Later on Saturday Morning at the Flax and Linen Symposium

The rest of the morning was about retting and flax processing. Again, it’s hard to take photos in the dark, and it’s hard to summarize. The first speaker about retting was Cassie Dickson (John C. Campbell Folk School) with her amazing examples of the different colors that different retting conditions can produce.

The take-aways from Cassie’s talk were: Only experience with retting can help you figure out when enough is enough. Repeated observation of your specific climate and locale will help you determine when your ret is complete. Each ret, whether water-retted or dew-retted, is unique and will yield a specific color. Label your retting batches so you can keep track. Thicker stalks will ret more quickly. Thinner stalks will ret more slowly. In a deep tank, put the coarser stalks at the top and the finer ones below, so you can pull off the coarse bundles sooner. Retting makes the water acidic, which can cause problems in metal tanks. To do a “stem check”, you have to pull it out of the tank or off the field and dry it. Then test it to see if the fibers pull free. For water-retting, keep the bundles loose. For ground-retting, flip as frequently as you can given the limitations of your scale: Daily is fine for small batches, but weekly or every two weeks is reasonable for larger acreage. Cassie also related some specific recommendations compiled from Linda Heinrich, Mavis Atton, and other sources.

First, leach the dried straw for about 4 hours to get rid of the air in the stalks and other impurities.

Second, if you are using fresh soft water, aerobic bacteria start working at this point and will work for about 8 hours.

Third, after about 8 hours, anaerobic bacteria become active, and outweigh the aerobic (think about your unturned compost).

Fourth, beginning around the eight hour mark, change 10% of the water every 8 hours or so to neutralize the acidity (and presumably to change the oxygen ratio). If your water temperature is below 70 degrees, retting will take 2-3 weeks. If it’s between 75-80 degrees, retting will take 4-7 days. If the water temperature is between 80-90 degrees, retting will take 3-5 days.

Next up after Cassie, Gina Gerhard (fellow study group member and historical interpreter extraordinaire of the mid 1700s) talked about pond retting. She showed some historical slides explaining why and when certain types of retting pits, ponds, or tanks were used. Below a certain depth (3-4 feet), you can’t maintain a consistent temperature, so pits, tanks, or ponds were limited to this depth until there was some way to control the temperature in modern times. Gina also talked about the restored retting pond in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. I posted about my visit to Gilmanton here if you’d like to see photos. She also gave some specific pointers (from Fred Bradbury’s 1921 book, I believe) about how the best retting tanks were built. Soft water is preferred, and if that isn’t available, then fill the tanks 2-3 weeks ahead of time. Surface run-off was discouraged (perhaps this depends on what’s around your tank). Clay soils were preferred for an in-ground tank or pool because they were more stable and less prone to collapsing. Different colors of clay would stain the flax accordingly. Farmers would know their local climate, and would ret in the season with the most stable weather conditions. Maintaining a water temperature between 60-70 degrees for the necessary length of time wasn’t possible at certain times of the year in certain locales.

For an acre of flax, a retting tank or pond 36 feet by 10 feet by 4 feet was sufficient. A single ret (all your crop retted at one time) yielded consistency of color and therefore demanded a higher price. In sum, consider this: Imagine that you grow one crop of flax a year, from which your annual supply of textiles has to be produced. And you and all your neighbors have to combine your flax harvests and submerge it all in one big dammed-up stream to ret the flax. And it really, really has to be well-retted in order for anyone to get a new shirt that year. And you have to rely on the weather in New Hampshire to be favorable over a few weeks’ time in order to accomplish this. Not a 21st century problem, but one worth taking a moment to appreciate. How did anyone ever manage to actually have any clothes?!

The last speakers about retting were Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf (The Hermitage and The Big Book of Flax) talking about their experiences with retting in Pennsylvania. Their experience taught them that ground or dew retting may only be possible in certain locales. They found that it worked just fine around Bethlehem, PA, and they became expert at this method while they lived there. However, it didn’t work at all once they moved to the higher elevations in PA. Soil chemistry and soil microbiology are key. They switched to pond retting, and can ret in their pond in four days!! They use old doors to keep the flax submerged, and let the flax float loosely rather than tie it in bundles.

After that, Ron Walter (author of Stay at Home and Use Me Well) gave an overview of flax processing, using the diaries of 18th century farmers to guide us through the steps. Ron specifically referenced the Diary of Oliver Harris (1780-1845) from New Market Township, Ohio (who had moved to Ohio from New Jersey). The steps in processing flax are rippling (pulling off the the seed heads, usually done before retting to save the seed), threshing (opening up the seed pods to get the seeds out), braking (crushing the retted stems), swingling (scraping off the remaining woody material from the fiber), and heckling (separating the long from the short fibers, and aligning all the fibers for spinning). Ron estimates that families planted a quarter of an acre of flax for each family member, and they had to process their whole crop before the next year’s crop was ready to process. According to the diary of Oliver Harris, on one day in 1802 he crushed six and a half bushels of seed. The winnowing took several days. In 1830 he got 40 cents a bushel for cleaned flax seed. Oliver Harris was dew or ground retting between October and January. To dry the flax sufficiently to process it, he used a “kiln” or oven to warm it up and dry it out. His diary entry from March 22nd, 1803 indicates that he dressed 35 pounds of flax! Quantities that he processed on other days ranged from 13-19 pounds, and as high as 25 pounds a day when his sons and neighbors helped with the work. He often dressed flax for the neighbors, also.

Take away: Processing flax is, and was, a lot of work. Oliver’s family used their flax brake so heavily that he needed to build a new one every 4-8 years. Though it might sound a bit monotonous on paper, it was even more monotonous (and physically demanding) in reality. Plus, reality contained the added stress of literally having to make the very shirt on your back. Well, Oliver sold a lot of his dressed flax, which indicates that he wasn’t using it all himself. Also, one can imagine that you really had to get along with your family members and neighbors or you’d be working for hours in close quarters in awkward silence. Luckily some folk kept diaries so we’d know just exactly how hard life was in the 1700s.

That brings us up to lunchtime. Phew!