Friday, November 4, 2022

’Tis the End of a Season

Time to review the potted flax adventure of the summer of 2022. It was interesting. That is the Minnesota way of saying, uh, maybe not so good. The crop ended up being unimpressive. Although I did get some flax stalks, they are nothing like a crop produced in full sun in a field. Surprisingly, there were also very few flowers. All in all, it wasn’t very happy flax.

It’s hard to see in this image, but the ultimate height 
of the potted flax was no more than 30 inches. 
That’s several inches shorter than flax planted in a field.

...even though the crop was well-supervised by this little frog!

And the final result! Harvested flax from the pots.
They are short, fairly curly flax stalks with the most delicate of roots.

Even with the “meh” results, it was a good learning experience. I will still dry, ret, and use this flax, so keep in touch on that progress.

In the end, I have concluded that flax is best grown in a field, free to blow and bend in the wind, supported by others of its kind. (When you consider it, we aren’t so different from flax stalks. If you keep us bound, without the freedom to become who we are meant to become, we stagnate and become less of who we could be!)

I am seeking a small plot of sunny land for next summer, where the flax may grow tall and flourish. Please get in touch with me if you have such a plot. A spot in a plowed field (about 20 x 20 feet just for management purposes) and at the western edge of the Twin Cities metro would be my ideal site.

Next post. . . more about my ASI Teaching Tools Grant work.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Patience is Virtuous!

And quite successful. Although it took a full two weeks, the flax is retted! 

Here is the final view of the nasty, smelly pool just before I took out the flax to test it:

Flax retting in a blue puppy pool, in dark, tea-colored water.
You cannot even see the flax through the "tea" water of bacteria
and other decaying matter.

The next step was to drain the water. 

Retted flax lying in the drained puppy pool
Yes, the flax was indeed submerged, soaked through and through.

But look at how pretty it became when it was rinsed!

Close-up image of retted and rinsed flax
It's a lovely, natural flax/linen color. 
No longer stinky either!

The next step is to let it dry. Then it's ready for further processing (braking, scutching, and hackling) into spinnable fiber!

I'm sure that those of you who want to try this for yourself would appreciate a peek at what a retted flax stalk should look like, so here's a video in which I've rubbed and broken a stalk to show how the retting breaks down the outer casing of the flax to reveal the fiber threads beneath:

I still need to update you on the ongoing progress with my ASI Teaching Tools Grant. Next post, I promise!

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Ret = Rot = Patience

So much has advanced with my ASI Teaching Tools Grant project! But today, I want to share some photos from my first attempt to pool-ret a flax crop. (My first attempt at retting flax occurred over a winter season as a "snow-retting" and left a great deal to be desired.) 

A friend with a farm down the road gave me his dried, but not retted, flax crop which he grew as a test crop a few years ago. As the summer winds down, this gift has become a great opportunity to experiment with pool retting before diving into my potted flax crop processing. So, last Saturday, August 27th, I got out the puppy pool (a hard-sided, portable pool) and the entire gifted crop (just a few handfuls of flax stalks) to begin an experiment with retting the stalks.

First, an explanation of the word "ret." In Swedish, "ret" translates to "rot." And that is exactly what needs to happen to the outer matter of the flax stalk to allow the strong, spinnable fibers to be released from the stalk. Retting can be done by soaking the flax in a pond or stream (or a puppy pool), by laying it out in dewy grass for a few days to weeks, or through chemical means, which is a process left to commercial flax mills—although, ironically, chemicals, even though they are more controllable, are not an ideal way to ret it and can even damage the fiber. Flax likes to keep things close to the earth!

Fortunately, the pool was just the right size for the stalks.

I used bricks to keep the stalks submerged.

The process can take from 5 days in ideal, warm conditions, to perhaps 2 weeks. Our property is heavily wooded, so sunlight is not very available. Therefore, the pool water has remained cool to barely lukewarm. I think a warmer environment would be beneficial, yet I also consider areas of the world where flax is retted in streams and ponds, such as Ireland and Scotland, where a cool climate reigns. The retting will take longer in cooler waters, but it will still happen, so I'm not concerned. Let time do its thing!

Here is the retting flax after 3 days. The water has turned the color of English tea—and horribly stinky! You can see that the biological matter in the stalks is breaking down through the water's foaming. The foaming becomes even more dramatic as I exchange some of the water for fresh, which should be done every day to every few days.

I am testing the flax daily to see the retting progress. To do that, I pick out a stalk to bend and manipulate. You know the flax is ready to pull out of the bath when the outer skin starts sloughing off and revealing the flax "threads" beneath. I'll post photos of what that should look like when it happens. Today is the 5th day in the retting process, and the stalks are still quite intact. Patience is needed! 

My next post will be an update on the flax pots and the ASI teaching tools grant progress. Much has happened in those areas. But for today, I will let retting flax ret!

Friday, August 19, 2022

 It Works! She lives!

Image of a wooden flax brake with flax placed on top.

What you see here resting on my outdoor worktable is a prototype of a fully functioning tabletop Flax Brake! I am thrilled! This will now serve as my working (yay!) guide for making the final maple brake for the American Swedish Institute Teaching Tools Grant I received early this summer.

Check out the product of the first test—properly broken flax stalks!

Image of hand holding broken flax

I plan to cut the maple wood for the final brake at my husband's friend's workshop sometime in the next month and do my magic to create a fully functioning, gorgeous maple flax brake that will serve my students—and me for flax processing demonstrations—for years to come.

It's built to last. I chose to use screws rather than dowels for the construction since wooden dowels tend to shrink and expand with the changing seasons, which erratically loosens and tightens connections. I also decided to use a strong metal piano hinge for the pivot rather than a large dowel because the weakest point in both of my vintage brakes has been the wooden pivot dowel. This brake should stand the test of time—and the use of many hands!

Hackle News

I just learned that the three hackles, which are the other tools I requested in my grant application, are coming in from the UK next week. (A site in the UK was the only place I located that still makes a properly graduated set of three flax hackles.) I'll post the news and photos when I have the hackles in hand.

Flax News

Sorry. Nothing new to share on the flax plant front. They are still growing, albeit slowly, in the pots, but a few stalks are starting to yellow. Their growing season should be ending soon, with drying and harvesting to follow. Perhaps I'll have more to share about the plants in my next post.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Growth with the Project—in more ways than one!

It's been a few weeks since my last post, but this lapse has only been due to being too busy to post. The accident I had nearly a month ago also kept me from working on the prototype for a couple of weeks. But since then, I've been in mad creation mode! 

Each piece is connected by wood screws 
in an attempt to make a really strong flax brake 
that will stay strong in all seasons (to avoid the 
seasonal shrinking and expanding of typical wood 
dowel connections) and to withstand heavy use by students.

The prototype is nearly finished! Last Sunday, 7/31/22 (my goal date for having the prototype done—I nearly met that date and would have if not for my accident), I screwed together all sections to test the general fit. 

Here's the built prototype sitting in front of its purpose, the flax,
before pulling the brake completely apart to cut the blades.

On Monday, 8/1/22, I was in a friend's woodworking shop to create the blades' angled cuts. Of course, I forgot to take photos of the action in the workshop. Perhaps I'll remember photos when cutting the final maple brake. Nevertheless, here's a photo of what the angled blades look like from a side perspective:

I still need to soften the wood edges at the top of the blade angles
to allow the blades to break the flax without cutting it.

Now, an update on the flax growing experiment…

The flax has not grown substantially in height during the past few weeks.
The average flax stalk height is now 24 inches. The smaller black pots
are still lagging behind, with some being pretty short and stagnant in their growth.

It's possible the stalks may grow taller in the next month since they can reach 3 to 4 feet tall in perfect growing conditions (a field with full sun). The challenge here is they are growing in pots, which is perhaps not ideal, and the adjacent tomato plants have also been taking over their direct sun. Today, I moved the flax to a more ideal location away from the tomatoes, so now there is less competition with the sun. I'll see if that makes a difference in their future growth. There have been a few more flowers, although they have not been prolific. Perhaps that means there is more growth to come!

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Hello Little Blossom!

Two flax flower blossoms emerged on 7/13/22!

This was a surprise for me this morning. I expected the stalks to grow for at least a couple more weeks before blooming. But we are about on track for the bloom time, mid-May to mid-July. I just thought/hoped they would grow taller before blooming. So, apparently, the pots have created shorter flax stalks, now running about 23 inches tall rather than the 36 inches or more they would reach in a field. It will be interesting to see if they continue to grow taller, even while in the blooming stage.

More on the flax brake project for the ASI Teaching Tools Grant…

I intended to get my pine prototype of the tabletop flax brake in good shape last weekend. That intention went by the wayside when I had an accident while walking my dog last Saturday morning. That has put my physical life on a hiatus for a bit while I recover from lacerations and bruises that occurred from a face and body slam into an asphalt road. I hope to start back into the prototype work this weekend, body willing.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

'Tis Wise to Prototype!

I usually jump into a project with both feet—let the chips fall where they may! But in the case of the ASI Teaching Tools Grant, I thought it best to be cautious with the precious maple lumber that I have in my possession and purchased under the grant money. So, on my dime, I purchased an equal amount of pine lumber to use to create a prototype of my self-designed tabletop flax brake. 

Today, the work of cutting the lumber to size began! (Actually, it started a few days ago, but since then, I re-evaluated my measurements and decided to cut the pieces a bit smaller.)

The first cut is the scariest, 
to misquote the lyrics of Sheryl Crow.
Measure twice...

I am using an old miter saw that leaves some shards in the cuts, redeemable with good sanding paper.

The cuts are done!

This weekend, I will move on to making a space in my basement to test the special cuts needed to hold the brake's bottom blades and test out the best drill hole size and drilling technique for the screws. Fortunately, I have a drill press to make those tricky holes, some of which will need to go through a narrow width of lumber without cracking.

And back outdoors, the flax continues to grow in pots…

The tallest stalks are up to 20 inches now!

The flax plants seeded in the black pots just a week after the first flax crop continue to do poorly. They are only 6 inches at their tallest. At this point, the chance of those stalks catching up to the flax growing in the clay-colored pots is slim.

Pretty pathetic-looking plants!