Flax 2018-Late June and Early July

This summer we had extremely pleasant weather in June. My flax was very happy.

It was a busy month. The school year was wrapping up, I had year-end reports to write, a sweet little fiber arts summer camp to teach, and we had some old friends visiting from Texas. I managed to water my flax during the dry spells, but that was about it. Unsurprisingly, this was the scene on June 30th. 

I knew that there were flax seedlings in there somewhere! Can you see them? They are the small feathery-looking plants in the center of the staked-out square below. This type is called Ariane:

June 30th also happened to be the beginning of a heat wave that lasted about 8 days. “Heat wave” around here means highs in the mid to upper 90s. I know that’s normal in a lot of places, but it’s hot for western MA. Or maybe it’s just hot for me!

Despite the heat, I undertook an epic weeding campaign that week. By working early in the morning, I managed to avoid the worst of the heat. It was also humid, with several thunderstorms and heavy rain. The wet soil made it easy to pull out the weeds (mostly just lamb’s quarters and grass this year, almost no campion). The down side was that a lot of soil clung to the roots, and I couldn’t avoid pulling up some of the flax plants as I weeded.

I worried that once the shade and support of the taller, leafier plants was removed, the comparatively small and fragile flax would suffer from shock, shrivel up, or flop over. Luckily that did not happen.

Here’s the Ariane after I weeded:

Ariane was the type that I had the least seed from, so it was in the smallest bed. I think I mentioned earlier that I arranged the beds from west to east, smallest to largest. So, this was the furthest to the west.

My calculations (well, OK, estimations) regarding the weight of seed I had and the size of beds I should make turned out not to be very accurate. The smallest beds grew in too sparsely and the largest beds came in too densely. You can see what that looked like in the early stages of growth in the images in this post.

Only a few types grew in the way I had expected, at the density I was imagining. The pair of images on the left below is the type nicknamed 1602 and the pair on the right is Rolin:

In contrast, the Cascade was tightly crammed:

It looks lush and beautiful at this point, but when the plants got bigger it became a problem.

Here’s the larger bed of Electra before I started to weed:

And here’s a close up proving that there really is flax underneath all that:

After a few days of weeding it was all looking much better. From left to right it’s the Ariane, 1602, Rolin, and Cascade beds on July 5th:

In early July there was some worrisome withering at the tips of a lot of the stalks. It seemed like possibly a tiny, brown, flying insect was sucking out the juice just below the tender tips, but I couldn’t get any good photos of the bugs.

Weeding the Electra took a while, but luckily it was on the easternmost side of the plot, which was in the shade until about 10:30am.

On July 5th I had to call it quits around 11 am even though I was so close to being done!

I finished up the next day, July 6th:

Of course, the weeds all grew back again later in July, but at least I gave the flax a fighting chance against the competition.

Flax 2018-What Happened in June

In June the flax was happily growing. By June 2nd seedlings were emerging. I was excited and took a lot of pictures. To identify the beds, I wrote my nickname for each type on a stake at the corner of the bed. The name is on the left and the photo of that type of flax is on the right of each pair of images:

From west to east along the strip of land, I organized the plots from smallest to largest. Sometimes I can’t remember why I made certain decisions when I look back on them. But that’s what I did.

The day after I planted it was 90 degrees. Overall in June it wasn’t too hot, but we had some spells of warm (mid 80s) and dry weather, so I watered every few days to make sure the seeds germinated. If I had planted back in April, watering might not have been necessary. That said, many times in the days immediately after I plant flax we seem to have a heat wave, even in April or early May.

Flax is often promoted as a crop that needs very few inputs. I’m sure that’s true compared to cotton, specifically cotton grown under conventional agricultural systems. However, in my experience, flax isn’t a hassle-free crop. For one thing, it really needs moist or damp soil to thrive. Note I said, “moist or damp” not “sodden or saturated”. Second spoiler/foreshadowing!

I took some photos that show the difference between watering and not watering in the early stages of flax growth. Granted, late May is sub-optimal as a planting window, so this is slightly quirky data. But here’s my data nonetheless:

Above you can see the Rolin bed and the Viking bed on June 10th. By this time I had watered these beds three times (May 30, June 2, and June 10). It had also rained on June 4, and overnight June 5-6).

In contrast, I did not water the Electra bed on May 30. I watered it on June 2nd with 20 gallons of water. Here’s how it looked before watering on June 10th:

See the difference? Now, maybe the Electra seed was older and slower to get going compared to the others, but I suspect that water was a major factor. Here’s a view of the whole strip on June 10 after I watered, with the Electra in the foreground:

You can clearly see a flush of green in the beds to the west, and a non-flush-of-green in the foreground where the Electra was planted. I watered again on the morning of June 14, while it was still cool and shady:

Drink up, Electra!

Flax 2018-What Happened in May

I usually aim to plant flax in mid-April. Sometimes it is snowy at that time, so I have to wait. Sometimes I just don’t get everything organized in time. This year was a case of the latter. Well, it did snow during my vacation week in April, but that wasn’t the main obstacle. It took me a long time to winnow all my seed and to figure out what I wanted to do this season. Long story short, I didn’t plant my flax until the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend, May 28th.

Here’s what the site looked like on May 28th:

I grew flax at Amethyst Farm again this year. I am more grateful than I can say to Bernard at Amethyst Farm for generously sharing his land and to Ryan at Many Hands Farm Corps for working me into his crop rotation and tilling the site this spring. I am also grateful for their encouragement and advice every time I have encountered difficulties.

This year I decided to grow out twelve types of fiber flax from the USDA that my flax and linen study group acquired in 2015. We originally got something like 30, but in 2015 half of the beds I planted were devoured by rodents with nothing to show for it. If you don’t recall the sad story, you can read about it in this post.

In 2016 I grew the six tallest types, but I didn’t get much seed from that crop either. I wrote a long series of posts about the devastation caused by chewing that year, too. Here you can read about the day I decided to pull up that whole experiment and give up.

In 2017 I only grew Electra and none of the USDA types.

So, this year I decided to grow the twelve types that had *not* been eaten by rodents, and to cover them with isolation tents once again.

Here are the beds all made and staked out on May 28th:

I also grew a bed of Electra again. I planted REALLY densely this time to compensate for the age of the seed and lower viability.

I had different quantities of each type of seed, so I decided to make each bed a different size, depending on how much seed I had. I planted all the seed I had from each type. In retrospect, this wasn’t a sensible way to approach it. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” seems to be a lesson I need to learn repeatedly. Spoiler alert. Or, foreshadowing? I guess I was feeling optimistic and confident, which are good things to feel, but when it comes to flax I should know better by now.

Grow Flax Everywhere

In 2015, my flax and linen study group got 29 types of different fiber flax seed from the USDA. I’ve been doing my best to keep them isolated as I grow them, though I’m down to 12 types now that I’ve been able to keep going. Many earlier blog posts document my successes and failures with this project thus far.

My “beer bottle” method for removing flax seeds has some draw-backs. Hunching over like Gollum while I work is one of them. I have specific goals when I’m working with these seeds, which lead to specific practices that have (hopefully) specific outcomes. Namely, I am trying to keep the different varieties of flax isolated so that I can grow them out and increase the quantity of seed that I have from each type. When I’m taking the seeds off, I make an effort to keep the types separate.

My strategy with the beer bottle method is to crush the bolls onto a piece of cloth like a sheet or pillowcase. Whatever seed I can definitively confirm came from a specific stalk of a specific type, I deem worthy of saving. If a seed falls onto the ground, it is lost to me. I can’t guarantee which plant it came from, so I don’t keep it. Between each type of flax I sweep the path and do a careful visual inspection to be sure that the surface of the next sheet of cloth is clear.

My method also has some unintended outcomes, it turns out. I didn’t really realize how many seeds I was losing by this method until early June. The lawn out in front of the apartment was getting nice and lush, and I noticed a familiar feathery-looking plant amidst the blades of grass:

There’s plantain, dandelion, gill-over-the-ground, and oh yes, flax!

Here’s our cat Sammy checking out the scene.

Flax even started to grow through the crack in the sidewalk!

There was a lot of flax in the lawn. I got a really good germination rate! It’s not a good place for flax to grow, since it was repeatedly mowed, and eventually it couldn’t survive. I was pretty impressed that is was able to compete with the other plants for as long as it did. But from a seed conservation perspective, I obviously need a new approach.

 

Rippling and Winnowing Flax Seed

Over the years that I’ve been growing flax, I have written several verses of a silly, imaginary song. Each verse tells you about something you shouldn’t do, inspired by my own trials and failures. One verse goes like this: “Don’t store your flax with the seeds on/For it will attract lots of mice./They’ll get fat on the seeds/And leave lots of debris/Don’t store your flax with the seeds on.” Yes, this is based on a true story.

Despite this good advice to myself, it often takes several months or even years before I get around to the next step in the process. On April 20th, in anticipation of my 2018 growing season, I finally finished removing the seeds from the flax I grew in 2016.

Here I am using the “wine bottle method” or in this case, the “beer bottle method” for crushing the seed bolls and removing the seeds. This sequence of photos made me laugh. At first I’m just doing my thing out on the front walkway. Matthew kindly thought to document the moment:

When I realized someone was behind me, I apparently turned into Gollum, jealously guarding “my precious” flax seeds:

Then when I realized I was acting suspiciously, I pretended to be a normal person, but I’m not very convicing:

Fast forward a few weeks to May 5th, when the optimal time for planting flax had already passed and I needed a faster way to clean the chaff from my seeds. In the background below you can see me engaged in my usual method for cleaning flax seed, which works OK for small quantities. I blow the lighter-weight plant material off the edge of a round metal lid. I tilt the lid as I turn and blow, so the heavier seeds stay in the center. In the foreground you can see our cat Sammy, herself acting a bit like Gollum jealously guarding a pot of catnip.

With spring moving along apace, I needed a faster method of winnowing. So, I brought a fan outside. With a little trial and error, I got it set up at a speed and distance that blew the chaff away but allowed the seeds to fall back into the lid:

Here’s a close-up that shows the pieces of seed boll, dried leaves, pedicels, and other bits of plant debris flying away on the breeze:

Paper Making

In my retrospective of the past 9 months, I somehow skipped over January. Oops! Here it is:

In January I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon learning how to make paper with May Babcock of Paperslurry. If you are interested in hand-made paper, especially paper from your own local plant material, then check out her website. She has lots of excellent, clear tutorials and links to fabulous resources and inspiring projects.

High quality linen paper is nothing new, though in the past it would have been made from linen rags. I don’t have a lot of old linen rags kicking around the apartment, but I do have a lot of tow!

Tow is the name for the shorter fibers in the flax process. The long fibers are called line. When you process flax, you end up with a lot of tow, and proportionately less line. Line is special, so small-scale growers such as myself reserve it for spinning a fine thread. Tow is good for spinning, too, but can also be used for many other things.

May had generously offered to help me make paper with my own flax tow. She walked me through all the steps, and in one afternoon we turned a handful of tow into several sturdy sheets of paper!

First, we weighed out 3 ounces of tow. We snipped up the fibers into short pieces, between a half and three quarters of an inch long. We dropped them into a 5 gallon bucket of water:

While we snipped, May explained that flax has several unique properties as a papermaking fiber. It expands more than other fibers when it’s wet, it’s stickier, and it shrinks more than other fibers when its drying, unless it’s constrained while it dries (i.e., is dried while attached to a physical backing and under a weight).

Then, May set up her adorable little Hollander beater.

The fibers go through a crushing, smooshing, beating process inside that gray cylinder in the center. Inside is a roller and a plate with teeth and grooves. The numbers taped up on the wall behind the beater are May’s guide for how many times she has to turn the mechanism that sets the plate and rollers at the height she wants. Raising and lowering the mechanism increases or decreases the pressure on the fibers.

In the beater, the fibers are compressed and squeezed, not chopped, so that they stretch out until they are very fine and create a lot of surface area. The fine strands are called fibrils.

Then she turned the Hollander beater on. It’s really loud!

Then we gradually added the wet, snipped-up pieces of tow.

Underneath the table is a bucket for catching drips.

The motor is powerful, but the fibers can get bunched up when they are first going through the beater. May monitored carefully and broke apart the clumps to keep things moving smoothly.

Here’s the beater running once we added all the tow.

Every 20 minutes or so, she scooped out some of the fibers, stirred them in a jar of water, and held it up to the light. This was to check how finely the fibers had been broken down. Then she adjusted the height of the plate. When things seemed right, we set the timer and let the beater run for an hour. Meanwhile we went to the back of her studio to look at some of her beautiful paper samples and talk about plants.

When the hour was up, May filled up a tub with water and wetted down the supplies we’d be using the make the sheets of paper. It being January, it was pretty cold, so we used warm water for comfort.

On the right of the tray are pieces of army blanket that we used as felts between the sheets of paper.

May added some of the flax pulp to the warm water.

Then she stirred it around until the ratio of water to pulp was right. This step is called hogging. Then our slurry was ready!

At this point I stopped taking photographs because my hands were wet. I got a chance to pull several sheets of paper using a beautifully crafted deckel and mold. I made two sheets with inclusions, which involves placing an item between two thin sheets of paper. I used a long strand of flax that May had grown, and some of my un-cut tow.

May explained that one of the properties of linen in papermaking is that it is “slow draining” so you don’t need to add anything to the slurry. Other fibers require a mucilaginous or viscous “forming agent” so that the water will drain through the screen at the right speed.

This is a stack of sheets of interfacing. I pressed the papers onto these, pre-dampened, as they came off the screen.

After I pulled a few sheets of paper, May put the stack of felts and interfacing into a small book-binding press and squeezed out a lot of the water.

After about 15 minutes, we took them out of the press. We peeled the strong, sticky sheets of paper off of the wet interfacing and placed them on dry sheets of interfacing and felt. We stacked them up between pieces of thick corrugated cardboard inside her drying rack. Then she put a heavy weight on top of the stack, turned on two fans behind the whole set-up, and left them to dry.

After the papers were dry, she mailed them to me. Here are three that were constrained while they dried so they are relatively flat and smooth:

Here’s a close up:

Here are the two sheets with inclusions:

This one was dried without constraints so it is more shrunken and wrinkly:

It reminds me of a motto that my Flax and Linen Study group considered at one point, “Wear your wrinkles with pride!” To make a linen textile smooth and shiny requires a lot of pressure and labor. To whit, starch and the mangle (an admittedly obscure but interesting and not straightforward topic in North America).

However, being smooth, supple, and shiny is only one of linen’s magical modes. The strength and beauty of linen reveals itself in so many other ways, including crinkly, shrunken, dry, and indestructible! Linen as crone.

There are tiny pieces of straw in my paper because I hadn’t carded and cleaned up the tow for spinning. More careful preparation of the fiber ahead of time would have led to a smoother texture, I think. That said, the papers are really strong!

It was an incredibly fun and inspiring day. I was excited to learn yet another way to use the amazing and versatile properties of flax, Linum usitatissimum: the most useful. Thank you, May Babcock!

Historic Eastfield Village 2017

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. Continue reading “Historic Eastfield Village 2017”

Electra Update Part Two

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. Continue reading “Electra Update Part Two”

Electra Progress Report Part One

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. Continue reading “Electra Progress Report Part One”

Past Speaking Engagements

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. Continue reading “Past Speaking Engagements”