Saturday, September 9, 2023

Interview: Shirley Walker on Growing and Harvesting Flax in New England

 Processing flax is difficult and so is life.  Don’t give up trying if there is something you want to do.”       ---Shirley Walker, 2023

 Editor’s NoteTranscribed by Sydney Rue, History and Museum Studies MA Graduate Student and Flax Project Research Assistant. Held on site at the Newmarket Historical Society, June 28, 2023This is a condensed and lightly edited version of a longer talk with Shirley Walker. Care was taken to transcribe and convey the essence of the speaker. 

Shirley Walker: Hello, my name is Shirley. I am 87 years old, and I have Parkinson's disease. Previously, I planted and processed flax at Canterbury Shaker Village, the New Hampshire Farm Museum, and at home. I brought some things to refresh my memory. Now, to begin with, you cannot grow flax with the purpose of producing fiber from any old seed. You need special varieties such as Linum usitatissimum

SW: Next, I planted the seeds in the middle of May, once they would be safe from frost. When sowing the seeds, you do not need to tamp them down. You just rake a little dirt over them. Ideally, the soil should be enriched. The flax I grew in my garden benefited from the vegetables I grew in the same soil. At the New Hampshire Farm Museum, the small patch we grew the flax in was wonderfully enriched. You should always sow the seeds by scattering. Please tell me that you didn’t plant in rows? 

Kimberly Alexander: Yes, we planted by scattering. 

SW: Good! You don’t want side branching, by planting the flax close together it grows straight. In the end, the flax should be three to four feet tall. Four feet is lovely. It should be about the size of a yard stick. 

SW: Once the plants are a couple weeks old, you can step on them without worrying about damaging them. Any really big weeds should be removed. 

SW: Harvesting happens 90 to 100 days after planting. The exact date depends on the amount of sun, rain, and the soil quality that the flax is planted in. Once the flowers bloom, you should wait around thirty days to harvest. They don’t last long. The stock should be turning brown, and only a couple of flowers should be left in the field. 

SW: When you harvest, you pull the flax out of the ground by its stock. You never want to cut it because the fibers continue into the roots. In order to get the best quality fiber, you have to pull it. You just grab small handfuls of the flax and pull it up. 

SW: Once harvested, you need to dry the flax. Stooking allows the flax to dry because the air can flow through the bundles. You take the flax and lean it against one another [mimes a triangular shape]. 

Sydney Rue: Like when you arrange kindling for a campfire? 

SW: Exactly. That’s the first round of drying. Next, you remove the seeds with a ripple. You just draw the flax through the teeth of the ripple and the seeds fall off. Those seeds are not good for sowing because you harvested them before they could fully ripen. If you want to plant the seeds you grew, you need to leave some flax planted until the stock is dry. 

SW: The seeds aren't fully clean at this point. I would catch the seeds with a tarp and then dance on them. Flax seeds are strong. When I put them through my blender to make flaxseed meal, some seeds survive. Don’t worry about damaging them. I never did this, but you can wait for a windy day and throw the seeds into the air. The seeds are heavy and will fall to the ground, but the excess fiber will be blown away. 

SW: Next is retting. There are two types: dew and water retting. When I grew flax at home, I used the water retting method. I filled a tub with water and submerged the flax in it with a weight to hold it down. Enzymes will break down the hard outer layer of the flax and leave the fibers unharmed. At Canterbury Shaker Village, we did dew retting. There was enough space to lay out the flax in the fields there. Once a week, I would turn the flax over for six to seven weeks. Water retting takes only a couple of days. To prevent the water from becoming putrid, I would change out a third of the water every day. 

SW: You’ll know if the fibers have finished retting by taking a stock and snapping it. If the fibers break, it is too late you’ve lost the fiber. Water retting is risky because if it is hot the enzymes work faster. The flax can go from being fine to too far gone within a couple hours. I would check it every couple hours to make sure it was okay. Experimentation is important. If it doesn’t come out the first time, there is always next time. 

SW: Finally, you dry the flax again by stooking it. Before you can finish processing it, it has to be dry. Once it's dry, you don’t have to work with it right away. You can leave it in storage. 

SW: Before you begin breaking the flax, you should check several samples to make sure it's ready. When you put the flax into the flax break, you hold it by the roots and the end of the stock goes in the break. You move the flax slowly through the break. After you finish the first pass, you might have to repeat the process. This releases the boon and the good long fiber. 

SW: Next you use a scutching knife, a wooden blade, to scrape off the wooden outside pieces of the flax. This releases the fibers. Scutching is a long and tiring process. 

SW: Then with heckling combs, the fibers get pulled straight and clean. You use finer and finer combs to remove debris and tow from the fibers. For the finer flax, you can use wool combs. 

SW: From there, the fibers are attached to a distaff. A friend and I went to Vermont and a gentleman made us large new distaffs for spinning the flax. You spread the long fibers out in an incredibly thin layer on a table. More and more thin layers are added until you roll the distaff onto them and secure the fibers to the tool. This orients the fibers for spinning. 

SW: I never got the hang of this method. Instead, I preferred to gather smaller amounts of fiber and comb them straight. You place a towel–a thin towel made of cotton or fittingly linen– horizontally across your lap along with the fiber and roll it up until you have a bundle. 

SW: When you spin flax, you should always have a bowl of water next to you so you can wet your hands. 

SR: Do you need a special wheel to spin flax? 

SW: No, you don’t need a double-flyer flax wheel. You can use a normal or a great wheel–the wheels that you operate standing up. 

SW: Once you have some yarn spun, wind it off into a loop and scour it. Scouring removes the oils and pectin from the linen. You add the spun fiber to boiling water with Borax or soda ash and dish soap. Scoured linen is brighter and softer to the touch. 

SW: Weaving linen is a process. It wants to break. You should never weave linen in front of a fire or other heat source as that will dry out the fiber and weaken it. The fibers have to be moist. You should spray the fibers with water as you weave them but be careful not to oversaturate the fibers or they might mildew. 

SW: At Canterbury Shaker Village and New Hampshire Farm Museum I would come in and do weaving and spinning demonstrations. For more information on weaving, look into New Hampshire Spinners & Dyers Guild and Northeast Hand Spinners Association. Both organizations put on events each year. Don’t be afraid to look into different guilds and don’t be afraid to go. 

SW: Processing flax is difficult and so is life. Don’t give up trying if there is something you want to do. 


Thank you to Shirley Walker and the Newmarket Historical Society for assisting us with our research.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Exhibition Spotlight: 18th Century Stays from the Kensington Historical Society

 O n View in 'Combing History: Flax and Linen in New Hampshire'  at the Woodman Museum, Dover, NH.   By Kimberly Alexander   What we...