Earlier this year, I came across an interesting looking one day course on the hand-processing of flax plants into linen. It was run by a small company called Flaxland, to be held at the end of July. It was months away at that time and we were still in the dark days of winter, but we booked up right away, curious to know more. The perennial question, ‘How do you do that?’ had been asked and could not be un-asked, we’d have to go and find out. People have known how to make linen for thousands of years and linen flax (Linum usitatissimum) was reputedly an important crop as far back as 7000 BCE, while the oldest preserved fibres ever found are those of flax. The dyed flax fibres were discovered in a cave in Georgia, in the Caucasus, and were dated to thirty-six thousand years ago. Not bad for so-called rock-bangers.
So we turned up on the morning of the course at a tied-farmworker’s house to be welcomed by Ann Cooper, suitably dressed in pale blue linen. We’d meet her husband Simon Cooper, the one who started it all, later in the morning. The day started with coffee and introductions. Ann wanted to know what had attracted us to the course (‘Because we like knowing how to do things’) and gave an explanation of what the day would involve. We learned strange, arcane-sounding words – retting, rippling, scutching, hackling – and by the end of the day had made them familiar through the act of doing them.
To the field, where we saw the flax growing in situ, about half an acre of it. That doesn’t sound like much, but Ann said that in the days of handworking, one acre of flax would employ two people fully for a year and having seen what’s involved in the processing, I can well believe it. To one side of the crop, bundles of stems were set out on the grass for the process called retting, in this case ‘dew retting’.
According to the wiki page ‘Retting is a process employing the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles, and so facilitating separation of the fibre from the stem’. Depending on the weather, this can take anywhere from two to several weeks.
Faster is water retting, where bundles of flax are submerged in tanks for four to six days and then laid to dry on the ground. The tank water stagnates and the flax stems come out with a smell to them that can best be described as ‘bovine’. I’ve always liked a bad smell so found this pungent reek interesting – it reminded me of the milking shed in the days when I was working on the Victorian museum farm and the cows would often react to being milked by loosing their bowels.
Anyway, back in the field, Ann showed us how to tell if the retting process is complete by taking a stem between thumb and fingers and bending it roughly back and forth. If the bark flakes off easily, leaving the inner fibres intact, then the stems can be stooked and stored away for later use.
That done, we turned to the growing plants – they had come to the end of flowering so the plants could be pulled up. I asked why they were pulled and not cut and Ann suggested we try cutting some, so we tried to with a sickle and understood why pulling is done instead of cutting – my sickle usually goes through plant matter with incredible ease, but flax stems are like wire. They didn’t cut, they just bent. Useful to know – flax is incredibly strong.
The next half hour or so was spent talking and pulling up handfuls of flax, then laying it out for retting in rows with the roots all facing the same direction. It’s done this way to make processing more efficient but the visual effect was a beautiful gradation in colours, from the brown of the roots, to the pale greens and yellows of the stems and seed pods.
Following the field work, the next stop was the barn. Here we’d learn the uses of an array of fascinating machines, all made by the skilled hands of Simon Cooper. We would ripple, scutch and hackel until our shoulders ached – read all about that in the blog to follow.