Monday, January 7, 2013

How easy is it to grow flax? Your questions answered!

Sara von Tresckow of The Woolgatherers has very kindly sent me some overview thoughts on the whole linen growing process. She has been growing, processing and working with flax and linen for many years, and her help is like having someone who can spin (flax) straw into gold (linen) thread as a mentor.

If you’re thinking of growing some flax in 2013 but are wondering how much work is involved and how difficult it will be, here’s what she had to say in reply to my many questions regarding soil preparation and planting:

You are way overintellectualizing this whole process. As is typical for folks in N. America who have never done this, the emphasis is on "just the perfect plot and fertilizer, etc".

You should start hanging loose now. When we send out flax seed, we include an instruction sheet written by Virginia Parslow who once worked at the museum in Cooperstown, NY. She states that nearly every third flax crop planted by colonists went bad. The success rate by professionals is also not 100%.

Since flax does not like excess nitrogen, and we modern folk tend to overdo on nutrients, your intended patch **
is surely going to work. It just might happen , though, that you do everything correctly and nature does not cooperate - and you just have to be ready to try again.

This is something like learning to bake where you need experience to have good success and to know what success is, you need to experience at least difficulty if not some failings.

In preparation, I'd advise looking and touching commercial linen thread and fabric, visiting museums with vintage linen pieces - to get an idea of what you'd like to achieve.

What you really need to pay attention to are following:
  1. Location and moisture - flax likes to be shrouded in moisture during the
    growing season. Proximity to a body of water is helpful. The group in Green
    Bay had a plot near Lake Michigan that worked better than our backyard that
    is inland. A low spot collects the dew better than a spot that is elevated.
    Artificial watering, etc. is not ideal - the plant likes to have the right
    conditions supplied by nature.
  2. Location and wind - flax likes to lodge quickly. Better than trace
    elements and other weird stuff - do as I read in a 19th century German
    book - for small plots put a chickenwire fence around the plot - 80cm if no
    deer, higher if deer are present. Using baling twine, crisscross the plot in
    an x - binding the twine on the corner fence posts. This keeps wildlife out
    and the flax upright. Naturally some sort of windbreak ahead of your plot -
    in the prevailing wind direction will also be helpful.
  3. Weeding barefoot at 10cm plant height is IMPERATIVE!!! If you miss weeds
    at this point, there is no going back to get them later.
  4. Seed density at sowing influences fiber fineness. If the plants are too
    far apart, the fibers will grow stronger and somewhat coarses. Thickly sown,
    the fiber is finer - to a point - where it becomes weak and unusable.
    Usually with hand sowing you get mixed density - just sort the plants a bit
    at harvest time to put similar stalks together.
Hope this is as helpful to all you soon to be flax growers as it was for me.

Makes the process look way less daunting, and I'm now prepared for potential failure if the weather doesn't co operate this year.


**  This is the plot that Caitlin ffrench is going to grow at Means of Production garden



  1. Come join the Victoria linen project on facebook. We grew an acre of flax last year. I have grown flax for 3 years in my back garden. It is easy. No fear required. As long as there is warm soil and 100 days left in the growing season you can sow and grow it. So if you sow any time from March to the end of June, you can get a crop.

    1. Thanks for the helpful encouragement to potential growers, Brian. Come on everybody, ask your friends if they want to grow some flax this year. You could be giving homegrown linen hankies for Christmas presents this year. How cool (no global warming!)would that be?