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!


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

There is a Reason for the Madness

You may have wondered why I have been so intent on the flax-growing experiment this summer. I had a reason, but I wasn't sure the reason would come true. It has.

I am happy to announce that I am one of three awardees of a Cultivating Nordic Handcraft, Teaching Tools 2022 Grant from the American Swedish Institute! The grant allows me to purchase the wood to make a tabletop flax brake and 3 gradated hackles for processing flax, ultimately for spun linen. I will use these tools in flax processing and spinning classes and/or demonstrations and presentations at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis and for classes and presentations at other venues. Up to now, I have been using vintage, rough tools for these activities, with no means of fully processing the flax to a spinning state. 

Obviously, this grant is so welcome, and it means an exciting year ahead for my work and what I can offer to others interested in flax and linen handcrafting. 

And it's a reason for trying to grow flax that might ultimately be better prepared than the flax stalks I poorly retted and still have in storage from a past flax growing experiment at Gale Woods Farm (an educational farm that is part of the Three Rivers Park District and where I occasionally teach). 

And, perhaps, this year's experimental potted crop will lead others to grow their own flax in pots or in garden plots? Or it will at least be a lesson on what NOT to do!

One of the potted stalks is already 16 inches tall!

Monday, June 27, 2022

Don't Fence Me In!

Over the weekend, I tried some methods of containing the potted flax so it may grow more upright. I put tomato cages into the pots and had the "brilliant" idea to add some nylon netting to further contain the stalks. Hmmm...

NOT happy, flax!

It really didn't like being contained within the netting. The stalks bunched together and were so miserable that I could almost feel it! So, I took off the netting...

Happy flax!

It didn't take long for the stalks to reach back up to the heavens when they were released from the netting prison. Lesson learned. Flax likes its freedom. I will keep the tomato cages, though. They will give the stalks something to lean on as they get taller without constraining them too much. I may also be forced to thin the crop a bit. I am always hesitant to cull growing plants, although I know it can help the remaining plants grow more vigorously. But, I will need a tweezer to get into the pot and thin them. Oh, why didn't I do this earlier in the growing cycle? They need to be densely planted, but at some point, they also need room for their roots to grow. To not cull them may risk killing the entire crop. (There is a more profound lesson about life to be learned here. Enough of the heavy, though.)

There has been, perhaps, another benefit of growing the potted flax crop. The potted cherry tomato plants standing behind the flax are growing like monsters this year! 

Giant tomatoes.

They are easily 8 feet tall, and it's only the end of June. Typically, my potted tomatoes grow nearly this tall by the end of the season, which would be in 2 more months. Perhaps they enjoy growing beside the flax? Do they have long conversations about life and reaching the sun? Or is there some plant-to-plant competition going on here? 😉

In a few days, I will be blogging about some exciting news regarding the subject of flax and the next year. Keep in touch!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Measuring Up After One Month

It's been four weeks since the first crop of flax was sown, and it is averaging between 7 and 8 inches in height. That's good progress!

The First Crop at One Month

The crop that was sown a week after the first is between 4 and 5 inches in height. The overall seed germination rate remained less in that crop than the first, but what did come up is doing well.

The Second Crop at Three Weeks

At issue now… I don't think self-support of the stalks will work in a potted environment to keep them from falling over when watered and in the general breeze. If they were in a mass in a field, they would have natural vertical support as they lean on each other. I believe I need to create a support structure as they continue to grow in height, or they will continue to fall over and have a crooked stalk which is not ideal for flax fiber. 

So, onward to developing a support plan for the pots!

Monday, June 6, 2022

Timing is Everything?

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post and the flax is actively growing. The first pots of flax are flourishing. The second planting, not so much. So, why, is the question?

The first planting, on the left, is crazy healthy. The second planting, in the black pots on the right, was planted only a week after the first crop. The soil is from the same potting soil bag, and the planting depth is the same. The only two variables between the plantings are the pots being black and the seeds having been planted a week later, in late May. Did the soil get too warm in the black pots for the seeds to germinate correctly? Did perhaps just one week later in the month make a difference in the seeds' viability? It's curious. I am leaning towards a combination of warmer soil and later planting as the problem. Flax likes cool weather for germination, just past frost. Late May in Minnesota is pushing the limit. Even though this May has been quite cool overall, the sun is at a higher angle and that may be a bit too much for robust flax germination. I will assume that just one week can make a difference in the final outcome. I see the lesson being: plant just after the danger of a hard frost—typically mid-May in Minnesota. Don't wait until the end of May in this latitude! It will be interesting to see if the last planting grows any differently as the season progresses.


Last spring, I planted some ornamental flax down by our county road and it is starting to bloom already! Note that this is NOT fiber flax (which is an annual plant) but a perennial ornamental version. The flowers are similar, blue, with 5-petals, but the stalk grows to a much shorter height and has multiple leaves as you can see in the bottom right. (Ignore the large leaf in the middle, the fine, lacey leaves on the right are from the flax plant.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Baby Flax!

Look what I found yesterday morning! The first flax seedlings in my garden pot experiment popped their little heads out of the soil in the early light of May 24th. They germinated in exactly 7 days. Cute little guys! It's hard to believe these tiny things will hopefully become about 36-inch tall stalks at full growth. 

Oh my, how they grow!

As of this morning, May 25th, the pot is full of little green heads. Although fiber flax likes to be densely grown to produce the straightest stalks and fewer flowers (fewer flowers mean fewer breaks in the final flax fiber), I will definitely be culling a few as they grow.

To continue the experiment with a staggered start, I seeded 4 new pots yesterday, so now I have a total of 8 pots of flax to tend and watch grow for the summer.

A question to put out there… do deer eat flax plants? There was a deer in our driveway this morning. Uh oh. Some research is in order!

Thursday, May 19, 2022

A New Experiment in Growing Flax – in moveable pots!

I am making another attempt to grow fiber flax (Linum usitatissimum) at Saga Hill. Flax requires quite a lot of sun to flourish, and my previous attempt to grow flax in my garden created very meager plants due to the lack of full sunlight. So this time, I am using portable pots. The pots will allow me to move the plants into more direct sunlight as the light direction changes through the summer. Since the root structure of flax is quite short, there should be plenty of room for their full growth in the 12-inch deep pots. 

I purchased the seeds from (a Canadian seed firm). They arrived a bit late (due to COVID delivery issues from Canada and supply issues) but still in time to plant, considering our late spring this year in Minnesota.

I broadcast the seeds in the pots (sprinkled them liberally) and put about 1/4 inch of potting soil on top. They are supposed to take 2 weeks to germinate. I plan to have a second planting in a few days as a fall-back crop and see how the planting time might affect the growth and harvesting timeline. A thorough weeding occurs when the plants are 6–8 inches tall. I may need to stake them for support as they grow, but that remains to be seen. About 60 days after planting, flowers will appear, but for only a day. When the flower petals drop off, seed pods form, and 80–100 days after planting, the stalks will be ready for harvesting (by pulling, not cutting!).

I am eager to see where this experiment goes. If the plants make their full growth, I will rett (rot/soften) the flax properly in a puppy pool rather than in snow as I did last time with the Gale Woods Farm experimental flax crop. Snow-retting was not a very stable process!

I'll continue to blog on the progress, so keep in touch!

BTW… My previous blogging site is still up at although I am not updating it with new posts.