A Little History on Flax to Linen

Almost thirty years ago in 1989, Mavis Atton’s book Flax Culture: from flower to fabric was published by Ginger Press, a chronicle of Atton’s experiments growing and producing hand spun flax in Georgian Bay, Ontario. A few years later, Linda Heinrich of Vancouver Island wrote The Magic of Linen, a result of the extensive research she did for her Master Spinners Certificate; this book is still the go-to reference for growing, processing and spinning linen by hand and its second edition, retitled Linen: from flax seed to woven cloth, was released in 2010.

Pat Davidson, a spinner on Saltspring Island, has been growing flax for linen since the 1990’s and was a key mentor both for the Victoria Flax to Linen group and for us in Vancouver. The Victoria group began growing flax for linen in 2010 as part of the Transition Victoria movement; subsequently, the project took on a life of its own and the group became Flax to Linen Victoria, with their own website and a very active Facebook page that draws members from around the world.

In late 2012, Penny Coupland applied for and received a Vancouver Foundation Grant to buy seed and inputs to grow flax for linen and hire another maker to build the processing equipment here in Vancouver. Starting in 2013, partnering with Caitlin ffrench, they grew flax at Means of Production Garden and at the MacLean Park Fieldhouse and blogged about it as a ‘grow along’ for the Urban Weaver Studio Project; Penny later moved the blog to Urban Cloth Project. Concurrently in 2013, Caitlin and Sharon Kallis grew flax as the Aberthau Flax=Fibre+Food Project at West Point Grey Community Centre; and Julia Ostertag, a PhD student in the department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC, grew flax as part of her thesis. Sharon and Julia both visited the Flax to Linen Victoria group for mentorship in growing and processing; and Sharon also connected with Pat Davidson.

Sometime around then, Patricia Bishop at Taproot Farms in Nova Scotia began her quest to also address local fibre needs by recreating small-scale fully mechanized flax-to-linen processing equipment; Taproot Fibre Lab now runs a small linen-processing mill and builds their equipment for sale.

In 2014, Rebecca Graham and Brian Jones took over the Flax=Fibre+Food Project, growing more ‘Marylin’ variety and also several varieties of wheat and oats for traditional wheat weaving. Rebecca and Sharon visited with members of Flax to Linen Victoria again, and Rebecca connected with Julia Ostertag from UBC. Sharon Kallis, Tracy Williams and Mirae Rosner, inspired by a comment from a participant in the flax projects, expanded their focus on the idea of ‘urban cloth’ in the Terroir: Urban Cloth Project.

EartHand continued to grow flax at Trillium North Park and to mentor others in flax growing through 2015 and 2016. Susan Gerofsky at UBC Orchard Garden, the site of Julia Ostertag’s project, also continued to grow flax. Using daughter seed from the 2014 ‘Marilyn’ crop at Aberthau Flax=Fibre+Food, Rebecca grew a 10×10 plot of flax at a friend’s farmstead outside of Squamish in 2015; and, using the granddaughter seed, another plot at the Fraser Common Farm in 2016. All those crops have been successfully retted and processed into stricks, and spinning is underway. EartHand maintains a flax ‘reference library’ of sample stricks representing each crop year and location.

In 2017, EartHand launched the Linen Growers’ Club, a closed cohort of growers and makers who will meet monthly from March through September to grow flax at their own sites and process it into linen together.