Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part III: Gathering, Rippling, Retting

"To know when your Flax is fit to gather," recommended John Wily of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, "you must observe the Leaves turning yellow, and the lower Ones dropping off the Stalks..." (33, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of John Wily's Treatise)

Sure enough, my flax showed signed of being "fit to gather" by early July, just about three months after I planted it and after a good growing season. So out Nicole and I went, on July 11th, to harvest the flax.

"The Method to gather your Flax is to pull it up by the Roots with one hand." (33)

"If the Seed is not full ripe, as it seldom all ripens together, you may let it lie in the Field two or three Days." (33)

Once farmers removed flax from the earth, the first step in harvesting every bit of useful material from the plants was to remove the seeds, which they could sell to special processors who extracted linseed (think linen+seed) oil, used for a variety or purposes including as a paint medium, from the seeds.

Flax Seeds

In order to remove the seeds from my flax plants, I needed a "Rippling Comb," for which Wily provides instructions: "Get a Piece of Plank about eighteen Inches long, three broad, and one thick; then have fourteen or fifteen teeth made of iron or steel, about six Inches long, in the Shape of a flooring Brad; then bore as many Holes lengthwise in the Plank as you have Teeth to put in it, letting the Teeth stand about a Quarter of an Inch apart." (33)

Someday, I'll get a truly authentic Rippling Comb. For now, lacking either a local blacksmith or my own forge, I went to my local hardware store and bought a box of the largest flooring brads I could find (essentially unchanged since 1765), a bit shorter than Wily's recommendation. Wily's directions seem almost foolproof, but I soon discovered two problems. First, my plank was inclined to split down the line of the brads even when I bored holes in advance of driving the brads in. I stopped short of Wily's fifteen teeth to prevent totally cracking my plank.

Rippling Comb

Second problem: teeth with spaces between them of 1/4" allowed my flax seeds to generally pass right through without pulling the seeds off the stalks when I did as Wily recommended: "take a Handful and strike it on the Teeth, and draw it through," (34). Either Wily meant that the teeth should be driven into the plank at 1/4" intervals (leaving only a narrow slit between the actual edges of each tooth) or flax plants in 1765 had slightly larger or more compact seed heads. This seems plausible, given that the flax I grew, marketed for flowers and seeds more than fiber, probably included more of these elements than you'd want if you were growing and breeding plants with an eye towards those that devoted the most energy to stalk (and thus fiber) production.

To counteract this problem, I had placed several of my teeth closer together, which allowed Nicole and I to quickly pull the seeds away from small handfuls of flax.

I'll get back to these seeds later. For now, it was time to ret my flax. Retting involves getting the flax plants wet for an extended period in order to break down the gummy substance that adheres the exterior bark (to be used for fiber) from the woody core of each stalk. You can discern the difference between the two parts when the flax is unretted, but you can't easily separate them.

Broken green flax

Although Wily provided instructions for retting flax by leaving it lying in dewy fields for several days or submerging it in standing water, he favored retting it in "a Stream of fresh running Water" for better cleansing the flax at a cool temperature (reducing the danger of over-retting and thus ruining your crop). Wily said to tie up your flax in "Sheaves, about the Size of a Sheaf of Wheat... with some good strong Bark, or Withe, for fear of its breaking loose in the Water," (35). The total product of my flax patch came out to something like as much as your typical wheat sheaf.

Tying a sheaf of flax with bark

I'm lucky enough to live near a "Stream of fresh running Water" as Wily suggested, and retting flax this way involves only two other tools: strong twine and a weight, in my case some rocks tied up in old stockings.

John Wily wanted to sound authoritative when he wrote his book, enough so that skeptical farmers might adopt flax for the potential cash crop he believed it was. But even Wily had to admit that "it is out of the Power of any Man to tell the exact Number of Days it will take to water or dew-rot Flax," (35). This was the riskiest part of flax production. A few hours too long in the water and you would overdo it, ending up with flax plants that, instead of producing long fibers suitable for spinning into fine and sturdy thread, had deteriorated too much and would produce only inferior, short, coarse fibers. 

Wily offered general instructions for how to tell if your flax had retted enough, and I dutifully walked down to the creek once or twice a day to remove a stalk or two, breaking them to see if they appeared "very rotten and tender" (35), as Wily described the finished goal. 

24 hours after retting began

48 hours after retting began

72 hours after retting began

Sure enough, after 72 hours in the river, the flax seemed to be quite rotten and, even more convincing given the interpretive room within Wily's description, I could see the long bark fibers easily sloughing off from the core of each stalk.

The real test will come later, when I move on to "breaking" the plants as the next step in processing the flax. Stay tuned for more.


  1. Great post on your experimentation. Looking forward to reading further! Following, as well.


    1. Thanks! Your blog has some great stuff as well,

  2. Perhaps you know Seamus Heaney's great poem about (in part) retting flax, "Death of a Naturalist":

    All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
    Of the townland; green and heavy headed
    Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
    Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
    Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
    Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
    There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
    But best of all was the warm thick slobber
    Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
    In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
    I would fill jampots full of the jellied
    Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
    On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
    The fattening dots burst into nimble-
    Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
    The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
    And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
    Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
    Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
    For they were yellow in the sun and brown
    In rain.

    Then one hot day when fields were rank
    With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
    Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
    To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
    Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
    Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
    On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
    The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
    Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
    I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
    Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
    That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.