Seed to Sail: Growing the flax

I planted a 10 x 10 plot of flax as part of a longterm project to weave a sail. I am starting from a very soft learning space so the number of steps ahead is huge.

So- weaving a sail. The test run is making from seed to finish a tiny sail for a model boat (which I haven’t built yet.) Bob built two 10′ x 10′ garden boxes in 2019, but really, how many tomatoes can one household eat? The second box was a natural place to test out growing flax. The seeds came from the Landis Valley Museum on Pennsylvania which sent me “Lisette” variety which came from Holland. https://www.landisvalleymuseum.org/ Don’t look at the date on the bag. They were past their sell-by, but well, so am I 🙂

I’d been warned that before planting, make sure the seeds are a fiber variety instead of an oil seed plant! Check. Got that right. Then, if you think you’ll need it, make sure you create a garden with some cross support for the plants. Oops…

The plants row 3′ tall or more and support each other in the bed. I thought that would be enough. We had an early summer hail & wind storm that knocked down most of the bed. If I had put in string supports gridding out the bed, this would have helped the plants stay upright. My 2021 crop will have cross stringing just in case!

After planting there wasn’t much need for weeding. Mainly, I needed patience. I waited. And waited. And watched the stalks get taller and taller. Eventually beautiful blue flowers appeared. Then the seed heads started to form. For finer flax, harvest earlier- general wisdom says when the plant has turned yellow somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3rds of the way up the stalk. This year I am planning on getting as close to 2/3rds as I can but before the seed heads develop. For 2019, I wanted the seeds, so I waited for the seed heads to fully develop.

Fun Historical Fact: The American colonies grew flax for both the seed and the fiber. They sold much of the seed to England and Ireland which allowed growers there to harvest before the seeds fully developed- which meant the fiber harvested there was finer, and by extension, the cloth made was softer and finer than the rougher cloth available in the colonies. (link to more about this at the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Not the greatest photo, but the bottom 2/3-3/4 of the stalks have turned a greenish yellow. The seed heads are nice and plump, and some have started to dry on the plant. That’s a bit too long, but I went to an Irish music festival instead of tending my gardens.


I pulled up the flax, roots and all. I tried making towers, but Fergie the dog couldn’t help but knock them over, pee on them, and generally help me see that lashing them to the fence was a better choice. They hung on the fence for a while until the bundles were mostly dry. I’m on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, so mostly dry is the best I could hope for. Then we got one of those super hot, dry spells. I laid out the flax behind a temporary fence and let the sun bake things for a while.

It seems like this should be the end of it, right. Yay, I have flax. Nope. We’re barely getting started! The next step was taking off the seed heads. I used a fiber hackle which did a great job.

I waited for a windy day which made life easier. A lot of the waste blew away as I pulled the tops of the plants through the hackle. Then I gathered up the seed heads, rolled them between my palms and let the wind carry away the chaff.

I put the seeds ina ziplock for the next garden and then, sadly but probably predictably, lost the bag of seeds while moving my studio. Fortunately, I have plenty of seeds left from the first planting. Fingers crossed they’ve aged well!

Next Step: Retting

I would have loved to dew ret but it was approaching the end of September and starting to get nippy at nights. So, I pulled out what we call “the Coffin” It’s a big black wheelie box that usually holds stuff in the garage. Now it’s my flax bin. It’s a fabulous flax retting bin because it is over 4 feet long and gets nice and hot in the sun.

I have to say, reading this makes it all sound very seamless. Not so. Here’s how things go:

Figuring out when to stop the soak is hard for me. I was trying to keep the lid on the box as much as possible because the black top helped keep the water up to a good retting temperature. After the first week, I checked the retting progress every afternoon. I should have split up the flax into two batches because the shorter/finer flax retted more quickly.

Once it was retted, I laid it out in the yard to dry, and then put it back into the coffin until I had time to build a flax brake. Life got strange, and the COVID pandemic put a spike in my plans to process the flax in 2020. So, here we are- 2021. I finally had time and energy to build some tools. Building a Flax Brake will take you to the plans and step by step directions.

Have you noticed there hasn’t been any talk about weaving a sail yet? It’s coming! There will be a sail!

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