarding what I read or hear about flax processing. For example, I have heard that thinner stalks produce finer fiber. I have also heard that thinner stalks take longer to ret. I have also heard that branching at the base of the stalk is not desirable, even though it’s so close to the root that I can’t imagine it makes a difference in the length of the extracted fiber. Many times, I have wished for and wanted a way to prove to myself whether these things are true or not. Hopefully, my sorted bundles will let me test out some of these questions.
* N.B. My motto was inspired by this brilliant artist. Neither myself nor the artist, apparently, is good at being a grown up. Like her, I have embraced my hatred of going to the bank and cleaning. I very seldom do either. Ha! Since I am resigned to my fate, I decided that the “things” in my motto are the things I want to do. If I’m going to put a lot of energy into something, it will be my personal obsessions and desires (plants, fibers, stinky creative messes, and saving obscure knowledge from obsolescence…).
I had meant to post updates about my flax crop this summer in “real time”. However, “retro time” will have to do.
Here are a few things that I observed and learned as the 2017 flax was growing and maturing.
First, the flax chewers who devastated my crop in 2016, and half of my crop in 2015, were back at it again this year. However, when you have 1500 square feet of the same variety (Electra from Biolin), rather than tiny test plots of 12 square feet or less, the effect of the damage isn’t as troubling. I found dozens of chewed up flax stalks, but it was a negligible percentage of the whole crop. I am sticking to my hypothesis that the culprits are rodents of some kind. Here’s some scat that may or may not belong to them:
Second, the chewers are not solely interested in flax. It might not even be their favorite or preferred plant to chew. The fact that flax is *my* preferred plant in that location means that it bothers me when they chew it. I don’t care about the other plants, so I’m less inclined to notice their demise. Predation of “weeds” is a boon, from a flax-grower’s point of view. But it’s possible that from the chewers’ point of view, it’s the flax that’s a nuisance.
The two most significant weeds in my plot were lambsquarters and campion. Since apparently most people spell that “lamb’s quarters” I guess I should adopt the convention. I found chewed stalks of both. Here are a few lamb’s quarters plants that had been chewed as they were going to seed. On the left you see the entire stalks, and on the right a close up of the stalk where it was chewed. The diagonal angle is similar to the way the flax is chewed:
Campion plants were also chewed as they went to seed:
For comparison, here are some chewed flax stalks:
The pillowcase is there for contrast and scale. Yes, the lamb’s quarters were as tall as (and in many cases taller than) the flax.
Third, I can understand why campion is so hard to weed out. It had all gone to seed by the time I was harvesting the flax. Every time I pulled up a campion plant, I had an image of a million baby seedlings sprouting from my hand as I flung the plant aside. Basically I was sowing next year’s campion crop. This is the number of seeds from one pod. Every plant makes lots of pods….
Fourth, not everyone knows what lamb’s quarters are. I was describing to someone how difficult it was to pull up my flax this year, and made reference to how many “lamb’s quarters” there were in the plot. They asked enthusiastically, “How much is that?” It had never occurred to me to think of the name as a unit of measurement, but now I love the idea! It does sound like a old fashioned measurement term.
The plant to which I am referring is a Chenopodium album. I went looking for the etymology of the name lamb’s quarters, but I’m not sure if I got to the heart of it. One source refer to Lammas, a harvest celebration on August 1 to bless the first loaves of bread. Personally, I am not sure how Chenopodium album fits into the picture. The seeds from C. album are edible and nutritious, so maybe they were an ingredient in a harvest-time loaf. I have never eaten the seeds, but I have eaten my fair share of lamb’s quarters. They are a delectable green vegetable, even more nutritious than the seeds. But once the plant has gone to seed, the greens are well past their prime. In fact, they shrink up and often turn pink and fall off. Here’s another interesting article about lamb’s quarters. I may have to follow up on this question with better information.
Anyway, it isn’t a unit of measurement, it is a plant. A very useful and nutritious edible plant. It just so happens that it can grow as tall as me, and twice as tall as a flax stalk, and digging it up is very difficult.
Here’s what it looked like relative to the flax:
And here is a lone flax stalk surrounded by campion and lamb’s quarters:
Lastly, there is a lot more going on with regard to the relationship of insects to flax than I have any idea about. What are these creatures doing?
They were on the bolls as they were ripening. My guess is that they’re either eating them or laying eggs inside them. At the time I didn’t investigate further, but it might be important knowledge to possess.
Over the past year, I have had several opportunities to demonstrate flax processing and talk about natural dyeing. Here is a quick summary of four events that I didn’t get around to writing about when they happened. I just want to document and share them before too much more time passes.
Last August (2016) I did a flax processing demonstration at the Amherst History Museum, in conjunction with the art exhibit “Artifacts Inspire” by the Fiber Artists of Western Massachusetts. The museum asked the participating artists to create original works inspired by objects in the museum’s collection. Two of the pieces in the show were created by Martha Robinson, inspired by two antique hetchels, which are flax processing tools. There’s a good photo of one of her felted pieces here. It was great fun to show people how flax was processed in the past, and to let folks try their hand at using the tools.
Here’s a shot of crowd at the beginning of the demo:
Here I am by the brake and the scutching board:
And here’s Marianne, their consulting curator, getting a kick out of using a hetchel:
The next gig I wanted to mention was my presentation to the Weavers Guild of Springfield on March 4, 2017. I showed a slideshow about planting, growing, harvesting, and retting flax:
Then, I did a quick demonstration of how to use the tools:
It was lovely to meet a new group of weavers, and inspiring to see some old acquaintances there, too.
The third event I wanted to note was the FIBERuary panel I was part of on Feb. 19, 2017 at Sheep and Shawl in Deerfield. FIBERuary is a relatively new event here in Western MA celebrating our local fiber farmers and fiber artists. It’s spearheaded by Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm in Colrain, MA. In the past two years it has included a month-long blog and speaker series at Sheep and Shawl. On our panel, we addressed dyeing natural fibers from three perspectives: Linnie Dugas of Woollies of Shirkshire Farm talked about dyeing wool with natural dyes, and brought some luscious dyed batts and roving. I talked about natural dyeing skeins of linen. Scott Norris of Elam’s Widow talked about his process using Procion fiber reactive dyes to dye the linen yarns he uses in his spectacular handwoven kitchen towels.
Last but not least, I was a presenter on a panel at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Sustainability in Textiles Summer Institute in New York on June 7, 2017. Our panel was called “Local Fiber Connections” on the theme of “Farm to Fashion”. The other panelists were Jeffrey Silberman, Chair of the Textile Development and Marketing Department at FIT, Mimi Prober, designer, and Sara Healy of Buckwheat Bridge Angoras. My portion of the panel was a slideshow about retting and processing flax, and basic information about spinning and weaving linen. Sara has worked with Mimi to create custom blended batts for felted garments in Mimi’s collection.
Jeff, Mimi, some other folks at FIT, myself and other members of the New England Flax and Linen Study Group are working on a Farm to Fashion project in which we are collaborating to grow and process flax, spin and weave it, and produce garments for a runway show! At this point, the flax is still in the field, but it’s an exciting prospect.
My flax crop this year has been sorely neglected due to a pinched nerve in my upper back that had me out of commission for about 6 weeks in June and July. However, despite the weeds and lack of TLC, the flax started to bloom on the first of July. Here are some buds getting ready to flower:
Here’s the whole bed on July 1st. The main weeds are campion and lambsquarters, with lesser amounts of plantain and dock.
By July 10th the flax was in full bloom. Here are a couple photos of the flax flowers against the sky. It was a beautiful morning, and the flax flowers were gorgeous. The type I am growing this year is called Electra, and as you can see it is a blue-flowering type:
On Sunday July 30th I will be doing a flax processing demonstration at the Blueberry Festival at Old Austerlitz in Austerlitz, New York. I’ll be there from 9-4. Admission is $7 for adults, and children under 12 get in free. There will be lots of demonstrations and vendors, including an area dedicated to natural fibers with fiber farmers, weavers, feltmakers, etc.. Two fellow flax-enthusiasts will be there, Emily Gwynn from Hands to Work Textiles and Jill Horton-Lyons from Winterberry Farm. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!
I haven’t been to the Blueberry Festival before, but I have been to Old Austerlitz. On September 17, 2016 I did a similar flax processing demo for their event Intersection Austerlitz. It was very fun and I met a lot of interesting people.
Here are some photos of my set-up last fall. I will have a similar display this Sunday with the same set of tools, which I own collectively with the other members of the New England Flax and Linen Study Group.
Here’s one of my display tables. In the photo below, I’m pointing to two commercially produced sticks of flax, one of which was dew-retted and the other water-retted. Retting is the decomposition process that separates the fibers from the rest of the flax stalk. Dew-retting produces a silvery gray color. Water-retting produces a pale yellow or cream color. The u-shaped bundle of fiber in front of me is some of my own home-grown and hand-processed flax (also water-retted).
While I weeded the flax plot on May 6th, I was simultaneously glad for the opportunity to dig out the campion, and worried about weed pressure later in the summer, and worried that nothing had come up yet. So, I decided to spread another ten pounds of seed. There were a few reasons for this. First, I was worried that I hadn’t accounted enough for the possibility that I’d get a really low germination rate. Second, the more densely the flax is planted, the less the stalks ought to branch as they grow. Third, the more crowded the plants are, the finer the stalks will be and theoretically the finer the fiber will be. Fourth, a dense stand of flax might, hopefully, crowd out weeds. Continue reading “Ten More Pounds of Electra”→
On May 6th, after the rain stopped, I stopped by the flax plot to see how things were going. There were no flax seedlings, but there was a lot of some other plant that I didn’t recognize.
They were big, robust, and had very deep and spreading roots. Since the flax hadn’t emerged yet, I decided to seize the opportunity to weed out as much of these deep-rooted plants as I could. So, I got a pitchfork and began digging. Continue reading “Weeding Out Campion”→
Last week was April vacation, which meant I had more free time than usual to do fun things. Last Tuesday I was thrilled to spend about four hours with Lisa Bertoldi getting some instruction in spinning flax. You might think, with all the flaxy things I do, that I would already be good at spinning flax. Not yet. It has been a goal for me for many years, but recently it has made it to the top of my “urgent” list. Urgency plus vacation days equals actually devoting time to it! Thanks to Lisa, I am quite a bit better at spinning flax now.
Here is the strick of flax spread out on the table. I am getting the fiber ready to dress the distaff. You can see the distaff on the left: