In my modern life I am a professional horticulturalist. I became interested in growing flax about 4 or 5 years ago. I felt it was a good way to combine my modern profession with my passion for historical reenactment. I wanted to put myself to the test and see if I could grow decent flax plants that could be processed into useable thread for weaving.
I purchased seed from Richter’s seed out of Canada. I was ready to get my patch of ground ready. It was March which is the preferred time to sew flax. It requires cooler temperatures to grow well.
I cleared the ground and tilled the soil. The seed was sewn in rows 15 feet long and 12 inches apart. There were 12 rows. The seed germinated well and had a good start. When the first sets of true leaves came out on the plants, the rabbits ate them down to the first seedling leaves. The weeds took over and the plants never did recover. This was the end my first attempt. I did learn from this, so not a complete loss.
The next year, I planted the flax in 5 large nursery pots to avoid the rabbits. It did grow well, and I had my first harvest. I dried the plants and the retted it in large tubs I had. Retting is when you soak the bundles of plant shafts in water to rot away the outer shaft exposing the bast fibers, making it easier to separate. After I felt I had retted it long enough, I dried the shafts so they could be broken to expose the fibers. Once dry I was able to use a borrowed flax break. I went ahead and used the break and broke all the bundles that I had. Once home I tried to separate the shaft from the fibers but as it turns out, I had not retted the bundles of flax long enough. Having prematurely broken it all, there was no way to save this. Attempt number two was a wash. Again, I did learn from this, so not a loss at all.
At this point, I was out of seed and had to order more. This took longer than was anticipated so I waited. Seed came just over a year later.
My third attempt was in 2017. I built a raised bed so I would not have so many weeds and so I could cage it with chicken wire to protect the plants from the rabbits. It was 120 square feet. I planted it in rows about 1 foot apart. The flax grew strong and was a perfect crop. This time I also quit watering it about 3 weeks before it was harvested.
I waited until the seeds had begun to turn brown and then harvested. I pulled the flax up, holding on at the base to get the root. I bundled it into 4-inch bundles and propped it up on the chicken wire to dry. The weather was dry and warm so that was good. I let it dry for 3 weeks until it was good and dry. I then retted all the bundles for 7, maybe 8 days and then dried it.
This time I only tested a few shafts to check and see if they had been retted long enough. I realized that, once again I had not retted it long enough. The fibers would not separate. The weather was turning cold, so I had to store it in a dry place until the next summer when it would be warm to ret it again.
I then retted the shafts for 5 more days, checking daily to get the right result. I had been taught that there is way that the fiber snaps letting you know that it is finished. When I felt that I had gotten there, I pulled all the bundles and set them to dry. Once dry I had been storing it until I had the time and the tools to process what I had grown. Thankfully, fibers do not go “bad” and I have been able to store the bundles.
I really wanted to use traditional methods when I first started to grow, process, spin, dye, and weave linen. Even if only made one small piece of fabric, I wanted my process to be historical. Learning the tools and techniques of the past was fascinating to me.
During this time, I became more involved in living history and wanted to try and find out more about how flax would have been processed during my chosen persona’s time in the 10th century in Iceland.
In my research, I found that the flax break was not in wide use until the 14th century. There is evidence of examples of breaks before the Viking age, only two have been documented. According to Behr (2000) a break from Poland is mentioned by Nyberg in one paper dated to 800 AD (Nyberg 1967) and another to 1000 AD (Nyberg 1989). It is not entirely sure if they are the same break. The use of such in Iceland was not much of a possibility.
I continued to search to find documentation on the way flax was processed in the 10th century. I found the Ribe Viking Center and the University of Denmark (Esbjerg 2011) research paper ‘Flax to Linen’. In the paper on page 27, I found the reference to the “flax club” or “mallet” Their paper referred to the clubs that were found in the Oseberg Ship burial. The clubs were found alongside other tools used in fiber production giving them context.
The second reference I found is in the book “Icelanders in the Viking Age” by William R. Short. In chapter 8, Manufacture and Trade. On page 111. Flax fibers were separated by “beating the stems with a wooden beating tool”. Also, with a mention of the tools found in the Oseberg Ship burial.
The mallet was also mentioned in the archaeological finds from Bergan (Byrggen) dating back to late medieval period.
At this point, I felt confident enough about the ‘flax mallet’ to proceed in procuring one. My first mallet was made by Master Sven Redbeard, OL. We used branch wood and put it together using 2 pieces. The handle being glued into the mallet. The mallet worked quite well until the handle came loose from the beating.
I when realized I needed one made of a single piece of wood. I was lucky to have a neighbor with a wood lathe. I asked if he could make me one. He had made a mallet as a school project that he gave me. The handle was a bit big, so he made the handle smaller to better fit my hand.
For the surface to beat the flax against, I came across a reference of a log with a ‘V’ cut thru the middle of the top. I have not been able to find where I got this from. Beating the stems against a large rock or flat log of wood were mentioned in the Ribe Viking Center document as well. The ‘V’ cut sounded like the best idea and it has worked well for me. So, at this point the V shape is conjectural.
My first hackle (comb for removing the shaft from the fiber) was made by Master Sven Redbeard, OL. The nails are hand forged by Sven. It was perfect for the first combing.
For a fine hackle I found an antique one online from the east coast. I was exactly what I need. After using it as a second comb in my process it left the fibers almost completely clean. Leaving me with good fiber that is now ready to spin into thread.
At this point the weather was turning wet and my window for working outside is past until a dry spell comes along.
My goal is to be able to break all the remaining shafts and begin the spinning process in spring of 2021.
More places to see my work:
“Icelanders in the Viking Age” by William R. Short
From Flax to Linen: Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Center by
Bo Ejstrund, Stina Andreson, Amanda Appel, Sara Gjerlevsen, Birqit Thomsen
Edited by: Bo Ejstrund
Processing Flax with Simple tools