Flax Drying

Growing and Processing Flax

I wanted to make a new linen underdress.  In shopping around locally, the best price that I was able to find for linen was $38.00 per yard, which was not within my budget for the project.  This led to the decision find out how to make my own linen.  It was already May (optimum planting being in April) when I planted my flax, but I was hopeful the small crop would make it.  I knew the crop would not yield enough fabric for an entire underdress, the main goal was to harvest the knowledge for later attempts.  While the flax was drying and soaking, I passed the time by building a warp weighted loom and spinning wheel.


Flax Drying

Flax Drying



Flax, which is used to make linen, has been significant since ancient times because the fibers are strong and smooth.  By 1000 CE, flax was growing throughout Western Europe.


The flax plant grows 3 to 4 feet tall and can be grown in any temperate climate.  The seeds should be sewn in April and have a growing period of three months.  Growing flax does not require a lot of ground and the best flax is generally grown very close together so as to produce a straight single stem. The difference in the colors of the fiber is a result of environment and processing techniques.

When I decided to begin this project, I purchased a long thin window box planter made of plastic, hoping that it would keep the plants close and straight, and be useful later on in the process of retting.  I planted seeds from the health food section of the local grocery store in soil that I purchased in a bag from the local hardware store in mid May and crossed my fingers.  Growing healthy plants is not generally one of my gifts.  I was totally thrilled when this worked!  Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of my flax while it was growing.


Flax should be harvested when the bottom of the plant stem turns yellow and before it comes to seed.   If you need seeds for the next season, wait until they come to seed before harvesting.  When you are ready, the plant should be pulled up along with the roots since the fibers run from the roots to the tip.

I harvested the plants in mid August.  It was pretty easy to pull the plants up, since the soil in the box was loose and there wasn’t much of it.  I pulled out the plants, dusted off the soil, and added the soil to a useful place around my house so that the planting box could be used in a later step.


Once the flax has been harvested, it is tied in bundles and dried. There are different methods of drying, some place it in barns, others on racks, some hang it from rafters in their homes and in Sweden, they use their sauna cabins to dry it.

I divided my flax plants into two bundles and tied them up to dry on my front porch for a week.

Flax Dried

Flax Dried



Once the flax is dry dry, it is drawn through a rake like object called a rippling comb to remove the leaves (which you don’t want) and any seed pods (which you may want).  The seeds can be saved for next years sowing.

For rippling, I put several staggered rows of long nails over about an 8” section of a 2×4.  The leaves came off well, but I didn’t get very many seeds – I think if it had been allowed to grow longer there would have been more.

Flax Ripple / Hackle

Flax Ripple / Hackle



The flax fibers are lying around a central woody stem and covered by an outer layer of bark.  To separate these layers the flax can be either dew retted or water retted.

Dew Retting

For dew retting, the flax is spread out on the ground in a thin layer, or placed between racks on the ground, which makes turning over the flax easier. To obtain an even retting of the flax, it has to be turned at least once during a retting period.  Several times each day the flax is sprinkled with water. The sprinkling of the water continues for 10 to 21 days depending on temperature and humidity.

Dew retted flax is typically darker than water retted flax, ranging from silvery grey to almost black. Since mold does the retting job, there are mold spores left on the fibers. They will come loose and spread around in the air when the flax is further prepared. This is a disadvantage to dew retting.  Although the surrounding air can be rather rank this a preferred method to water retting which pollutes the local drinking water.

Gervase Markham in The English Hous-wife calls this “a vile and naughty way of ripening, it making the hemp or flax black, rough, and often rotten.”

Water Retting

For water retting, dry flax bundles are placed in soft clear water in warm weather for 7 to 14 days; in colder weather longer is needed because decomposition is slower.  The water temperature affects the color of the fibers as well as what the flax is weighted down with.  Ponds, ditches, rivers or vats were all used for water retting.  Various items could be used for weights:  stone, peat, barrels, earth, etc.

Placing flax in slowly moving water prevents the fibers from becoming discolored by the presence of the decomposing vegetable matter, so that less severe bleaching is needed at a later stage, however it pollutes the water.

With water retting, the flax is immersed completely in water and bacteria does the job of getting the fibers loose from the stem. The resulting flax is typically lighter in color than dew retted flax.  The mold problem does not exist in this case, but on the other hand the smell is not very pleasant.

Due to the water pollution, Henry VIII made a law that stated “No person shall water hemp or flax in any river… where beasts are used to be watered on pain of forfeiting, for every time so doing, 20 shillings”.

Belgium from the 10th century was noted for fine fabrics, and it was also noted for the Golden River of Lys. This river was so polluted by flax retting that the water was turned to a golden color. The gold of this river also refers to the money that can be made from producing linen.


I chose water retting, using the window box that I had used for growing the flax.  I put both bundles of flax in the window box, and covered them with water.  To keep them from floating, I filled a square ziplock container with water to weight them down.  I changed the water once to avoid the smell that my sources said would develop and I never had a problem with odor.

Flax Water Retting

Flax Water Retting


Retting Results

For both of the retting methods it is important to stay in the temperature range where the microorganisms can live and do their job and to carefully check on the retting progress.

When you think the retting is almost completed, take out samples at least once a day (sometimes more often) and estimate the degree of retting, and how it is proceeding.

To check the retting, a few straws are taken out and are left to dry completely in a warm place.   When dry, break them a couple of times and remove the stem to get hold of the fibers then pull off the fibers from the stem.  When the retting process is complete the fibers should come off with some force all the way down to the root and all the way up to the top. If the flax seems ready, also try the knot test.

With all fibers from one straw, tie a knot. Place your hands on each side of the knot about 6” apart snatch off the bunch of fibers. They should burst straight off, and the fiber ends should look like a brush.

If the force to loosen the fibers is too high, the flax needs more time to rett. If the flax is under retted, parts from the stem will stay on the fibers all the way through the further processes.  On the other hand, if the fibers come off almost by themselves, the retting has already gone too far.  Over retting will make the fibers weak, or even break them up into shorter mono fibers that are impossible to spin.

After 7 days I began testing the retting.  After 3 more days it looked to me as if it was done (but based on my results, I don’t think it was done yet.)  I broke open the bundles, spread them out and let them dry.


Second Drying

Once the flax has reached the appropriate rotted stage it is important to have it dry as fast as possible or the retting might continue.  If it does not dry completely or has been made damp again by the humidity it will not break well.

The fibers were dry in one day, but I left them drying for a total of 3 days just to be sure.

Flax Second Drying

Flax Second Drying



The next process is to break or crush the remaining outer hull without damaging the inner fibers. When the straws are crushed, many of particles from the stems will fall off.  It is important that the flax straw be kept root end together, this helps to produce a much smoother yarn during the spinning process.

Until the 14 century, flax was laid out on wooden tables and beaten with wooden mallets, wooden stakes, or spoons. Enough force was used to break the outer hull but care had to be used so that damage was not done to the fibers.  In the 14th century, the Danish breaker was introduced. This instrument has two or three parallel bars fixed on two uprights with a wooden blade attached. This blade is used in a chopping motion to break the outer hull of the flax.


 Scutching or Swingling

Scutching is the removal of the broken core and bark to expose the fine flaxen fiber.  A handful of broken flax is held by the root ends and the fibers are beaten down against the side of a board with a wooden blade.  The bundle is then reversed so that the root ends can receive similar treatment until all but the fibers are beaten away.  If retting has been incomplete, the heavy scutching required will weaken the flax fibers and cause much waste; the fibers of over retted flax will also suffer at this stage and will break into short lengths.

For the breaking and scutching, I used my hands instead of building these tools.  If I were to do lots of flax processing, I would use a break.  It would make the job much easier and do it more completely.



Take the flax and lay it in a trough and beat it until it is soft and pliant as described in breaking.


Hackling is the final process before spinning. It is the removal of the final remaining bits of flax straw and all short fibers, which are called tow.

There should be three to four sets of hackles, which look like a bed of nails.  They range from very coarse to very fine.  The flax fibers are gently flicked over the coarsest hackle first until no coarse fibers can be removed from the fibers held in the hand. Don’t allow the flax to go all the way down to the bottom or too many of the fibers will be lost.  This process is repeated with the remaining hackles using only the fiber remaining in your hand. Keep flicking and drawing the fiber through the various hackles until the fiber remaining in your hand is of a smooth and consistent length.

Flax Ripple / Hackle

Flax Ripple / Hackle


I used the same nailed 2 x 4 used for rippling to do the first step of the hackling.  I should have done more breaking, scutching and some beating before this step.  I lost lots of fiber at this stage because there was too much of the bark and woody center left clinging to the fiber.  After the 2 x 4, I picked some of the bark out by hand and used a metal dog comb to remove the rest.  Once I started using the comb on the flax as I would use it on my own hair instead of flicking the flax through the comb, it worked very well.  I wish I had thought of that earlier in the process.


The fiber remaining in your hand is called a line, strick, hank or lint of flax. This is the best fiber possible and is said to be wonderful to spin.  This fiber is set aside and then the fiber remaining in the hackles is removed and the hackling process is repeated. This second batch of fiber is called tow and can be used for sacking, candle wicks, tow ropes and other similar coarse materials.

The straw remaining was used in bedding and is said to repel fleas and lice.


At the end I had a very small amount of fiber, but it is soft, smooth and a beautiful golden color.  I didn’t spin this flax since there was so little of it.

Sadly, my small, treasured bit of fiber went missing at the competition that this article was written for.  On the good side, I won !

I have learned many things by doing this project.   Firstly, I can grow a plant to maturity without killing it!  I don’t have very good luck with plants and expected this experiment to end pretty quickly.  Using the flower box for growing and soaking was a good idea and worked very well, although my crop was very small.  If you plan on doing a lot of this, get a break.  I haven’t used one, but doing it by hand is a great deal of work, and doesn’t help to soften the fiber as much.  Treat the fiber like hair and not like twigs and it will come out beautifully.  I don’t think I will try this experiment again, but I am glad that I did it once.  It gives me a great appreciation for the people who did it.

About The Author

Helene Jacobs

Helene Jacobs, author of the Ancient Wire jewelry making series, specializes in recreating ancient jewelry from many different cultures. She gives her readers detailed instructions for creating beautiful historic jewelry and shows them where they can learn more about the history of the pieces. As she finds new information on the artifacts in her books, Helene updates her websites, www.AncientWire.com & www.HeleneJacobs.com . Helene has been researching history for over 30 years and has received several awards from a worldwide historical organization. At the request of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Helene created a replica of a 2500 year old necklace from the Mysterious Bog People exhibit. Helene has always had a passion for creating, figuring things out and teaching. As soon as she discovered techniques to make beautiful jewelry simply, she began teaching classes. Her class handout evolved into her first book, Ancient Wire, an instructional book for creating chains and other items of jewelry with the method variously known as Viking wire weaving, Viking chain knitting or Viking knit. Ancient Wire II followed, demonstrating how to make timeless items that are still beautiful today, but were originally created over 1000 years ago. These books can be found on her web site www.AncientWire.com or at www.amazon.com/author/helenejacobs , and will be joined by other books in the Ancient Wire series. Helene's latest book is How to Make Your Own Kick Spindle Spinning Wheel For Spinning Fiber into Yarn. The designs presented in this book can be easily customized to fit your needs; several of the Kick Spindle Spinning Wheel designs are adapted from historical examples and artwork. There are even options for doing more than just spinning with your Kick Spindle Spinning Wheel, like using it to wind balls of yarn. After traveling extensively with her military family, Helene settled in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, father, and fluffy dog, where she likes to relax with her friends over a good cup of coffee, and update her blog www.AncientWireBlog.com with her various crafty endeavors. Though it takes just a few tools to make the jewelry described in her books, Helene has an embarrassingly large collection of pliers. Helene had to test designs for her book How to Make Your Own Kick Spindle Spinning Wheel, which resulted in an embarrassingly large collection of spinning wheels and fiber. :-)

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field