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Two More Years of Distancing? That’ll Take Patience.

Let’s practice some serious patience by growing flax together.

old lady in polka dot dress sitting in dry-weeds field with sour expression
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I always remember the perseverance of the people who lived before industrialization, where everything was done by hand, and people worked all day from before sunup to after sundown.

covered wagon beside a campfire, reflected in a lake
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

My great-grandma crossed the American plains in a covered wagon when she was a little girl. Her family settled in Idaho in a spot with good soil and a river nearby, but it was a week’s journey by buggy to the nearest general store. If the family wanted some cloth for a new shirt or dress, first they had to plant the flax. (They could afford flax seeds, but they couldn’t afford cotton cloth.)

But before they could plant the seeds, they had to clear the land. They could use some of the land that had been planted with alfalfa in the fall, and just turn it over gently after the crop was harvested in spring. It takes two acres of land to grow enough flax to make enough cloth for a family’s clothing and bedding needs for one year.

In those days, flax would have been the best choice because it’s easy to grow and seed was easy to get. All it needs is full sun every day and a little rain. Cotton requires warm weather and was mostly grown in the South where there were slaves to do the labor-intensive work.

So, let’s say you plant your flaxseed in mid-March or early April, but it’s not too late to start now. You sow it by scattering the seed broadcast and then stepping on it gently to make sure it’s connected with the soil. The flowers arrive in two months, so you’ll be looking at a pretty field of blue, pink or white flowers by mid-May or early June. You can harvest between 80–100 days, so late June to early July, or early September if you’re just starting now.

field of flax with blue flowers
Photo by Kouji Tsuru on Unsplash

You don’t need any tools to harvest flax, because it has to be pulled up by the roots to preserve the inner fiber intact. You harvest on a sunny day and pull the seed heads off with a rake, called rippling. Then you lay the plants down evenly on the ground, because you need dew and soil microbes to break down and partly rot the outer husks. This is called retting, and is the most important step in the process. Once the plants are a little soft, you have to dry them out again by bundling loosely and hanging in a barn, if you have one.

unpainted wooden barn with lean-to and detached outhouse
Photo by Tim Peterson on Unsplash

My grandma’s family built a small multi-use building: the animals were kept downstairs, the people slept in the loft upstairs, and there was a little lean-to outside for cooking. I think my grandma’s family had two horses for the buggy, and maybe one cow for milk and to pull a plow to till the other crops.

When the flax is dry, it’s time to gently break open the stalks by a crimping method called scutching. You take two boards and place them parallel on a table about two inches apart, then hold a small amount of flax in your nondominant hand so it crosses both boards. With your dominant hand, grab a smoothed wooden paddle about an inch wide and six inches tall(called the scutching knife) and gently chop down across the flax into the empty slot, then lift the knife, pull the flax a little further with your other hand and chop again, until the whole length has been scutched. Now do that for all the flax you have.

Hackling is next. You take a handful of scutched flax and comb it through three increasingly fine metal combs to separate the outer part of the plant from the fiber within, called tow. The tow is a very, very light tan color.

Lots of my adult brunette cousins were born with a head of pale, almost-white hair and were called tow-headed kids. Now you know why.

linen pants, with detail of pocket showing stitching and weave
Photo by Eleventh Wave on Unsplash

So, it’s getting close to autumn now. Time to harvest your other grains and plant the fall crops of alfalfa and winter wheat, then you can come inside and start spinning your tow into thread and then weaving your thread into cloth. Most folks’ goal was to have a new shirt and pair of pants or new dress ready for every family member by Xmas. Seed to shirt, eight or nine months.

Well, there you go. I’ve filled up the rest of the year for you. What are you going to do with yourself in 2021?


Two More Years of Distancing? That’ll Take Patience. was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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