Although I’ve been quiet on the blog there has been lots of activity on the flax front since I last posted. At the twineworks we had a second harvest/ flax gathering on the 2nd of October when many local growers brought in their homegrown bundles. It was a gloriously sunny and very social day – thanks to all those who made it along.
On the 14th October the ‘Ropewalkers’ exhibition opened at OSR where work by myself, Andy Parker and Simon Whetham has been on display for the past three weeks. A few photos of my work included in the show below. A review by Richard Povall has just been published on the a-n website, click here to read it.
Just over a week ago I was at the twineworks where together with Ross Aitken from the Coker Rope and Sail Trust we rippled and began retting some of the flax. Rippling involves combing the seed heads from the bundles which are then retted by submerging and weighing down the flax in water. It also used to be done out in the surrounding fields using the dew.
This bacterial process breaks down the lignin in the stalks of the plants and the fibres start to separate from the outer layers of the stem. In warmer weather it can take a week but as it’s now November and rather chilly I think it’ll be a few weeks before it ready to get out. It’s quite hard to know exactly what we’re looking when it’s ‘ready’ as we’re just going from written information. Under retted flax makes it difficult to separate the fibre and over retted means the fibres are damaged so there is a sweet spot of readiness – fingers crossed we find it!
Once retted the flax is dried (again) and then broken, scotched and that should leave you wit the raw fibres. Which then have to be hackled, dressed and spun to turn the fibres into yarn. It is all so labour intensive it amazes me this was ever a profitable process, even with extremely cheap labour. Hopefully on the next open day at the twineworks on Saturday the 26th November we will start the next stage – do come along if you’re in the area.
Oops. Where did August go?
My attempt to do a regular blog has ground to a halt over the summer. Luckily the flax has been doing the exact opposite and has been busy growing away ten to the dozen. Two of the plots in West Coker were over my waist and and most other peoples patches seem to have produced a very good crop too.
I went down to pull some the last weekend of August at Dawes Twineworks. It was their monthly open day as there were quite a few people there it turned into a nicely communal harvest. Thunder was rumbling around but the sun shone as we pulled a lot of stooks. All hanging in the rope walk to dry. There is one patch waiting to be pulled in October.
After harvesting hang your flax “roots up” in a dry place for a few weeks.
If you are free on Sunday the 2nd October then bring it along to Dawes Twineworks in West Coker for the Flax Gathering. If you want to send it to me to be processed along with the Coker flax then get in touch with me for a postal address.
First flax flowers (& raspberries) on the allotment. Woop!
The plants in the background were sown a few weeks after so are still catching up. I was also very excited to see a couple of other patches on the site. Not sure who the owners are, I’ll have to find out somehow – maybe I’ll leave them notes if I don’t see them about.
Many thanks to those of you sending in photo updates of your flax, I’ve posted some below. A couple of people are asking how to harvest the flax. Two or three weeks after all the flowers are over the plants will start to turn yellow. You then grab the stalks and pull them up from the soil, roots intact. Tie them up in a bundle (also called a stook) and store in a dry place until you are ready to process.
Details of harvest event in West Coker to be confirmed soon.
Jo & Alex Bickerton
Last week I was on holiday near Bridport which was once the centre of the rope-making industry in the South West. Flax and hemp grown in West Coker were possibly sent there to be spun into yarn then returned to West Coker to be made into twine or canvas. It’s quite hard to work out the movements of the material but there was certainly some back and forth, with different villages and towns having distinct specialisms. The reputation of Coker canvas was so great that the Bridport manufacturers began to use the village in their address “Bridport, near Coker” to lend their products the same assurance of quality.
I had forgotten I’d visited Bridport a few years ago and by chance visited the Vintage Market at St Michael’s Trading Estate – a fantastic place if you’re ever in the area on the last Sunday of the month. I’d bought a netting needle there on my previous visit and recently I’ve been making a few nets with it. I have netted in the past for installations I’ve made, I even carved my own needle when I was making them before. It’s funny how I thought I’d forgotten the technique but my hands remembered what to do. Spare room studio shots below…
Nets may well appear in the work I make for the Ropewalkers exhibition and also possibly what is made with the flax that is currently growing and about four inches tall in my allotment). Ross Aitken (Director of the Coker Rope and Sail Trust) kindly lent me a whole pile of articles and books about the flax history and somewhere there was an anecdote about a fishing net so finely made that it fit through a wedding ring. A rather lovely poetic image that has stayed with me. Another that has persisted from this tiny booklet is the idea of ‘pladders’ – huge apple pies made by the ladies of the village to celebrate the flax harvest. I’ve looked in vain for a recipe so if anyone reading this knows more do let me know!
I’ll be heading back to Bridport later in June to do some research at the Local History Centre which has an extensive collection of photographs, nets and netting tools. I popped in last week after visiting Bridport Museum, pictures of some of the netting exhibits below (thanks to Bridport Museum Trust for permission to reproduce the images.)
After a cold April delayed things I finally got to sow seed at my allotment on May 4th. Just over a week later the seedlings are up!
It’s always a relief to see shoots poke their way through the soil. Although I find seed sowing a particularly satisfying gardening activity, raising plants from seed always feels slightly risky too. The possibility of failure is ever present at the back of your mind. Even if you follow instructions to the letter sometimes germination just doesn’t happen. It’s probably why rain dances were invented. Whenever I put seeds in there is an involuntary prayer to the plant gods to let it grow.
So what next?
Weeds are only an issue at the start when the plants are getting established. When the seedlings are few inches tall give it a thorough going over taking out all weeds. You should be able to spot them simply by the difference in visual appearance to the majority of seedlings present (which will be the flax, leave them alone!). Flax is pretty resilient so will only need watering during really hot and sunny spells. Apparently slugs don’t go for flax (I’m yet to be convinced as they seem keen on most things I grow) but flea beetle can be an issue. There’s a link here to an Alys Fowler colum in the Guardian about how to control them.
The flax plants will grow fast once established, growing strongly throughout June to reach a height of around 3 feet. About two months after sowing the flowers should start to appear which will last around a fortnight (though each individual flower blooms for just one day and is often referred to as the ‘fugitive flower’). The plants will be ready to harvest a few weeks after flowering ends when two thirds of the stems are yellow.
More on the harvesting process to come later. Plus details of the harvest event which will be held at Dawes Twineworks this August.
On a rather wet Friday morning last week we got the first seeds in the ground at the Twineworks at West Coker. Children from the primary school scattered the flax seed on the first of three lots to be sown there. It’s probably the first time it has been sown in the village for at least fifty years.
I was scheduled to get some flax sown at my allotment this week but was hailed off! I’m leaving it a few days until this unseasonal cold spell is over. You can sow well into May so if you do want seed then its not too late to get in touch.
Many thanks to Ross, Martin, Barbara, Marylin and Chris for helping to prepare the ground in the rain and Simon for the photos.
Would you like to be involved in a project to grow flax this summer?
Everyone is welcome to take part, wherever you live.
All you need is a patch of ground – be it garden, allotment or field. Gardening experience and green fingers not necessary. Soil will need to be prepared in March, seed sown in April and the plants harvested in July. Seed and full instructions provided.
See here for details.