Harvesting Flax and Lughnasa

The wheel of the year now turns to Lughnasa, also known as Lammas, the holiday that traditionally commemorates the start of harvest season. At last we begin to enjoy the fruits of planting, watering (with care, in drought-ridden California!), and tending our plots.

Over a year ago, before the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, I attended a symposium put on by the amazing Fibershed network of sustainable fiber farmers and craftspeople. This organization, which started locally and grew through true grassroots activism, focuses on building sustainable clothing, home goods and fabric supply chains across the US and internationally, while strengthening local bonds and engendering community. Since before 2020’s racial reckoning that shook the world, Fibershed has spread the word about environmental racism and inequities in the textile and fashion industry, reaching out to communities of color and seeking new ways to connect conscious consumers to these hardworking farmers and makers, as well as expand access to the land to more people through education, urban gardens, and conferences like the 2019 in-person and 2020 virtual symposia—which drew attendees from around the world.

During a symposium break I walked a West Marin trail leading down to the shore of Tomales Bay. A cool breeze blew in, the sun weak but still energizing. Reeds and other plants had gone to tones of grey, brown, and russet, their cottony seeds ready to disperse. Passing shoulder-high stands of wild fennel, I caught their scent and ate some seeds (which can also be used for dyeing!). As their dry stems clattered together in the wind, and sparrows and bushtits sang and fluttered about, I was reminded of the density, biodiversity and interwoven nature of ecosystem and community—both human and animal communities, and microorganisms too.

First May seedlings after planting; Growing into shoots: June

Back at the symposium’s outdoor marketplace, I bought a package of blue flaxseeds, without expectation but encouraged by the friendly farmers who’d come a long distance that day from Chico Flax Project. Gardening and farming are strenuous work, and back at home I hoed and pulled invasive Bermuda grass weeds from our rock-hard clay soil to clear a small 6 x 6-foot “mini-field.” YouTube was a font of information, with videos of an elderly Navajo woman hand-spinning flax against her thigh, and another all the way across the globe from Ireland—where an older fellow demonstrates raising flax from seed sowing to harvest, to processing the raw flax into linen fibers. Having no experience, this was what I set out to do.

I diligently watered the shoots and for a few weeks watched the thin stalks grow and bud, turning into pale blue flowers the color of the sky. Over the next month, the blooms quickly faded and shrank into small seed heads and the stalks turned from green to yellow. Another four weeks and the flax was ready for harvest.

Although we had been steadily gardening at our home for the past ten years, I was still unprepared for the great satisfaction and pleasure this flax-growing project brought me: in the delicate scent of the short-lived flowers, the music of the dried seed heads when I shook them; and taking the fibers from harvest, to soaking them in smelly water to begin enzymatic breakdown of the tough outer fiber, drying them in the sun in stacks called “stooks,” and revealing the soft inner fiber through steps like “scutching.” The special and ancient vocabulary alone was enough to enchant me. B. helped by building simple tools out of scrap wood, and the next phase will involve spinning and weaving the fibers into linen.

First blossoms: July
Stalks turning to gold: late July
Dry seed heads: almost ready for August harvest
Harvested bundles
Soaking in water for 2 weeks
Dried flax “stooks”
Breaking down outer fibers on handmade scrap wood “brake”
Separating hard outer cellulose from soft inner fibers
Flax fibers and seeds
Fine finished fiber above; coarser fiber below

About thislittleplot

Writer, hiker, loafer
This entry was posted in Garden, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Harvesting Flax and Lughnasa

  1. Janet says:

    Wow… what an incredible project…. you never cease to amaze, Irene!!!! Looking forward to part 2 of this post —- hand-woven linen. Our pioneer girl!!!! Love, Janet

  2. Chris Stevens says:

    Stook! Scutching! I love it.

  3. Such an enjoyable read.

  4. marmysz says:

    I’ve learned a whole new vocabulary from reading this. Very cool project!

  5. Amy & Bill says:

    I enjoyed this post, you make it sound doable, not easy, just doable. mom

  6. Shonna says:

    Wow, you and B. are a true inspiration. Thank you for sharing this, it’s just delightful.

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