Everyone knows we grow food and flowers at The North Grove community farm, but did you know that this past year we grew fabric as well? The journey of turning seed into cloth involved old fashioned tools, words we’d never heard of, and a whole community of people and connections. Read about our year in flax.
Flax is the name of the plant that produces both flax seeds, which can be pressed into oil, and the fibre that makes up a fabric type called linen. Flax and linen have been around for thousands of years. In Nova Scotia, from the time of European settlement up until the 1920s, there was a thriving linen growing and processing industry. Neighbours would travel from farm to farm helping each other with the harvest and processing of the flax. The linen industry declined in Nova Scotia in the 20th century to practically nothing.
In recent years there have been efforts to re-introduce flax cultivation in the province. A notable initiative has been the Flaxmobile Project by textile artist and NSCAD instructor Jennifer Green. In 2023, the Flaxmobile partnered with 15 small farms across Nova Scotia, including The North Grove to help to revive this part of Nova Scotia’s textile history.
Preparing the Soil: March & April
March 28, 2023
The key to farming is healthy soil, and flax is no exception. First, we needed to know how our soil was doing, so we sent our soil samples away to the lab at Dalhousie Agricultural Campus in Truro to be tested. It was a strange experience sending a bag of dirt through the mail!
Through soil sampling we found out that our soil at The North Grove community farm is of excellent quality. For example, soil with an organic matter makeup of more than 3.5% is considered extremely good quality soil. The North Grove’s soil is made up of 9% organic matter! This result, including high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other micronutrients was a great sign for our planting.
May 5, 2023
While flax plants can produce both seeds and fibre, two main flax varieties have been selectively bred, where one produces an abundance of seeds and not much in the way of fibre and vice versa. At The North Grove we grew a variety selected for its fibre production, though as you’ll see we did get seeds as well.
We were careful to ensure an even distribution of the seed, as the plants grow a finer fibre if they are grown close together.
Our volunteer coordinator Catherine, Jennifer of the Flaxmobile Project, and volunteer Noah carefully planting flax seeds.
Growing, Flowering, and Seed Pods: June & July
By June, the flax plants got to their full height of about a metre. By the beginning of July, the first of the blue flax flowers emerged, with the plants in full bloom by the middle of July. Because the summer of 2023 was so rainy, we frequently encountered the problem of “lodging.” Lodging is when plants fall down under the weight of heavy rain and don’t spring back up after the rain has stopped. Every time it rained this summer, I needed to go out and coax them back up. One half of the plot seemed to suffer from lodging more than the other half, although we weren’t sure why. Possibly the soil on the lodging side had more nitrogen than the other, which was preventing the plants from putting enough energy into a strong stem. By the end of July, the flowers were replaced by seed pods, and the plants were nearly ready for harvest.
June 27, 2023: The flax plants start to grow evenly.
July 10: Flax flowering in full swing. The flowers are short-lived but beautiful.
July 11: Whenever it rained, half of our flax patch “lodged.”
July 28: Seed pods form on the plants.
Harvesting: August 10th
By the beginning of August, the plants were starting to turn yellow and die back, meaning they were ready for harvest. With a team of volunteers, we pulled the plants and sorted them into those with thicker stems, and those with thinner stems. The thinner stems are better for finer fibres, whereas the thicker stems produce a coarser fibre. The seed balls on the plant stalks remained.
Rippling: August 18th
We then got into the most unfamiliar part of the flax journey for me: processing. Most flax in the world is processed using machinery. In Nova Scotia, we are lucky to have Taproot Fibre Lab which does have the machinery needed to process flax.
However, we decided to process our fibre by hand using traditional tools that would not be out of place in a museum.
The first step in processing our flax was removing the seed pods, otherwise known as rippling. We dragged the ends of the flax stalks through a tool called a rippler, which looked a lot like a large steel comb. In fact, many of our volunteers linked rippling the flax to brushing a child’s hair!
Wet Retting: August 20th
August 20th: Day one of the retting process
August 30th: Day ten of the retting process
We left our flax in the retting tub for ten days, and during that time the fibre broke down and softened, ready for processing. Retting does in fact mean rotting, so as you can imagine, it got extremely stinky. Flax can either be wet-retted or dew-retted. Wet retting, the process we used, involves submerging the flax in water for about a week. Traditionally this is done in a stream. The advantage of wet retting is that it tends to produce fibre that is lighter in colour, and more easily dyed. Dew-retting involves leaving the flax out in field for a few weeks and allowing the morning dew to do the retting.
August 30th: Washing the retted flax with Jennifer
Luckily 2023 was a very rainy summer and we were able to leave our retted flax out in the rain to rinse off. The flax then dried and was ready for the next step of processing.
Flax Processing Day: October
The most exciting part of the flax growing journey was the magical experience of transforming the plants into the linen fibres. Jennifer of the Flaxmobile Project led the workshop, showing our community how to break the flax, scutch the fibres, and finally hackle it using both a rough and fine hackle. In total, we produced 340g of fibre, an astounding amount for the size of our planting area. The flax fibre produced was of excellent quality and a beautiful light golden colour.
In our processing workshop, we crushed and winnowed the flax seeds we had collected back in the rippling process. We crushed the seed pods and then used forced air to blow away the lighter chaff, leaving the heavier flax seeds behind. We can use these seeds for planting in future or for adding to food for their many health benefits.
Breaking the woody outer portion of the flax plants.
Using what looked like a wooden knife, called a scutch to separate the linen fibres from the rest of the plant.
Using a hackle to straighten out all the fibres. In the end, the linen fibre looks remarkably like hair!
Angus & Mouna winnowing the flax seeds.
We were visited by CBC news who did an article on the process.
As of February 2024, our flax along with the flax grown by the other Nova Scotian farms involved in the project, was given to hand spinners to turn the fibre into yarn. Later this month we will be getting back some of our newly spun linen. We will use it in a Natural Dye Workshop on February 29th from 9:30-11:00 am , where we will experiment with using kitchen and garden materials to add colour to our yarn, and then make friendship bracelets to take home. Check out our program calendar on our website or at The North Grove to learn how to register.