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.

Here are Carolyn, Jeff, and me (right to left in this photo) standing together after our talks for the question and answer session. I am at the podium, and am apparently very emphatic about something. I don’t have other photos of the morning session because we were all presenting slideshows, and the lights were off most of the time.

MP talking with Jeff and Carolyn

Carolyn’s talk on the basics of flax botany was very informative and comprehensive. From my perspective as the speaker about seeds and seed saving, one of her slides stood out to me in particular. It showed a graph indicating plant height compared to days of growth and branching habit of fiber flax varieties. I think she said it was a Russian variety. In the graph, the plant didn’t get any taller after the flowering and seed-setting phase began. On the graph, it looked like this was around 65  days of growth. In my experience, flax continues to add height well after the vegetative phase is over and as long as the seed-setting phase continues. It’s like the Energizer bunny that keeps going and going. However, nothing above the first branch is useful for fiber, so in practical terms it amounts to the same thing: Extra height after the reproductive stage has begun doesn’t yield longer fibers. After a certain point of maturity, flax is all about the seeds, even if it was bred for fiber. What does this mean for a flax grower? For good quality fiber, you have to harvest once stalk elongation has hit a maximum, but before the plant’s seed-making agenda kicks in. Maximum height of the plant with regard to the maximum length of fiber that can potentially be obtained really is limited to the 75-95 day period of the growth cycle and not later.

Also, Carolyn clarified that the xylem and phloem are unique structures separate from the fiber bundles. Fiber in flax is its own special thing. Beauty, eh? Personally, I can’t imagine what flax planned to do with all that fiber besides bestow it on grateful early hominids. And then colonize our brains so we grew a lot more of it. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. This is my own opinion, not Carolyn’s, though the conceptual principles are supported by Michael Pollan in the Botany of Desire. OK, moving on.

Jeff’s talk was inspiring and impossible to summarize. A few important highlights of his presentation were:

“If you want to farm, get a tractor with a three point hitch,” and don’t worry about mistakes because you will make plenty of them and you just have to forge boldly ahead.

“Don’t throw your over-retted flax into your chlorinated swimming pool.” I can’t say that I’ve tried this, but now I know not to.

“Don’t try to dig your own irrigation pond with unsuitable equipment that will then sink into the quagmire.” This isn’t a direct quote, but it captures the gist. Again, good to know. I appreciated all of these gems of advice very much, as well as Jeff’s honest and personal approach. Personally, I have written an entire (un-singable) song about all the things not to do when growing and processing flax, and I firmly believe that sage warnings are just as helpful as inspiring advice.

Other practical tips from Jeff included:

Think about what your flax growing goals are. Why are you growing flax? How much time, money, effort, and how many years are you willing to invest? How serious are you? How much flax do you want to grow? The answers to these questions will concretely determine your next steps.

Aim for a soil pH of about 5.7.

Un-even planting can’t be fixed later (true of hand-broadcasting, too).

Rotate at least every five years to avoid fusarium wilt (which happened to me this summer, FYI).

Don’t buy Russian-made pulling equipment.

Support flax projects if you hope to see any changes in the textile industry! Try to get yourself in a position to gear up production when the opportunity strikes. Words to live by.

Next up on Saturday morning was me. I was presenting on seeds and seed saving. I was excited but also intimidated. My qualifications are that I have grown fiber flax for over a decade and am willing to kill rodents and haul thousands of gallons of water in five gallon buckets to do so. I read and talk to people to expand my knowledge base. I actively support biodiversity, sustainability, organic growing, and local economies. I inform myself about pre-history and history because I value our roots and our heritage, and if you don’t understand the past you can’t understand the present. I aspire to do my part to ensure a livable, happy future for humans and all other species (except for poison ivy and ticks, about whose survival I do not care one jot). Also, flax-based bacteria have colonized my brain. Direct experience with plants and pitchforks + research and networking + ethics and a mission + my microbiome = me and my qualifications. It’s all very personal.

I was presenting a slideshow. I had a 10 minute slot. The timing of the whole weekend was very tight and I really didn’t want the whole day to run late because the first session took too long. So, I ran through my slideshow several times, and I really tried to strip down my talk and slides to a minimum. Some advice I received before hand was, “Don’t read your slides,” so I didn’t. However, apparently in all my haste I spoke too fast and didn’t talk about the slides enough, which I got feedback about after the fact. I’m sorry if you were there and couldn’t understand what I was saying! I plan to post my slides and outline on the New England Flax and Linen site ere too long, and will post about it here on my blog when that happens, so I won’t take the time to summarize my talk now. Stay tuned for updates.