Linen has been used for thousands of years for clothes, beding and furnishings. It is loved for its soft and cool feel. It is a very strong and durable material which will last much longer than other alternatives, like cotton. Growing your own linen may see overwhelming, but it helps to break it down into manageable steps.
Plant 1 kg. fibre flax seed in a 6m x 6m plot
One plot will give you enough fibre to make a shirt from line (long linen fibres) and tow to weave a couple of towels. Your actual yield will depend on growing conditions, how well you weed the plot and how perfect your retting and hackling techniques are.
Broadcast the seed thickly, over well tilled ground and then walk on it to firm the seed in.
Weed it well about 4 weeks after planting.
Your flax will take about 2 weeks to germinate in a cool, wet spring. When it reaches just over 5cm in height you should walk into the plot and weed it well. You can step on the plants without damaging them when they are between 5cm and 30cm tall.
Admire the blue flax flowers as the linen grows
Once the bed has been weeded well, you can just admire it as it grows. About 60 days from planting the flowers start to open. It is very beautiful watching the blue flowers swaying in the breeze. Each flower is open for only one day. Each stock produces several flowers and each flower turns into a seed boll with 6 to 8 seeds.
100 days after planting, harvest the flax
The stocks of flax will be 2/3rds yellow and 1/3rd still green when it is ready to harvest. The flowering will be finished and each slender flax plant will have 4 to 6 seed bolls. You harvest the flax by hand, by pulling each plant out by the roots. Toss the weeds and place the stems of flax in order. Tie into bundles (shooks) about 30cm across, using strong twine.
Shook the flax and wait
Take the shooks of flax and put them, standing upright, under cover to finish maturing the seed and drying the fibre. The whole stock will turn brown as it dries. This takes a month in dry weather, a bit longer in wet weather.
Ripple the flax
Open each bundle of flax, take the flax by the root end and draw the seed end through wide toothed combs or a board with nails acting as teeth. This removes the seed heads. You can begin the retting process now or retie the bundles and wait till Spring.
The seed is edible and has a good oil content. You can crush the seed bolls and separate the seeds from the chaff by winnowing. Save about 1 kg. of seed to replant the field next year. If you don’t want to clean the seed by winnowing, you can feed it to your back yard chickens. They will take care of the seed bolls for you.
Rett the flax
The retting process releases the fibre that is trapped in the outer sheath of the flax stem. It dissolves the pectins that hold the fibre in ribbons and it weakens the woody core through enzyme action so that the fibres can be released. Flax can be dew retted or water retted.
You can dew rett the flax by laying it in a grassy field and damping it with rain or a hose. Turn the flax every 5 days and keep damp. It will change colour and turn brown, flecked with black spots. Test a bit to see if the fibres release easily. Don’t over rett or your fibres will break apart when you use the flax break.
You can water rett the flax. I use a repurposed bath tub for this. The flax is submersed in a tub of clean water. Within a day bubbles begin to form on the surface of the tub and the water discolours to a tea shade. Watch the tub every day. When the bubbles cease and a scum forms, after about 5 to 7 days, dump the water in the tub. Then refill with fresh water, submerge the flax and watch the bubbles form again. After another 5 to 7 days the process will be finished. Wear gloves when handling the wet flax. The water has a high biological content. Its is safe to pour the water on the lawn, its rich in nitrogen. Don’t introduce it to waterways, though, as it is depleted of oxygen and will harm fish.
Water retted flax is blond and pale in colour. Dew retted flax is silver grey to brown. After many years of use and sun bleaching, both will end up white.
Dry the flax
After retting lay the flax stems upright in a place where they can dry. You don’t want these too close to your back door as the smell is quite strong. You want them crispy dry to break properly.
Break the flax
You will want a flax break for this step as it makes the job go much faster. If you lack a flax break you can hollow out a stump and hit the flax stems on the surface of the stump with wooden hammers, as the Doukhobors used to do in Grand Forks about 60 years ago.
Process the flax through the flax break to remove the woody centre core of the stem and release the outer fibres from the stalk. You can use the waste from this process as garden mulch.
Scutch the flax
Scutching removes the waste from the flax fibres. You can do this by whipping the fibres across the flax break, breaking with a finer flax break, or laying the fibres over an upright board and beating them with a wooden blade, down the board.
Hackle the flax
Once all the boon has been removed from the fibres, the fibres will be in ribbons, still stuck together. Hackling splits these ribbons into finer strands. Traditionally flax was hackled through finer and finer hackles or nail embedded planks. As a minimum, you will need a coarse, medium and fine hackle.
“The strick of flax is flipped over the top of the hackle and drawn across it, starting with the ends of the strick and gradually moving nearer the centre. Do not try to pull it deeply into the hackles. Rather draw it lightly across the top, starting with the coarse hackle and finishing with the fine. Draw the flax fibre over the pins repeatedly until the fibre is silky and smooth and quite free of all bits of shive” (Mavis Atton, Flax Culture from flower to fabric, Ginger Press, 1988)
Spin the line (linen) with wet fingers
Linen is spun wet to give a smooth, fine yarn. You can use a distaff to keep the fibres orderly as you spin or you can simply wrap the length of fibres in a cotton or linen towel. Spin from the end, taking only a few fibres at a time into your drafting triangle. Keep your hands far apart and don’t grasp the fibre bundle too tightly.
Spinning linen is different than spinning wool and it take a bit of practice to spin a smooth, fine thread with linen.
Spin the tow (flax) dry
Card or comb the tow fibre and spin it separately from the line. Don’t combine the two. You can spin the tow wet or dry. Shorter tow fibres can be processed on a drum carder.
Spin as you would wool, keeping your hands a fibre length apart and using a worsted spinning technique. Most of the work is done with your forward hand, while your back hand just rests gently on the fibre bundle.
Linen is traditionally woven as singles. You can ply your yarn if you want to. You will want to ply with damp fingers as well.
Boil the yarn and beat the yarn
After spinning, skein the yarn and boil it with a tsp. of washing soda for about 10 minutes. The water will become murky and the fibre will whiten. Dump the water and replace with fresh and boil again for 10 minutes. Rinse as necessary. Hang to dry.
While the yarn is still slightly damp, beat the yarn with a wooden mallet or wooden hammer to soften the yarn. Let it dry.
If you want to dye the yarn — this is when you would do that. Linen needs both tannin and alum mordants to accept natural dyes.
Thread the loom
You can use a rigid heddle loom for this and warp it according to the manufacturers directions, or what ever loom you have. Your loom should be at least 40cm wide. You will make panels of fabric and then sew them together for front, back and sleeves. If you have a narrower loom you will need more panels of fabric.
Weave the linen cloth
When weaving linen fabric you will get a more even beat if you spritz the cloth with water as you weave. Weave enough yardage or panels to complete your shirt.
Wash and mangle the cloth
Linen is usually cold mangled by pressing it with a hard, heavy roller while it is still slightly damp. This refines the surface of the cloth and gives it a sheen.
Cut the fabric
Use a pattern that you like and that is flattering to your shape or make a folk garment using rectangles designed with your own cloth in mind. Sew the shirt by hand or machine. You will be thrilled with your shirt and it will last a lifetime.