Seed to Sail: Dressing the flax

Flax stem cross-section, showing locations of underlying tissues. Ep = epidermis (glossy outer protective layer) ; C = cortex (harder outer layer under the epidermis; BF = bast fibres (bundles of soft, flexible fibers); P = phloem (plant material); X = xylem (plant material); Pi = pith (spongy area that disintegrates when dry and creates a hollow space in center of flax stem)

After harvesting and retting, we still need to find a way to separate out the fiber from the rest of the plant. The process, called dressing, takes advantage of the structure of the flax stem which is a bit like a straw. When the plant is alive, the stem is is filled with a spongy material, but that disintegrates as the stem dries creating a hollow tube that runs up the center. On the outside of the stem is a waxy, protective layer covering a stronger thin, harder layer. Between the two layers is the plant tissue which holds the bundles of thin, flexible, fibers we want.

To get those fibers, there are two steps. First, we detach the fibers from the tissue around them by retting. Retting is just putting the stems either out in a dewy field or in a bath of water and letting natural organisms in the soil breakdown the pectin & lignin that “glues” the fibers we want into the rest of the plant material. So, part one is a chemical process. Part two is more fun. We have to separate the fibers we want from the stuff we don’t want. That’s a physical process- basically bashing and scraping. Bashing and scraping doesn’t sound very dignified, so instead we call it dressing the flax. It’s a fabulous way to get some exercise and work off any aggravation.

But wait, this is flax- which means there’s always another step! While there are only two steps to separate the fibers, if we are water retting, then we need to strip off the seed pods at the top of each stem. Rippling is just pulling the top of the stems through a comb to pull off the seed heads. Then, the seed heads are crushed to get seed for the next crop. If you aren’t planning to use the seed, you can just pull them off anytime before or after retting. If you are planning to store your straw over the winter, removing the seeds helps keep the mice out of your flax.

I ripple before retting because I don’t want to risk water damage to the seeds. I also have found my retting tank smells less if I remove the leaves and seed heads before retting.

One way or another, we have to remove the seeds before we can dress (process) our flax. If you don’t remove them first, you’ll clog up your hackle. I use a metal tined comb to pull the seed heads off, but it can be done by hand or by crushing with a mallet.

rippling removes the seed heads
seed heads after rippling

Dressing Flax

Dressing flax takes 3 steps: breaking, scutching, and hackling. There are lots of specialized tools you can use, but it is possible to process flax with a mallet or rolling pin and a metal toothed dog comb. If you have a small patch, you don’t need to invest in lots of tools!

I found some wonderful antique Pennsylvania Dutch hackles at a fiber festival, so I use them and channel some historical fiber mojo as I go.

PSA

This is probably a good time to mention tetanus shots. If you process flax using hackles, stay current on your tetanus shots. The flax dressing gods are bloodthirsty, and hackles are their favorite collection method.

Also, have a good pair of tweezers on hand. Flax slivers are no joke. They get infected and hurt. At the end of a dressing session, make sure you haven’t got slivers. Also, resist the urge to run your thumbnail down the fibers to pull off boon. Bamboo under the fingernails is a torture technique…

Braking (Breaking)

Breaking is exactly what it sounds like. I break up the stem by putting the retted flax between the boards of my flax brake. If I hadn’t built a brake, I could also break up the stem using a mallet or a rolling pin. For very small amounts, you can also just use your hands to crack the stems. The goal is to crush the hard parts so they fall away from the flexible, softer fibers you want.

I take a handful of flax stems at a time and pull them first from one end, and then flipped from the opposite end. It may take several passes through the brake. I stop when the the bundle is flexible and soft.

Scutching

Scutching knocks off the waste material. You can use a flax sword or knife by draping the flax over a flat board and running the edge of the flax knife along the fibers. Some historic processing mills set up rotating wheels of wooden boards similar to the steamship wheel. Or, you can just bash the bundle of flax against a flat surface. I also use the flax brake as a scutching tool by closing it only part way and pulling bundles of broken straw across the boards. This knocks out the majority of the boon (waste) quickly.

Hackling

The next step removes the outer sheathing and separate the fibers. I use three sets of hackles. Coming soon is a video of pulling fibers through the hackles to remove the waste. I start with the coarse hackle (back row) to remove the majority of debris, to pull out any weak or broken stalks, and to align the bundle of stalks after braking and scutching. I hackle one side up to the 1/3rd point where my hand is holding the bundle together. Then I flip the bundle and hackle the other end of the bundle.

After the coarse hackle, I move to the medium hackle (center row). This one will begin to open up the fiber bundles, pull off any sticky boon, and remove the shorter lengths of flax. I don’t lose that flax. Once I am done processing the line flax (the longest fibers), I’ll come back, pull out the shorter fibers (tow), and process those. By the time I have finished the medium hackling, the fibers are nicely aligned, the waste has been removed, and the bulk of the tow has been separated.

The fine hackle does the final separation of the fibers. If the ret wasn’t complete, these can be sticky and harder to pull apart. They need to be as close to fully separated as possible so that the fiber spins smoothly.



I’ve only documented two flax patches. Both the 2019 and the 2021 patches were “lisette” variety and grew to about 36-40″ from root to seed pod. I harvested 2021 at exactly 90 days, and the seeds weren’t viable. I’m hoping the 2021 crop will be finer.

My next patch with be the “Natalie” variety, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that does in our wet, windy climate.

Next up: Dressing 2021 flax & then spinning

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