Turning straw into gold is a magic process full of archaic terminology….
If you want to learn more, check out Raven Ranson’s new book Homegrown Linen: transforming flaxseed into fibre
The QuickStart Guide…
Grow some flax — seed in the spring as early as the ground can be worked to reduce the need for water; or seed a bit later in the spring — you’ll need to water — but germination will be more even and the crop might be taller.
Harvest — pull it out roots and all, hang it up or ‘stook’ it to dry
Ripple — take the seed heads off (or go straight to retting, if you’re not saving seed)
Rett — free the fibre from the woody stalk
Break — break the straw, leaving just the raw fibre
Scutch, Hackle — beat and comb the fibre to refine it, separating the ‘line’ from the ‘tow’
Do stuff with your fibre — spin it into yarn so you can weave or knit; or pound it into paper pulp; or…?
Break — Verb and noun, for the tool we use to shatter the flax straw out from the fibre. Better to do this on a very dry day — you want a crisp shatter, and if there’s any moisture in the air, the flax will absorb it and will make a damp sickly crunching sound without any benefit. If you don’t have a nice break to use, then you can just crush the straw with a mallet or a rock, and then do more scutching to release it.
Card — verb, ‘to card’, meaning to put tow fibre onto a set of wool carders and make a nice pouffy even mat of fibre, ready for spinning.
Comb/Brush — okay, not archaic — this is what I do with the dog slicker brushes, instead of hackling. NOT the same as carding — with carding, you ‘smear’ the tow fibres around and generally line them up, then roll them off the carder into a ‘punk’. But with
Hackle — after seeing the traditional European versions of this tool, you’ll understand why ‘raising your hackles’ was an aggressive move. The old-school tools are beds of spikes with triangular or square cross sections. Modern versions made with nails (even when each nail is painstakingly filed to a sharper point) just don’t cut it — the refining capacities of the angular cross sections of the spikes are key, unless you’re using a tool with a really fine tooth. Rebecca’s favourite tool for hackling is a dog groomers’ wire-bristled medium slicker brush — less than $10 at the pet store.
Rett — sounds like ‘rot’, right? it kinda is…. but more cooperative and with less stigma against the microbes. They do crucial work: gobbling up all the gums that bind the fibre to the woody stalk, so that you can get the fibre off more easily. But beware — if given too much time, the microbes will digest all the gums and then give way to new colonies which will digest your fibre — this is called ‘over-retting.’ However you rett your flax, make sure you have the SPACE and HEAT to dry it when it’s done!
There are three common ways of retting:
1/ dew rett — leave the flax straw lying out in the field and let the gentle wetting of the dew to allow small amounts of microbes to flourish and slowly eat the gums. Have to turn it once or twice, since the underside of the flax will always be more damp. Have to keep an eye on the weather — don’t want to have all your flax in the field and then be facing a week of rain.
2/ Tarp rett — lay the flax straw out and soak it with a garden hose once or twice a day
Ripple — Verb and noun, for the tool used to remove the seed heads from the flax before retting, when you’re saving seed (or avoiding rodents while storing). Basically a big metal comb with teeth just far enough apart to catch the seed bobbles and decapitate them from the stalks.
Scutch — basically means ‘scrape off all the rest of the straw that didn’t get freed from breaking’. I’ve never got the hang of the traditional European tool for this — it’s a slanted board with something like a big wooden bread knife to beat/scrape the straw bits off. I prefer a nice smooth metal tool edge, like a dull shovel or hoe, or even a sharp table edge.
Tow — The ‘B’ grade fibre, the short stuff left over in the hackles after you’ve got your nice strick of line. Ideally it’s mostly free of bits of straw (because you did a really thorough, tidy job of breaking and scutching, right?) and can be carded and spun for knitting or weft.