Fiber Fiber Everywhere

When I’m describing the steps involved in extracting fiber from a fiber-plant such as flax, people often ask, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” I have thought about this question a lot. I have many ideas about it. Some can be backed up with references and citations, and some are just hunches based on my personal experience.

I believe that we humans come from a long line of brilliant thinkers and observers, experimenters and creators. The human use of flax fibers in Europe dates to at least 34,000 years ago. Humans and our human-like relatives and ancestors have been really smart and really creative for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, primates in general are really smart, so I am happily willing to accept any kind of habitat-modifying, tool-using, culture-teaching behaviors dating back 2 or 3 million years, at least. Which is all very deep. It is admittedly hard to have a clear mental picture of what life might have felt like for a hominid so long ago.

But lately I’ve been thinking that the answer to the question, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” isn’t mysterious or inaccessible at all. With regard to fiber, at least, I actually think the answer is really straightforward:

People look around and notice things.

There is fiber lying around all over the place. I catch glimpses of it whenever I go for a walk… laying on the ground, tangled in a bush, climbing up a tree, hanging out in someone’s yard, or on the side of the road. Seriously, I can hardly walk anywhere without running into a tempting fiber source. Within walking distance of my home in western Massachusetts, there is literally fiber everywhere.

Here is a springtime tour of my plant-fiber observations. The first one is a photo I took along the dyke in Hadley the other day. This is an old milkweed stalk that weathered away through the winter. The fiber is too weak for cordage at this point, but it certainly catches the eye with its glistening sheen:

Here are a few photos of fibers in a vine that I am pretty sure is bittersweet, also along the dyke.  The touch of blue in the right hand photo is the Connecticut River. Bittersweet may be hated and vilified for its vigorous growth habits, but it sure looks promising for fiber:

Here is a close-up:

Here is another example of milkweed just lying there, right in the path, over at Amethyst Brook conservation area in Amherst. I took these photos yesterday:

These are from a walk today. This is yucca on the side of Route 9 in Amherst:

And this is more milkweed at Wentworth Farm in Amherst:

Testing Japanese Indigo Seed

In 2014 I was very excited to acquire my first Japanese indigo seedlings at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I bought them from Blue By Ewe in Temple, New Hampshire. That year I saved the whole crop for seed. You can read about my harvest in an earlier blog post here. I intended to expand the amount I grew each year and save my own seed annually.

I did manage to grow my own seedlings in 2015, which I documented in a couple posts that you can link to here and here. I even managed to use the plants for dyeing that year. However, I was not on the ball to save seed in an organized way that fall, and I did not grow any Japanese indigo in 2016.

This week I am on vacation from school, and the weather yesterday was fantastically warm and sunny. So, I decided the day had come to clean up some seed and try to get some started. I have read that Japanese indigo seeds do not stay viable for very long, so I am not sure that any will grow.

At some point in the past I had separated some seeds and dried flower stalks in an 8-oz canning jar, so I started with this pile of colorful debris:

I originally thought that the pink dried flowers were just dried flowers. I assumed I would be able to winnow this pile like I have done with flax seeds. My method for that is to blow around the edge of a wide pan (really, the lid of a big pot) and let the lighter chaff blow away.

This method did not work. Everything blew away. Plus, I couldn’t see many seeds at all. What was going on?

I decided to separate the debris using a screen. I haven’t invested in actual seed-cleaning screens, but we picked up some small window screens last summer, and I used those. It worked really well to separate the smallest particles, which included a lot of dried soil:

On top of the screen were the larger particles, including the seeds and flowers, etc.:

As I rubbed the debris against the screen, I realized that the seeds were inside a dry papery cover. Even the little pink things that I had assumed were just dried flowers actually had seeds inside.

In the photo below, the shinier seeds are the ones from which the covering has been rubbed off. The duller ones with a slighter rougher texture still have the covering on:

To be honest, I am not sure if rubbing off the covering is helpful or harmful. Maybe too much rough handling will damage the seed coat, and/or maybe they would have germinated just fine with the outer layer still attached. We will see!

On the left hand side, below, is a close up of a damp paper towel with seeds sprinkled on, so I can see how many will germinate (if any) before I plant them. On the right are both of the paper towels I set up:

Here is the germination experiment bagged up (to retain moisture) and labeled:

Now that I had a pretty good method figured out for cleaning up the seed, I decided to separate all the flowering seed stalks from the dried leaves. I have never read anywhere, nor heard from anyone, that dried leaves are useful for dyeing. Alas. I kind of want to try them anyway because the color is incredible. So, I put the leaves into a separate bag, and wound up with a large paper grocery bag of leaves and stalks, and a smaller one with flower stalks. At the bottom of the original bag was a jumble of broken-off leaves, flowers, and seeds. For the final sifting job, I used a regular colander to separate the larger leaves from the rest:

 

Early Saturday Morning at the Flax and Linen Symposium!

I was especially nervous about how things would go on Saturday because I had a lot of responsibilities that day. For one thing, I was a speaker on the first panel in the morning, which was focused on the botany of flax, growing flax, and seed saving. My legs were literally shaking from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon.

The first three speakers of the morning on Saturday were: Carolyn Wetzel (fellow study group member who is also a professional botanist, lacemaker, spinner, and weaver); Jeff Silberman (who heads up the textiles and marketing department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, consults globally about cotton and flax, and grows flax and dye plants for education and for fun); and me. Continue reading “Early Saturday Morning at the Flax and Linen Symposium!”

Last Straw(s)

flax in bucketsI realized in my last post I didn’t show the buckets of transplanted flax. They transplanted just fine, which was a useful discovery.

After we came back from our weekend away on July 9-10 and found that the seeds in the buckets of flax at home had been chomped, I bought two new types of rodent repellent and a solar robotic owl for the garden. The first type of repellent I tried, Bobbex-R, stinks to high heaven! I wanted to run away from it myself as I was spraying it. We have been having a sustained spell of very hot weather, and the directions said not to spray when it’s over 85 degrees, so I waited to spray the plants at dusk when the temperature cooled off a little. It was initially more effective than the Plantskydd. I didn’t detect any new damage overnight. After a day or so, though, things went back to normal. Sigh. Continue reading “Last Straw(s)”

Nothing Works

I read that a chili pepper/garlic spray would keep rodents away from plants, so I gave it a try. We grow a lot of chilis. A major goal of our gardening endeavors, besides growing flax and dye plants, is to grow tomatillos and chilis to make home-made salsa verde. We also grow garlic for the salsa, but it’s too precious to use for mouse-repellent so I just used store-bought garlic.

For each batch of spay, I crushed up 14-16 dried chilis:

our chilis Continue reading “Nothing Works”

Know Your Enemy, or Just Photograph Them

By late June I had not definitively proven that rodents were eating my flax, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t insect larvae, as I said in my last post. Stalks were being chewed daily, between 4-6 stalks per bed, per day. Sometimes more. So, additional sleuthing was required.

I continued to pay close attention to anything that might be suspicious and tried to document anything I saw just in case it turned out to be a problem. It turned out there were a lot of flying insects on the buds, flowers, and newly-forming seeds. Continue reading “Know Your Enemy, or Just Photograph Them”

What Constitutes Evidence?

The Plantskydd did nothing to stop the chewing of my flax stalks, unfortunately. So, I wondered if perhaps it might not be rodents after all. What if it was insects, for example? I sent out inquiries to various flax-growing contacts, and to the UMass Extension folks. Many thanks to flax and linen study group friends Faith Deering and Carolyn Wetzel (with expertise in entomology and botany, respectively), to Tawny Simiski (entomologist at UMass Extension), Alvin Ulrich at Biolin, and Ken at the Crop Development Center in Saskatoon for their suggestions. My favorite suggestion was that “flax beavers” were using flax fiber to build dams, but I also liked the idea of a night-vision camera to catch the culprits in action. Continue reading “What Constitutes Evidence?”

Bloody ‘ell!

“What’s a bloody L, Mummy?” This is a direct quote of myself as a young child–or perhaps one of my sisters, because sometimes those memories are blurry. The backstory here is that I grew up in London in the 1970s. A family friend used the phrase “bloody hell” to express exasperation and dismay, which translated through his accent and my young ears to “bloody ‘ell”. Was it the letter L that had somehow become bloody, and if so how? Was it bad? Why? And why would you bring it up in conversation if it was so bad? Parsing grown-up-speak isn’t easy.

Now I will get to the point: blood is what my blog post is about. And also my feelings about it, as expressed by this old-fashioned swear. Exasperation, dismay, despair. An existential questioning… What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m doing this. Is it doing any good? Continue reading “Bloody ‘ell!”

Pennyroyal Oil Is Not a Deterrent

The title about sums it up. I wondered if a strong-smelling essential oil would keep away my flax-chewer. My mother uses peppermint oil to discourage mice from chewing the insulation in the stove at our family’s cabin when we close it up for the winter. I didn’t have any peppermint on-hand Sunday morning, but I did have pennyroyal oil.

I saturated some strips of row cover:

pennyroyal oil on strips

Then I tied them to bamboo stakes:

strip tied to stake

Then I stuck them inside the beds so the cloth hung near ground level:

stake in position

Continue reading “Pennyroyal Oil Is Not a Deterrent”