April 11, 2011

It's April, Do You Know Where Your Fibre Flax Seed Is?

I've taken great pleasure recently in playing Johnny Appleseed, giving away small packets of fibre flax seed divided from some bags I bought from Landis Valley Museum.  Three working farms and a couple dozen home gardens in Virginia could be growing some this year.

The amount of fibre flax seed the growers received from me should be just enough to see what the plant looks like and save seeds for next year if they want.  I hope I get to hear progress reports.

I didn't realize, until the seed arrived in the mail and I read the enclosed cultivation information sheet, that you need a pound of seed and a 20x20' plot to grow enough fibre to process for handspun linen yarn.  That's more seed and land than I expected, though I should have known since I've seen how little remains after processing stalks.  A thick patch prevents lodging, or plants toppling over.

The flax seed looks similar to the type you buy at the grocery store and eat.  However, when sown the fibre flax plant is supposed to grow much taller, throwing its energy into the stalk rather than the new seed.  This difference in composition (or structure or whatever you wish to call it) makes fibre flax good for spinning rather than eating or oil pressing.

I am sure there are reasons why fibre flax seeds get imported for sale from another continent.  I would really like plants to be growing, acclimating, and setting seed somewhere other than "away" as they say in the Atlantic provinces.  Somewhere near me.

I haven't decided whether I'll grow a patch myself.  I don't think I have access to good garden soil.

I've borrowed a copy of Linda Heinrich's The Magic of Linen: Flax Seed to Woven Cloth.  (Heinrich has a new book with a very similar cover and title, Linen From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, 2010; I have not read it.)  Already as a homesick Vancouver Islander I love this book: it was published in 1992 by Orca Book Publishers of Victoria and there is a Nanaimo bar (a chocolate-flavoured dessert named for the city) pictured on one of the linen placemats.  My heart went pit-a-pat when I saw that.  But back to cultivating flax.  On page one Heinrich writes that there is a perennial type of flax, a wild flax, that was used for prehistoric textiles.  The flax seed I bought is an annual flax.  Both modern oilseed flax and fibre flax are annuals.

Right, new quest to add to the list: getting my hands on the perennial type of flax plant.  Presumably has the advantages of no plowing the ground, no saving the seed, no bare ground in the off-season, little erosion.  Wonder how the textiles looked.  There must have been a difference between textiles from perennial and from annual flax for the switch to cultivation to have taken place.

Perennial flax is as close as Monticello's plant and seed catalogues which list Linum perenne lewisii, but I am not sure whether the plant Lewis and Clark discovered in North America would be the same as the Swiss Lake Dwellers used in Europe.  [ETA: I want Linum angustifolium.]

Scratch item off the quest list: instigate some flax growing in Virginia in ordinary hands outside museums.

The Mannings Handweaving School and Supply Center carries the same flax seed as Landis Valley.

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